Trump Time Capsule #66: Khan, Koch, Crimea, and the NFL

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I’ve been offline for several days writing a magazine article. (Debates!) On return, I see that Donald Trump has lit off another string of firecrackers, Chinese New Year-style. As a short recap:

  • His campaign against the bereaved parents of a decorated American combat casualty, Army Captain Humayun Khan, goes on. His associate Roger Stone shamelessly broadened it with unfounded slurs against the Khan family. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and other Republicans (including Mike Pence!) “distanced themselves” from Trump’s criticism of the Khans.  John McCain went further, in an outright denunciation of what Trump had said. But not even McCain was willing  to draw the obvious conclusion: that such a man is unfit for leadership. He and the rest still say, Vote for Trump!
  • Trump told George Stephanopoulos that the National Football League had sent him a letter complaining that the dates for this fall’s debates conflict with two NFL games. The NFL immediately denied that it had ever sent such a letter. The Commission on Presidential Debates pointed out that the dates had been set last year, with full knowledge of all parties. As a headline in Deadspin put it, “NFL Says Trump Is Full of Shit.” More on the debate fracas and related events in upcoming posts.
  • Trump claimed that the Koch brothers had asked him for a meeting to offer support, but he had turned them down because he wasn’t anyone’s puppet. Koch representatives quickly said this did not occur.
    Trump on Twitter
  • Trump told Stephanopoulos that Vladimir Putin “is not going to move into Ukraine” and seemed caught unaware when Stephanopoulos pointed out that in fact he already had, via the seizure of Crimea two years ago. The next day Trump sent out a Tweet denying the plain meaning of what he had said on air the previous day.
    Trump on Twitter

  • Trump went out of his way to criticize the local fire marshal at an event in Colorado Springs, saying that the marshal “didn’t know what he was doing” and was “probably a Democrat.” Trump did not mention that 30 minutes earlier, that same fire department had rescued Trump and others from an elevator where they had been stuck for 30 minutes. Typical politicians, and for that matter typical human beings, would have found a way to use the episode to say something positive about the fire marshal, the department, the city, the spirit of service, or something similar. Or they might not have mentioned it at all. Trump turned it into an attack on the group that had just helped him.
  • And on the margins, Trump said he had never met Putin, after making much in the past of his talks with him. RNC chairman Reince Priebus said he hadn’t known of the fall debate schedule until just now, which cannot be true. Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort said categorically that Trump representatives had nothing whatsoever to do with the pro-Russian changes in the RNC platform, which is very unlikely to prove true. And so on.

“Big lies” are in a sense safe, because no one can disprove them. “We’re going to win so much you’ll get tired of winning!” But when you say something that is who-when-where specific — they sent me a letter, they asked for a meeting — you run the risk or someone saying, No they didn’t. As the NFL, the Kochs, and others are now saying about Trump’s claims.

There are two possibilities:

  • Trump is aware. That is, he knows he is lying and does not care. This is an extension of his old “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and not lose any votes” observation. Or
  • He is unaware. That is, he thinks these things are true while he is saying them; or he thinks that if he says them this way they will become true; or he remembers them this way and therefore believes they are true. Yes, they sent that letter …

I can’t know, but my money is on the latter. I believe that Donald Trump is telling the “truth” as he perceives or remembers it when opening his mouth, which is one reason he sounds so insistent. Unfortunately what he believes does not match the contours of our real world. Update On CNN today, Fareed Zakaria has a blistering denunciation of Trump’s Crimea comments. He puts them in the definition of bullshit from Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit treatise, in which the difference between lies and bullshit is that bullshit artists are indifferent to whether what they’re saying is true or false.

I want to steer clear of “medicalizing” discussion of Trump’s fantasies, his microscopically thin skin, his seemingly uncontrollable outbursts. I have no idea whether we’re seeing his basic personality and temperament, or something else. And from a civic perspective, it doesn’t matter. Either he doesn’t know the difference between truth and falsehood, or he knows it and does not care. Either is a big problem in a president.

Either way, something is wrong with him.


Update: several more installments ahead, on debates, the Khans, reader response, and other themes. Also, I’ve just seen this new post by my Atlantic colleague (and friend) Ron Fournier, “Why Can’t Hillary Clinton Stop Lying.”

As Ron would know, because we’ve discussed these things frequently, I think the headline (while attention-getting) is unfortunate if readers take it to mean that Hillary Clinton’s worst, crabbed, letter-of-the-law evasions are remotely comparable to Donald Trump’s wholesale re-invention of reality. (The closer parallel would be if Clinton’s most notable pure-invention, “we landed under sniper fire” in Bosnia, were one of a thousand such instances, as is the case with Trump.)

As Ron’s piece makes clear, he is exasperated with Clinton for the unforced errors that give the grossly unqualified Trump an opening at all. So, read his piece; put pressure on Clinton to stop trimming; and meanwhile recognize that Trump is operating in a wholly different sphere.

This is what the we know about Donald Trump, with 98 days to go until the election, and while Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, and even John McCain still say: make this man Commander in Chief.