Reporter's Notebook

Trump Time Capsule
Show Newer Notes
Four years ago, the man on the left won 47.2% of the popular vote for president. When all of this year's votes are counted, the man on the right will probably come in slightly below that number. Mike Segar / Reuters

Back in May, I kicked off a Trump Time Capsule series, designed to note what we knew, when we knew it, about the man who was trying to become president. Earlier this month, just before the election, I wound up the series with installment #152.

From the beginning I imagined this as a temporary, moment-in-time project. To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether it would last beyond 10 or 15 entries. Now that the race is over and the reality of the 45th presidency is sinking in, every day I’ve received numerous notes like this one:

I saw a clip of Paul Ryan the other day, blithely dismissing concerns about Trump’s kids running his business and being part of the transition team. The thought occurred to me: This should be in the Trump Time Capsule.

Really, why did the Trump Capsule end? I know it was to record abnormal aspects of his campaign, but it was also a way to pressure and shame Republican leaders, by making them—and the public—fully cognizant of what they were supporting. I feel like we need that now. You’re still mentioning abnormal things that Trump is doing in the transition. I think it’s important for the public to know and to prod Republicans.

Also, if you would seriously consider restarting this, can make a suggestion? What about having a conservative/Republican join you in this? (Think of someone like Alan Simpson.) This would be a booster shot to the project, inoculating it against the liberal bias virus. This could give more authority to your observations. Actually, it’d be great if a group of journalists, politicians, academics from across the political spectrum could band together and speak in one voice on these issues.

Good question. Answer after the jump.


The pace and audacity of Donald Trump’s departures from norms, standards, and respect-for-office indeed merit an ongoing chronicle. Meeting with a foreign head of government, without any preparation or presence from a U.S. government official, or even his own interpreter? (But with his daughter, who has no official government position but has business interests in other countries, in the room?) Talking with other foreign leaders on unsecured phones? Still stonewalling on the tax returns? And meanwhile meeting partners from his operations in India, in his role as president-elect? Clutching his pearls when his running mate is booed, after all the spleen he has vented in public? And so on.

Someone should chronicle these things, but not me, at least not single-handed. Developments:

  • I have another, very different journalistic project coming up that represents my own reckoning of how I can best contribute to the next stage of America’s challenge and evolution;
  • Precisely because so much is coming so fast, for sustainability this needs to be a multi-person, shared-labor project. The Atlantic is considering the best way it could launch and maintain such an effort. Stay tuned, and feel free to send any suggestions to [email protected].
  • In the meantime, please check out, follow, and contribute to a very interesting Time Capsule project by @motocollard, which you can read about on Medium. It’s a spreadsheet account rather than an explanatory narrative, but it serves the crucial function of noting things down as they occur.

My respects and support to the many people who, in their roles as citizens and family members and in their working lives, are reflecting on the best course ahead. I’ll keep you updated on what The Atlantic is planning on this front. (And meanwhile, as always, please Subscribe! Seriously, supporting publications whose reporting you value is newly significant. Plus: the perfect gift!)

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Five and a half months ago, as Donald Trump effectively clinched the Republican nomination, I thought it would be worth keeping track day-by-day of what the American public knew about Trump while it was deciding whether he would become its next president. Thus the Trump Time Capsule series, which began with installments #1 through #3 on May 23, and comes to an end with #152 today.

The main idea was to chronicle what was different about Trump: Norm-changing, unprecedented statements or positions or revelations that would have stopped any previous candidate but that did not impede him.

As I look back over these unfolding stories, I see at least 40 or 50 that would have had that campaign-ending potential in any previous year. The mocking of first John McCain and then the Captain Khan family? The “Mexican judge”? The “grab ’em by the pussy” Access Hollywood tape and subsequent complaints? The de-facto admission that he’s paid no taxes, and the trail of fraud and buncombe left by his businesses and “charities”? The refusal to provide tax information at all? The disprovable-even-as-he-said-them series of lies? The ever-more evident intrusions on his behalf by a foreign government? “She should be in jail”? “It’s all rigged folks, I tell you”? I alone?

To put these into perspective, just think back to the comparatively pipsqueak “scandals” of a more innocent time: Whether Sarah Palin really read newspapers. Whether Barack Obama called some people “bitter.” Whether Mitt Romney thought 47 percent of the public might be freeloading. Whether Rick Perry had to leave the race because he forgot one of his talking points in a brain-freeze on stage. Whether Dan Quayle could spell “potatoe.” Whether Al Gore exaggerated his role as a founder of the internet. Whether the young George Bush had had a DUI. The chagrin these episodes caused to their victims is almost touching. The candidates’ embarrassment indicated that they believed there was a standard in public life they needed to live up to.


This cycle’s only “scandal” that fits the pre-existing scale is the Hillary Clinton email saga, which has been ludicrously exaggerated by adversary outlets (Breitbart / Fox) and by “mainstream” media (most cable TV, too often the NYT) to the point where many voters assume that it’s on a par with, say, Donald Trump’s reckless comments about nuclear weapons or treaties or rule-of-law, his deceptions about his finances, his long record with women, his numberless provable lies.

Hillary Clinton’s management of her email server was a mistake, which probably reflects something more general about her—just as other similar-scaled mistakes by other candidates in the past reflected more generally on them. But there is no sane argument that it has deserved even one tenth the press attention it has received this year. As Matt Yglesias points out in a new Vox item, TV coverage this cycle, in aggregate, spent more airtime on the email “scandal” than on all policy matters combined.

No one looking back on the America of 2016 will think that the real question its voters should have been grappling with was how Hillary Clinton handled her email. But TV has told us more about this issue than about racial tensions and racial justice, economic opportunity and economic stagnation, immigration, education, military spending and military commitments, relations with China or India or Russia or Mexico, or [name your six other top real-world concerns]. And oh, yes, the prospects of coping with the threat to civic and economic order posed by climate change.

As Bernie Sanders said a year ago, the “American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” But hear about them, nonstop, is what the American people have done.

(There’s a parallel to press coverage in the 2000 campaign that I won’t take the time to spell out right now. Essentially, the minor annoyances of Al Gore’s persona were presented as equally important as the policy views the Bush-Cheney team would bring into office.)


So this chronicle ends as tens of millions of early votes have already been cast; with just one weekend separating us from official election day; and with all the information anyone could want already on record about these two candidates.

We know the choice we are making. People who are standing with Trump are doing so with eyes wide open. (Of course so are people who are standing with Hillary Clinton. But as The Atlantic argued in its editorial endorsing her, her strengths and weaknesses are within the range we have seen from most past presidents. Trump’s are outside the known range.)

As an envoi, for election-weekend reading with implications that touch the Clinton-Trump choice but go far beyond, I leave you with:

  • David Frum, in The Atlantic, with the conservative case for a Clinton vote. (“The lesson Trump has taught is not only that certain Republican dogmas have passed out of date, but that American democracy itself is much more vulnerable than anyone would have believed only 24 months ago.”)
  • Conor Friedersdorf, also a conservative, also in The Atlantic, on the perils of false-equivalent thinking. (“The Democratic nominee’s shortcomings should not blind voters to the catastrophe they’d invite by electing her cruel, undisciplined, erratic opponent.”)
  • Michael Gerson, like David Frum a one-time White House speechwriter for George W. Bush, in The Washington Post. (“The single most frightening, anti-democratic phrase of modern presidential history came in Trump’s convention speech: ‘I alone can fix it.’”)
  • A WaPo editorial on the choice that Republicans and conservatives are making, and how it should be remembered. (“When the republic was in danger, where did you stand? History will ask that question of Republican leaders who knew that Donald Trump was unfit to be commander in chief.”)
  • Frank Rich, in NY magazine, to similar effect. (“Charles Lindbergh was a national hero, then a fascist sympathizer. History will be just as brutal to more than a few current Republican leaders.”)
  • Paul Waldman in the WaPo about similar questions of values and institutions that will last beyond the election. (“There is something deeply troubling happening right now, and it goes beyond the ordinary trading of blows in a campaign season.”)
  • Brian Beutler, in TNR, on similar long-term challenges for democratic institutions. (“Republicans only flirted with nullification during the Obama presidency, but under a Clinton presidency we could conceivably face a full-blown crisis of one kind or another within weeks—regardless of which party controls the Senate.”)
  • Jonathan Chait, in New York magazine, on the changes this campaign has worked on our political system. (“Trump has revealed the convergence of two movements more extreme than anything in the free world that may yet threaten the democratic character most Americans take as their birthright.”)
  • Jonathan Swan of The Hill on emerging Republican calls to stop considering Supreme Court nominees at all, until the next Republican president wins. (“The Heritage Foundation, a group that enjoys significant sway on the right ... wants Republicans to get comfortable making the case that the court can function just fine with eight justices. ”)
  • Katy Tur, of NBC, on what it has been like to have Trump call her out by name for the derision of the crowd at his mass rallies. (This is a video, so I’m not pulling a quote, but it is quite sobering to watch.)
  • Wayne Barrett, long of the Village Voice and the NY Daily News, writing in The Daily Beast about the apparent alliance of Trump supporters Rudy Giuliani and James Kallstrom with pro-Trump factions within the FBI, leading to the last-minute email leaks. (“Fox is the pipeline for the fifth column inside the bureau, a battalion that says it’s doing God’s work, chasing justice against those who are obstructing it, while, in fact, it’s doing GOP work, even on the eve of a presidential election.”)


Let’s hope that starting on November 9 we can look back on this saga with chastened wonder about how close Trump came, and with cautionary guidance about the next steps toward self-governing reform.

Meanwhile read; think; vote.

Thanks for your attention in this space over the months.

Presented with minimal elaboration, today’s installment of the “what is Director Comey thinking?” saga:

CNBC report, on Halloween 2016

This story is still in the “unnamed sources say...” category, though it’s by an experienced and reputable reporter, Eamon Javers. Like everything else in these chaotic final days of this unendurable campaign, its full implications are impossible to know while the news is still unfolding.

But at face value the report underscores the depth of the bad judgment that James Comey displayed last week. It suggests that the director of the FBI knew, reflected upon, and was deterred by the possible election-distorting effects of releasing information early this month about Russian attempts to tamper with the upcoming election. Better to err on the side of not putting the FBI’s stamp on politically sensitive allegations—even though, as Javers’s source contends, Comey believed the allegations of Russian interference to be true:

According to the [unnamed former FBI] official, Comey agreed with the conclusion the intelligence community came to: “A foreign power was trying to undermine the election. He believed it to be true, but was against putting it out before the election.” Comey’s position, this official said, was “if it is said, it shouldn’t come from the FBI, which as you’ll recall it did not.”

That was at the beginning of October. But at the end of the month, three weeks closer to the election, he manifestly was not deterred by the implications of his announcement about the Abedin/Weiner emails. And this was even though, by all accounts, he did not know what they contained or even whether the emails  were new. (As opposed to duplicates of what the FBI had already seen.)

The news of this is still in flux. I’m noting here just to mark its appearance more or less in real-time.


We all have another week to get through. In theory, James Comey has seven more years in charge of the FBI.

James Comey, who has changed the 2016 election in a way that cannot be undone. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The rules in politics haven’t changed that much in recent years. What has changed is adherence to norms, in an increasingly destructive way.

I made that case, using examples different from the ones I’m about to present here, nearly two years ago. The shift in norms is also a central part of Thomas Mann’s and Norman Ornstein’s prescient It’s Even Worse Than It Looks and Mike Lofgren’s The Party Is Over, plus of course Jonathan Rauch’s “How American Politics Went Insane,” our very widely read cover story (subscribe!) this summer.

Today’s examples:

—Before 2006, use of a Senate filibuster to block legislation or nominations was an occasional tool-of-the-minority, not a routine practice. Now it has become so routine and, well, normalized that a story in our leading newspaper can matter-of-factly say, “It actually takes 60 votes to bring a Supreme Court nomination to the Senate floor.” Actually it takes 60 votes only if there is a filibuster, which didn’t use to be normal. Inconceivable as it now seems, three of Ronald Reagan’s nominees—Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and O’Connor—were approved unanimously. Most Democrats in the Senate disagreed with some or all of their views. Not a single Democrat voted against them.

—Before February of this year, the universal assumption was that a sitting president’s nominations for the Supreme Court would be considered, although of course they might be voted down. But before the sun had set on the day of Antonin Scalia’s death, Mitch McConnell had made clear that the Senate would not consider any nomination from the 44th president, and since then John McCain and others have suggested that, depending on who becomes the 45th president, her nominations might not be considered either. (For historic reference you can see an official list here, showing relatively prompt consideration up-or-down of previous nominees.)

—Before this year, the norm through the post-Watergate era was that any major-party presidential nominee would make tax-return information public, in enough time before the election for voters to consider the implications of income sources, debts, donations, and other entanglements. Donald Trump has flatly refused, and his own party’s members barely bother to mention it anymore.

—Before this summer, sitting Supreme Court justices, no matter how evident their partisan leanings, avoided publicly taking sides in upcoming elections. Ruth Bader Ginsburg ignored that norm by saying in July how much she hoped Donald Trump did not become president. To her credit, and in contrast to these other cases, within a few days she belatedly honored the importance of this norm by apologizing for her remarks.


The official rules didn’t change in these circumstances. The norms—that is, the expectation of what you “should” do, what you “really have to do,” what is the “right thing” to do, even if the letter of the law doesn’t spell it out—have changed. For its survival, a democracy depends on norms. That’s why the shift matters.

And that is the context in which I think about James Comey’s plunge into electoral politics, with his announcement about whatever “new” Clinton-related email information the FBI may or may not have found.

No one knows what this will mean for the election. Millions of people have already voted; in the nine days until official election day there’s not enough time to fully vet and consider what Comey may have found. Will the announcement re-energize Hillary Clinton’s supporters, making them worry that the race may be tightening again? Depress them? Motivate team Trump? Bolster the “they’re all terrible” case for third-party candidates?

We don’t know. But anyone experienced in politics, as Comey obviously is, would have known for dead certain that his intrusion would change the process in a way that cannot be undone. This is apparently what other officials in the FBI and Justice Department were telling Comey before he took this step. Two former deputy attorneys general—Jamie Gorelick, who served under Bill Clinton, and Larry Thompson, who served under George W. Bush—made that point in a new Washington Post essay that lambastes Comey for his self-indulgent decision (emphasis added):

Decades ago, the department decided that in the 60-day period before an election, the balance should be struck against even returning indictments involving individuals running for office, as well as against the disclosure of any investigative steps. The reasoning was that, however important it might be for Justice to do its job, and however important it might be for the public to know what Justice knows, because such allegations could not be adjudicated, such actions or disclosures risked undermining the political process. A memorandum reflecting this choice has been issued every four years by multiple attorneys general for a very long time, including in 2016. ...

They conclude that this move was so selfish on Comey’s part, potentially protecting him at the cost of broader institutional destruction:

He may well have been criticized after the fact had he not advised Congress of the investigative steps that he was taking. But it was his job — consistent with the best traditions of the Department of Justice — to make the right decision and take that criticism if it came. ...

As it stands, we now have real-time, raw-take transparency taken to its illogical limit, a kind of reality TV of federal criminal investigation. Perhaps worst of all, it is happening on the eve of a presidential election. It is antithetical to the interests of justice, putting a thumb on the scale of this election and damaging our democracy.

If either Thompson or Gorelick had been at the Justice Department now, neither he nor she would have been able to prevent Comey from making his announcement. That is, they couldn’t rely on rules. But they are arguing that he should not have done it. He should have foreseen the damage he would do, and spared a frayed democracy these destructive effects.


Last week I mentioned the ongoing cultural/“norms-enforcing” challenges that had plagued the Philippines, which I’d written about back at the end of the Marcos era in a piece called “A Damaged Culture.” The rules by which the Philippine Republic is governed are fine. A big problem involved norms—the things that powerful people did, just because they could get away with it.

The rules of American governance are still more or less OK, despite the increasing mismatch between the 18th-century structural assumptions built into the Constitution and the realities of 21st-century life. It’s time to worry about the norms.

FBI director James Comey appearing before Congress last month. Joshua Roberts / Reuters

This is an item I wrote last night but was too busy to look over and check this morning, so I didn’t post it. Then I was in meetings all day. I’m posting it now with a new first paragraph in the wake of today’s announcement from FBI director James Comey about “re-opening” the email investigation into Hillary Clinton. Otherwise I think the main point still stands.

New intro: Are these extra emails that James Comey has found likely to contain a criminal or national-security bombshell that was not in the thousands of emails the FBI has already reviewed? Anything is possible, but my guess is no. Is this announcement, which is so certain to roil the news through this weekend, likely to change the fundamentals in the election and give Trump the edge? Again anything could happen, but again my guess is no.

But apart from anything it ends up telling us about Comey, the episode does illustrate something about candidates in general, and Clintons in particular, and about the process of learning in politics. Follow along with me if you will (now back to pre-Comey version of the post):


Bill Clinton was overall a successful and very popular president. If he had been eligible to run for a third term, he would have won. If his relations with Al Gore were such that Gore would have welcomed his campaign support (as Hillary Clinton now welcomes that of the Obamas), it would probably have made enough difference—in New Hampshire, in Tennessee, above all in Florida—to have spared the country the recount nightmare and Bush v. Gore and put Gore in office.

I voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and would have voted for him again in 2000.

And yet, I will never understand or excuse the recklessness and indiscipline with which he put so much at risk through sexual misbehavior. He risked his presidency (which survived), his successor’s chances (which did not), his historic legacy, and of course his marriage.

When it comes to Bill Clinton, it is possible simultaneously to think, He was very good at what he did. And to ask, Why oh why was he so reckless?


Let’s apply this logic to Hillary Clinton:

Because of arguments like those the Atlantic laid out in its unusual editorial, I believe that she is beyond question the right choice in this election. Much of the reason involves her opponent, and the unacceptable ignorance, intolerance, and instability he has come to represent. Part of the reason is her own vast experience and knowledge, and the bulletproof demeanor she displayed most recently in the debates. Based on what she did in her eight years in the Senate, four years as Secretary of State, and the past few years on the campaign trail, we have an idea of the day-by-day competence and steadiness she would bring to the presidency.

And yet. The latest crop of stolen Wikileaks emails brings up the counterpart to the question about her husband. Why oh why did she make such a deal about withholding the transcripts of her paid speeches—given that the contents, once they (inevitably) leaked, were so anodyne? Why oh why didn’t she just dump out preemptively whatever there might have been to know about her email server, given that one way or another it was bound to trickle out? (This is the question that John Podesta and Neera Tanden apparently asked when they learned about it 18 months ago.) Why oh why, given that she was so likely to run again for the White House and knew about the industry devoted to discrediting her, were there so many gray-zone choices about paid speeches and foundation gifts that have turned into headaches now?

“Headaches” is also a crucial word, since the speech-and-foundation “scandals” appear so far to be all smoke, no fire. Indeed these seem to be classic illustrations of the “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up” maxim. In the case of Donald Trump and his still-withheld tax returns, it’s probably the reverse. He is willing to take the heat on the cover-up, because whatever is in those returns would be worse. In the Clintons’ case, so far there is absolutely no provable case (that I’ve seen) of actual quid-pro-quo or payoff. That’s why the news stories are all about “appearance” and “questions” and “clouds.”

This is not nearly as egregious as her husband’s recklessness. But it’s similar in being unnecessary, and self-inflicted. Perhaps the Clinton-camp thinking was fatalistic: Opponents are going to go crazy about something. Look at birtherism! Look at Benghazi! So there is no point in being extra-careful, since opponents will find a reason to hold endless hearings anyway. Still ...


Now, the payoff. As I argued back in installment #146, there is a positive side to Hillary Clinton’s seeming awareness that she is not a “natural” political talent like her husband or Barack Obama. The benefit is that (as is obvious) she works, and (as should become obvious) she improves.

She has dramatically improved as a speaker, as shown at the Al Smith dinner. She now freely says that she was wrong in supporting the Iraq  war—and while her judgments are still more hawkish than Obama’s, whose original opening against her in 2008 was their difference on Iraq, her views on foreign policy seemed tempered by the Iraq mistake.

Thus the hope for her administration, assuming she wins: To recognize that her greatest self-inflicted damage in the campaign came from an instinct toward secrecy and a protective palace guard. And, as the nation should hope, to learn from this mistake, as she has learned from others.

John Kerry, with Bruce Springsteen at a campaign event in Ohio 12 years ago today. This was a few days before Kerry narrowly lost Ohio and thus the presidential race to George W. Bush. What Donald Trump has said about elections as this campaign nears its end is dramatically different from what other candidates including Kerry have said at comparable stages. Reuters

Donald Trump was of course “joking” when he said yesterday in Toledo, Ohio, that “we should just cancel the election and just give it to Trump, right? What are we even having it for?”

In the clip below, you can see what we’ve come to recognize as a classic Trump-rally two-track message. It’s a mixture of claims that would be outrageous if taken seriously, with a half-joking affect that lets Trump suggest that he’s not being serious at all. As a result, he can have it both ways. People who want to, can take this as something Trump is really supporting. (This is a variation of, “A lot of people are saying....”) But if anyone gets huffy and calls Trump on it, he can say, “What kind of dummy are you? Of course that was a joke!”

So, it’s a joke. But it’s a joke that connects with other non-joke Trump statements deeply at odds with the very process of democratic transfer of power. For instance, “I alone” can save us (a refrain from the convention onward). Or, “It’s rigged, folks, rigged” (of recent months). Or “I’ll keep you in suspense” (at the final debate, about accepting the vote outcome.)

Why do all of these deserve notice? Because other nominees just do not say things like this. Really, this is new—and different, and dangerous, and worth recording as it happens to remember when this election has passed.


Even when under pressure, even when telling themselves that the deck is unfairly stacked, other American public figures have been careful to pay public homage to the electoral process and the need to accept its outcome. Please consider these two examples:

John McCain, 2008. Trump’s remarks were in Toledo yesterday, October 27. Eight years ago on that same date, on October 27, 2008, McCain was also in western Ohio, in Dayton—swing states are swing states. Like Trump right now, McCain was far enough behind in enough polls in enough states to know that he was likely to lose. But here is the way he talked about the election and its outcome on his October 27:

Let me give you the state of the race today. There's eight days to go. We're a few points down. The pundits have written us off, just like they've done before. My opponent is working out the details with Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid of their plans to raise your taxes, increase spending, and concede defeat in Iraq. He's measuring the drapes, and he's planned his first address to the nation for before the election. I guess I'm old fashioned about these things I prefer to let the voters weigh in before presuming the outcome.

What America needs now is someone who will finish the race before the starting the victory lap ... someone who will fight to the end, and not for himself but for his country.

I have fought for you most of my life, and in places where defeat meant more than returning to the Senate. There are other ways to love this country, but I've never been the kind to back down when the stakes are high.

I know you're worried. America is a great country, but we are at a moment of national crisis that will determine our future….

I'm an American. And I choose to fight. Don't give up hope. Be strong. Have courage. And fight.

Fight for a new direction for our country. Fight for what's right for America.

Fight to clean up the mess of corruption, infighting and selfishness in Washington.

Fight to get our economy out of the ditch and back in the lead.

Fight for the ideals and character of a free people.

Fight for our children's future.

Fight for justice and opportunity for all.

Stand up to defend our country from its enemies.

Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight. America is worth fighting for. Nothing is inevitable here. We never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history.

Now, let's go win this election and get this country moving again.

“Let’s go win this election.” Versus “Let’s cancel the election.”


John Kerry 2004. Four years before that, Kerry knew he was in a very tight race against George W. Bush, which of course he eventually lost. I don’t see any online transcripts of what he said on his October 27, but here is what he said in Orlando, Florida, on October 29, 2004, which by that year’s calendar was only four days before the election:

In four days, we can change the course of our country. I ask for your vote and I ask for your help. When you go to the polls next Tuesday, bring your friends, your family, your neighbors. No one can afford to stand on the sidelines or sit this one out.

In four days, this campaign will end. The election will be in your hands. If you believe we need a fresh start in Iraq ... if you believe we can create and keep good jobs here in America ... if you believe we need to get health care costs under control ... if you believe in the promise of stem cell research ... if you believe our deficits are too high and we're too dependent on Mideast oil ...then I ask you to join me and together we'll change America.

I see an America of rising opportunity. And I believe hope, not fear is our future.

A woman in Ohio said something about a month ago. I didn't get to meet her, but she grabbed one of my people at the end of an event and she said: "You be sure to get a hold of the Senator and give him this message for me." And the message was, "Senator, we've got your back!"

Give me the chance to make you proud. Give me the chance to lift our country up. And every day I'll look you in the eye and be able to say, "I've got your back!" Four days to change America. Let's go out and make it happen!

“Let’s make it happen” “The election is in your hands.” Versus, “it’s all rigged, they’re going to steal it in the cities, you know what I’m talking about.”


McCain and Kerry, both fighting hard, both destined to lose. Both aware even as they gave those speeches (though McCain more than Kerry) that they might lose. But still talking up rather than down to the voters, as citizens. Both offering ultimate respect to the process by which a democracy chooses its leaders and transfers power from one to the next.

We have heard so much of the other sort of talk from Trump that many people have grown inured to it. It shouldn’t be taken for granted. Of all the norms Trump has broken, including notably the expectation that nominees will provide tax information, his contempt for the democratic process may be the most dangerous.

The “responsible” leaders who still stand with him need to recognize what they are supporting. The rest of the public needs to get out and vote.

That was then. William J. Clinton Presidential Library / Reuters

With only 13 full days to go until the election, with many millions of early votes already cast, and with polling trends appearing to run against Donald Trump, it’s time to begin tapering off the Time Capsules™.

Pro or con, everyone knows as much about this candidate as anyone could need for making a choice. The accumulating public record about Trump’s thoughts and temperament, while the country was deciding whether to make him its president, is what I’ve been trying to keep up with in this series, starting five months (!) ago.

So with the proviso that I’m now looking for developments unusual even for Trump—not just another raft of misstatements, not “just” another charge of financial or personal misconduct, not just another illustration of the speared-fish wriggling of Republicans like Paul Ryan impaled upon their support for Trump—here is today’s video-heavy installment.


First, an unexpected side of Trump for those who are awash in his 2016-campaign persona. In my story about debates in last month’s issue, I mentioned how brutally simple Trump’s language has been in campaign speeches, interviews, and debates. Simple words, simple sentences, simple thoughts. One surprising exception, as I mentioned back in installment #10, was Trump’s impromptu and nuanced discussion of the tragedy of Harambe, the now-famous gorilla shot to death at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Here’s another, more extended example: Trump discussing the symbolism of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane, in a clip by the famed Errol Morris (Fog of War etc) nearly a decade ago.

I’d seen this clip long ago, but was reminded of it today by Eric Redman. On re-viewing, I find it utterly absorbing. For any rich person to say these things about the movie, and its theme of the isolation of wealth, would be something. But from the Trump we now (think we) know, the clip is more like astonishing. The man we see here seems … introspective. Self-aware. You can start at time 2:00 to get a sample:

In my 2004 Atlantic piece about the presidential debates between incumbent George W. Bush and his challenger John Kerry, I discussed a puzzling aspect of Bush’s oratorical record. In his time on the national stage, from the beginning of his presidential campaign in 1999 to the end of his presidency, George W. Bush was famous for his mis-phrasing and malapropisms. (“Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?” etc.)

But back in 1994, when he ran against the famously silver-tongued Ann Richards for governor of Texas, Bush was a very good speaker! He actually bested her in their debates (and then the election) and showed fluent command of details and phrasing.

What happened to Bush between 1994 and 1999? I don’t know. But whatever was underway—deliberate folksy-izing, unintended shift—seems also to have affected Trump in the decade since Errol Morris’s clip was shot.


The other famous video, which has bounced around for a while but attracted new attention this past week, is Trump’s heartfelt testimonial in 2008 about the virtues of both Bill and Hillary Clinton. One version is below—with the bonus of being followed by an infomercial for Trump Steaks! Other similar statements are here, here, and here.

Here is a related video:

What does this all mean? I don’t know. But the tone—the bearing, the gravitas, the timbre—of the earlier Trump in these samples is quite different from the man before us now. (On the other hand, the Trump of the “grab them by ..” Access Hollywood tape was of roughly this era too.)

Might this other Trump have had a better chance? I no longer can even pretend to guess, or judge.

Eric Trump yesterday, a scion and thus namesake of the new hotel brand. Chris Keane / Reuters

Late to this for family reasons, but catching up on an actually astonishing development:

Through the campaign, Donald Trump at times seemed more intent on promoting his business interests than in advancing a political campaign. He took time off this summer to fly to Scotland and tout the opening of a new Trump golf resort. He turned what was billed as a major campaign announcement into a promo for his new DC hotel. A surprisingly large share of the money he’s raised for his campaign’s expenditures has gone to his own businesses (notably Mar-a-Lago).

That is why today’s story, in Travel and Leisure, is so piquant and O. Henry-like. What Trump might have imagined would further burnish his personal brand may in fact be poisoning it. T&L reports that Trump’s new hotels will no longer carry his name!!! Instead they’ll be called “Scion.” Groan, given the actual scions, but fascinating in its own way. From T&L:

Amidst reports that occupancy rates at Trump Hotels have slipped this election season, the company has announced that new brand hotels will no longer bear the Trump name.

The newest line of luxury hotels, geared towards millennials, will be called Scion, the company said.

Wait till this sinks in: the name that Donald Trump thought was his greatest asset, the basis of his claims of wealth, is now such commercial baggage that they’re keeping it off his buildings.


People know the famous chef José Andrés  as, well, a famous chef. I had a chance to get to know him a few years ago in strange circumstances in Beijing.

But I think he deserves long-term attention as probably the first “public” person to take personal and commercial risks in a forthright stance against Trump. Shortly after Trump’s “they’re sending rapists” speech, José Andrés said he would not open a restaurant, as previously agreed, in Trump’s new DC hotel. Trump immediately sued him back.

Would that some part of José Andrés’s backbone had been transplanted into the Speaker of the House.

Joining a few friends for a casual dinner last night. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

“Light” events are some of the heaviest lifting in political life. Comedy is hard to begin with, and for the kinds of people involved in politics, jokes are vastly more difficult to write or deliver than “substantive” remarks. And for presidents or presidential aspirants, we’re talking about a special kind of joke. These eminent figures need to come across as “modest” and self-deprecatory, but only up to a humble-brag point. (That is, just enough so the audience and reviewers will say, “Oh, isn’t it charming that he’s willing to laugh at himself!”) Real comedy often includes a “what the hell!” willingness to say something that will genuinely shock or offend, which national politicians can’t afford to do. The White House Correspondents Dinner, the Gridiron, the Al Smith Dinner—any event like this is hard (as David Litt, a former member of the Obama speechwriting team, explains in a very nice item just now).

But you’ve got to do it. And to seem to “enjoy” it. And to maintain the closest simulacrum you can to a “genuine” smile or laugh, when others are making fun of you.  

Last night at the Al Smith Dinner, which is the subject of Litt’s essay, Donald Trump could perform only a tiny handful of the basic moves. In the process he spectacularly reinforced a crucial point about himself, even as Hillary Clinton was demonstrating an under-appreciated implication of one of her familiar traits. Let’s go to the tape and see what he didn’t do, and what she did.


The clip below is cued to begin as Trump takes the stage, nearly an hour and a half into the whole elephantine pageant. (Reflect for a moment: you’re sitting there for the first 90 minutes, eating while in formal wear and on camera and purporting to socialize, realizing that a high-stakes performance is ahead at the end of the night.)

For the first eight or ten minutes, things are going more or less OK for Trump. As you can see:

  • Around time 1:25:45, he begins a semi-obvious but good-spirited riff on self-deprecation itself. (Modesty is my greatest quality, etc.)
  • Around 1:26:30, he gives a kind of charming routine about his “perfectly formed hands.” Bonus here: Through the GOP primaries, he seemed to have absolutely zero sense of humor about his petite digits. This is progress!
  • Around 1:30:45, a mean-edged—but nothing like what’s coming—bit about Hillary Clinton and Rosie O’Donnell.
  • Then, starting at 1:32:00, a genuinely funny joke about his wife Melania’s plagiarized speech. This was perfectly delivered and would count as a classic of public-event self-deprecation—except that he’s not making fun of himself. He’s making fun of her. (And then has her stand up in a way that sort of compounds the offense, although she takes it graciously.)
  • From 1:34:00 onwards he goes off the rails, and seems to imagine that he is at a true-believer rally where the crowd is shouting “Lock her up!” In fact, this crowd, at a religious-charity event, in what he thinks of as his town, starts to boo.


For convenience here is the same clip again, this time cued to begin when Hillary Clinton takes the stage around time 1:41:30. I’ve watched her presentation twice now and think it deserves a careful look. Some guideposts:

  • The first minute or so is standard “earnest” intro. But then:
  • At 1:43:00 an effortless, quick offhand remark about “my rigorous nap schedule.” This is straight from Self-Deprecatory Political Humor 101. You show awareness of a wisecrack about you, and you also show that you can just laugh about it. She follows it with a not-quite-as-artful (because it’s not quite as funny to her) crack that she usually “charges a lot” for this kind of speech.
  • Starting at 1:44:20, a nice little sequence of religio-political-gender humor, first with the “miracle” of her getting through the debates, and building to the “stained-glass ceiling” (without spelling out that she is of course talking about the patriarchal Catholic church).
  • Almost immediately after that, following an interlude for a mayor-versus-governor New York politico joke, at 1:45:15 onward she has another very artful minute-long stretch. In quick succession it touches these items: “baskets” of people; pantsuits; Trump’s interrupting her at the debates; and “peaceful transfer of power.” Anyone who has labored in these fields will recognize this passage as both skillfully written and impressively delivered.
  • At 1:47:00, the “Statue of Liberty is a four, maybe five tops” line.
  • Then at 1:47:45, “And I’ve been to three!” which again is Self-Deprecation 101.
  • At 1:49:35, a joke at her own expense (“This counts as a press conference, right?”) followed immediately by one at Trump’s expense (it’s too bad that Mike Bloomberg isn’t speaking, “because we’d all be curious what a [real] billionaire has to say.” Bada-bing!) And right after that the meanest but most deserved joke of the entire speech, about Rudy Giuliani. The cut-away to a glowering Giuliani shows that he has even worse poker-face control than Trump.
  • At 1:51:00, what starts as classic self-deprecation, about Trump’s call for a drug test before the debate, and builds to a surprisingly serious “joke.” I won’t spoil or belabor this, but it’s worth watching for yourself.
  • Skipping over some other riffs, including a nice one about the “Muslim ban,” we come to my favorite little morsel of deadpan delivery. It starts at 1:53:50. The punchline involves “a hearse.”


What trait of Trump’s did last evening reinforce? It’s one I emphasized in my October-issue piece: that he has one speed, he is exactly and only who he is, and while he can momentarily shift registers sooner or later he comes back to one persona. That person cannot really laugh at himself, or even feign to for very long. That person is angry.

And what do we see about Hillary Clinton? That a trait of hers that is always taken for granted, and frequently sneered-about, is actually of great consequence. Namely: that she works, that she tries, that she practices, that she prepares—and as a result of all these things, she improves.

We know about the “naturals” in politics—JFK in one way, Ronald Reagan in another, each of the past two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Obama, with their very different approaches. Hillary Clinton has often remarked (and no doubt rued) that she is not as “natural” or “gifted” in these public-presentation skills as Democratic presidents #44 and #42. No doubt there is enormous gendered baggage that comes along with these contrasts: the “naturally charming” FDR versus the “hard-working” Eleanor, on to the Bill/Hillary comparison now.

Conceivably Barack Obama makes his dryly effective comic appearances without “trying” as hard as Hillary Clinton has to. But she reminded us last night that what matters is the result. Presumably she tried very hard; demonstrably she did very well, while also demonstrating mastery of a skill she hadn’t displayed this clearly before (high-stakes deadpan comedy).

The most graceful performers—Federer, Jordan, Simone Biles, Fred Astaire, FDR—make the result of endless hard work seem effortless. Hillary Clinton can’t conceal the effort. But, as in the old line about Ginger Rogers, she has demonstrated command of ever more graceful moves.


Seventeen days and a few hours until the election. For the first time since Richard Nixon, no tax returns or plausible health information forthcoming from a major party nominee. It now appears that Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and the “responsible” leadership of their party will ride out this disaster to the end, all the while contending, as they still officially do, that Donald Trump is the best choice as our next president.

With two and a half weeks to go, the debate phase of the competition is at last at its end. In real time last night I did an endless tweet-storm commentary whose beginning you can find here and that wound up this way:

Most of what I thought, I said at the time. But to summarize:

1) Predictability. To my relief, most of the expert forecasts I quoted in my debate preview piece matched what actually occurred.

The match-up really did turn out to be an extreme contrast at every level—intellectual and rhetorical styles, bearing on stage, what each candidate talked about and didn’t. The things Jane Goodall foresaw about Trump’s primate-dominance moves actually took place, when he was free to roam the stage in debate #2. As his fallen rivals from the Republican primaries had predicted, Trump faced much greater challenges in these head-to-head debates than he had in the crowded-podium prelims. Back then, he could chime in with an insult whenever he wanted and otherwise just stay quiet and roll his eyes. In the head-to-head round, especially the last debate, he struggled to fill his allotted time with details on any topic and fell back on slogans from his stump speech. Also predictably, Hillary Clinton was as prepared as she could be and barely put a foot wrong.

Most impressively of all, Hillary Clinton’s 100-percent-completely-foreseeable “Take the bait, please!!” strategy—foreseeable enough that I said in the article that this is what she would do—worked marvelously well.

From the opening moments of the first debate, she sent out a a nonstop stream of provocations, subtle or obvious, all tailored to wounding Trump’s vanities. The topics ranged from his not really being rich, to being a man of the beauty-pageant world, to not paying taxes, to being a chronic liar, to generally being preposterous. Sooner or later in each debate, usually sooner, it worked! Trump simply could not resist the bait. He would go off on exactly the tirades the Clinton campaign was hoping to evoke from him. You saw it again last night: for the first 30 minutes or so, he was so stately as to seem semi-sedated. Then she began teasing him, and she got him to snap and interrupt.

So from an unprecedented and potentially unpredictable confrontation, we saw the behavior many people anticipated from each candidate. Very carefully prepped Belichick-type execution of a precise plan from one side. On the other side, wild slugging by someone who might as well have had a bucket over his head.


2) Moderator. Given Fox News’s stake in this race—Sean Hannity as unapologetic campaign booster for Trump, Roger Ailes drifting between the organizations—the pre-debate question about moderator Chris Wallace, of Fox, was which part of the now-split Fox consciousness he would represent. The movement-activist part, which has made Fox essentially the only “news” outlet on which Trump will appear in recent weeks? Or the actual-journalist part, as Fox’s Shep Smith and Bret Baier usually illustrate and as Megyn Kelly sometimes does—for instance, when memorably dressing down Karl Rove while the Ohio vote was being counted four years ago?

Joe Raedle / Reuters

Congrats to Wallace, who conducted most of the debate as if it were an actual interview on substance; who reminded candidates of the question he had originally asked, when they drifted afield; who (like Anderson Cooper in round two) was polite in tone while maintaining control of the discussion; and who improvised in a non-gimmicky way by ending the debate with an “unexpected” call for a brief closing statement. Of course this was one of the many contingencies Hillary Clinton had fully prepared for; of course it was one of many developments to which Donald Trump had given no advance thought. So she reeled off a practiced-seeming one-minute wrapup, and he gave what appeared to be random highlights from his rally speeches. Imagine the debate planning that would have Trump use the final few seconds of his final debate appearance thus: “Our inner cities are a disaster. You get shot walking to the store. They have no education.”


3) The tyranny of the “deficit nightmare.” My one criticism of Wallace’s debate-management is the one Paul Krugman lays out in more detail here. I will bet—oh, let’s say, a trillion dollars—that when someone looks back on the 2016 campaign and asks, “What’s a major long-term danger that got shockingly little attention in the campaign?” the answer is not going to be “the federal budget deficit.” But Wallace hammered on this exaggerated threat in two extended discussions. I bet that the answer is going to be climate change and sustainability in all forms. Unless I missed it, no question from any of the moderators was on this theme.

Of course public services must pay their way in the long run. But the hold that deficit-hawkery has on “respectable” discussion these days is quite remarkable.

So, for Chris Wallace: if you’d swapped even one of your deficit questions for a climate one, it would have been an even better job. Still, well done overall.


4) HRC’s worst moment. It occurred an hour in, when Wallace asked her a perfectly straightforward question about “pay for play” criticisms of the Clinton Foundation, and she started talking all around the topic as if she was trying to avoid the question or had something to hide. On the merits as I understand them, most of the “pay for play” with the Clinton Foundation is stuck in the realm of “lingering questions” and “gives rise to questionable appearances,” rather than of anyone having nailed down a quid-pro-quo. Smoke rather than fire. This is quite a contrast to the netherworld of the Trump “Foundation,” as David Fahrenthold of the WaPo has plumbed it. But she sounded as if she were talking around the issue, in the way her critics assume her always to do.

In context, this didn’t “matter,” because so much else was going her way, and because Trump jumped in after a minute with a standard over-the-top accusation that the Clinton Foundation was “a criminal enterprise.” This in turn gave her a chance to start talking about his objectively shady-seeming foundation. So it didn’t change the flow of this debate, but it would be better if she could resist talking this way. (Sample at end of this item, along with the full video.)


5) Trump’s worst moment. I was about to say there’s no contest here, but actually there is. One of his off-hand remarks was abysmal as a matter of substance; the other joins the parade of catastrophic touches of style.

The substance offense was of course Trump’s refusal to say that he would “accept” the results of the election, if he lost. The whole concept of “peaceful transfer of power” depends on the group that loses an election willingly accepting their defeat. Back in installment #143 I laid out the contrasts between Trump’s emerging stance and the previous centuries of our history. You can also read Peter Beinart on our site and The Atlantic’s live-blog team, and practically anything else in print or online today.

And Trump’s stylistic touch? Of course it is “such a nasty woman.” It was much worse in context than in seems on the page, both because of the way he said it (hint: You’ll see it in Democratic ads) and because of what brought it on. It was in response to this from Hillary Clinton, with emphasis added to what was presented as a quick little throwaway dig:

Chris, I am on record as saying that we need to put more money into the Social Security Trust Fund. That’s part of my commitment to raise taxes on the wealthy. My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald's, assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it. But what we want to do is to replenish the Social Security Trust Fund...

Bait offered. Bait taken! As I’ve argued repeatedly, the temperamental demands of the presidency are even more exacting than its intellectual and physical-stamina requirements. One of our candidates repeatedly shows that he has the temperament we expect people to be growing beyond by the time they reach middle school.

And Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Reince Priebus, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and the whole tattered supporting cast still say, Make this man president!

Here endeth my 2016 presidential-debate coverage. And not one millisecond too soon.


For reference, here is the way the “pay to play” discussion evolved. Points to note: Wallace’s attempts to get an answer to his question; Clinton’s talking-around the question; Trump’s crude overplay of his hand:

WALLACE: Secretary Clinton, during your 2009 Senate confirmation hearing, you promised to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest with your dealing with the Clinton Foundation. ...

Can you really say that you kept your pledge to that Senate committee? And why isn’t what happened and what went on between you and the Clinton Foundation, why isn’t it what Mr. Trump calls pay to play?

CLINTON: Well, everything I did as secretary of state was in furtherance of our country’s interests and our values. The State Department has said that. I think that's been proven.

But I am happy, in fact I’m thrilled to talk about the Clinton Foundation, because it is a world-renowned charity and I am so proud of the work that it does. You know, I could talk for the rest of the debate—I know I don’t have the time to do that.

But just briefly, the Clinton Foundation made it possible for 11 million people around the world with HIV-AIDS to afford treatment, and that's about half all the people in the world who are getting treatment. In partnership with the American Health Association ...

WALLACE: Secretary Clinton ...

CLINTON: ... we have made environments in schools healthier for kids, including healthier lunches ...

WALLACE: Secretary Clinton, respectfully, this is—this is an open discussion.

CLINTON: Well, it is an open discussion. And you ...

WALLACE: And the specific question went to pay for play. Do you want to talk about that?

CLINTON: Well, but there is no—but there is no evidence—but there is ...


TRUMP: I think that it’s been very well ...

WALLACE: Let’s ask Mr. Trump.

CLINTON: There is a lot of evidence about the very good work ...

TRUMP: It’s been very well studied.

CLINTON: ... and the high rankings ...


WALLACE: Please let Mr. Trump speak.

TRUMP: ... and it’s a criminal enterprise, and so many people know it.

The Republican nominee, soon after news came in of a crime in North Carolina.

The very hardest thing about being president is that almost all of the choices you get to make are no-win, impossible decisions. Let civilians keep getting slaughtered in Syria? Or commit U.S. forces without being sure who they are fighting for and how they might “win”? Propose a “compromise” measure—on health insurance, gun control, taxes, a Supreme Court nominee, whatever—in hopes that you’ll win over some of the opposition? Or assume from the start that the opposition will oppose, and begin by asking for more than you can get? Choices that are easier or more obvious get made by someone else before they are anywhere close to the president’s desk.

These decisions are hardest when life-and-death stakes are high and time is short. In 2003, invade Iraq, or wait? In 2011, authorize the raid on bin Laden, or not? In 1962, when to confront the Soviets over their missiles in Cuba, and when to look for the possibility of compromise.

The more I’ve learned about politics and the presidency, the more I’ve been sobered by the combination of temperamental stability and intellectual rigor these decisions demand. Stability, not to be panicked or rushed or provoked. Rigor, to understand what more you need to know, but also to recognize when you must make a choice even with less information than you would like.

This is an issue I’ve discussed before, in installments #26 and #129 and several more. I keep coming back to it because it’s so important, and because this crucial measure is one on which Donald Trump keeps demonstrating that he is flagrantly unfit. What’s hardest for any president would be simply impossible for him, as he reminds us yet again today.


Almost immediately on hearing news that a GOP office in North Carolina had been firebombed, Trump put out the tweet you see above. Meanwhile the Charlotte Observer, a real newspaper close to the scene with actual reporters, quoted police this way:

Hillsborough police said somebody threw a bottle of flammable liquid through the window of Orange County’s GOP headquarters, setting supplies and furniture ablaze.

Somebody, from people concerned with facts and evidence. Animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems, from the man asking to be put in charge of the countless judgment calls a president makes each day. This was the same judge-and-jury, rush-to-judgment thinking style that Trump displayed years ago with the “Central Park Five.”

This man demonstrates each day that he has reflexes rather than judgment and would be dangerous in any responsible role. And the supposedly “responsible” leadership of his party, to their shame, continues to say: Put him in command!


Styles of thought aren’t necessarily inherited. But in this case …

Donald Trump Jr on Twitter


And for the sake of completeness:

Hillary Clinton’s tweet on the same subject

Plus the very gracious reply from the North Carolina GOP:

NCGOP on Twitter

Also for the record: such an attack is evil and damages democracy more than it does a specific party. I hope whoever did it is brought to justice.

Then-VP Al Gore in December, 2000, with then-wife Tipper and daughter Sarah, a few days before the Supreme Court issued its politically driven Bush v. Gore ruling that halted the vote recount in Florida and effectively declared George W. Bush president. Gore said that he disagreed with the ruling but would respect the outcome—as George H.W. Bush said when losing to Bill Clinton eight years earlier, and as other candidates have done when acknowledging that a rival had won. Donald Trump begs to differ. Reuters

The greatest threat Donald Trump poses to the republic is that he might become president. With each passing hour and excess, and each new on-the-record witness to his mistreatment of women, the likelihood of that disaster goes down.

But in the past 16 months he has already done profound damage to the democratic process and the civic fiber. This installment is about one still-unfolding form of the damage. The next, #144, will be about another that could be even worse—unless something none of us has foreseen happens in the meantime to crowd it out.


The American fabric of peaceful-transfer-of-power is taken for granted in the U.S. and elsewhere but is more fragile than it seems. As I noted back in installment #139, nearly every presidential inaugural address through U.S. history has emphasized how unusual and crucial this civic ritual is. For an example you might not have been expecting, I give you Richard Nixon, in the opening of his first inaugural address in 1969:

My fellow Americans, and my fellow citizens of the world community:

I ask you to share with me today the majesty of this moment. In the orderly transfer of power, we celebrate the unity that keeps us free.

Five-and-a-half years later, in a televised address explaining why he would become the first president ever to resign the office, Nixon again paid homage to rules-above-men, country-above-party. To put that differently: Even Richard Nixon, for all that he did to undercut rule of law, observed the need to support regular civic order, and the primacy of established institutions, in his public remarks. The night before he resigned he said (emphasis added):

In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the Nation. [JF note: Well, maybe. But in context you can give him this.] Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me.

In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future.

But with the disappearance of that base, I now believe that the constitutional purpose has been served, and there is no longer a need for the process to be prolonged.

That statement by Nixon was one of two crucial acknowledgments in modern times of process over person, country over party, by people who (in their very different circumstances) would have preferred to stay and fight. The other, of course, was Al Gore’s decision to accept the Supreme Court’s politically driven decision to stop the Florida recount and effectively declare George W. Bush president in 2000.

Gore had every reason imaginable to challenge Bush v. Gore and the whole circumstances of the election. He was half a million votes ahead in the nationwide popular vote, and for more than a century the popular-vote winner had become president. The Florida secretary of state, who was in charge of the recount, was co-chairman of the Bush campaign in Florida. The governor of the state, Jeb Bush, was his opponent’s brother! The reasoning of the Supreme Court’s ruling was so nakedly results-oriented that the Court itself said that it should not be taken as a precedent in any future rulings.

And yet, Gore said: The Court has spoken; I accept the results. His statement on December 14, 2000, is all the more remarkable with the passing years:

Over the library of one of our great law schools is inscribed the motto: “Not under man, but under God and law.” That’s the ruling principle of American freedom, the source of our democratic liberties. I’ve tried to make it my guide throughout this contest, as it has guided America's deliberations of all the complex issues of the past five weeks.

Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.

I also accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together in fulfillment of the great vision that our Declaration of Independence defines and that our Constitution affirms and defends.


This is the context in which to view Donald Trump’s willfully destructive “Election is rigged!” complaints, as he descends to an irretrievable position in the polls. The rhetoric of illegitimacy of course has a history in our politics. In recent times, Rush Limbaugh and others made much of Bill Clinton’s failure to win an absolute majority of votes. (Although Clinton won easily in 1992 and 1996, Ross Perot kept him from going over 50 percent of the popular vote either time.) The logic of “birtherism,” with Trump as its most prominent exponent, was that Barack Obama had an illegitimate claim on office.

But Trump’s increasing drumbeat of assertions that the only way he could lose the election is if it is “rigged”—too many of “those people” voting in the big cities, the heavy hand of Carlos Slim changing the results, God knows what else—is different, and dangerous. You can read wrapups of what he is doing here and here and here and here, and in a tweetstorm here.

Trump today

You can read a dissection of why it is so dangerous, by political scientist Shaun Bowler, here. The essence of Bowler’s argument is that democracies depend on the losing party accepting, if grudgingly and painfully, the results at the polls. If not, everything else comes into question:

In the aftermath of a loss, there is plenty of kindling for irresponsible politicians to set fire to. They could stoke the feelings that remain temporary in ordinary times, transforming them into civic unrest and even civil disobedience. Most politicians who lose elections recognize this potential for mischief, and so they ordinarily make a creditable run at helping to keep matters calm.

A textbook example is provided by President George Bush Sr., whose concession speech included the following statement: “Here’s the way we see it and the country should see it—that the people have spoken and we respect the majesty of the democratic system. I just called Gov. Clinton over in Little Rock and offered my congratulations. He did run a strong campaign.”

In making this statement, President Bush signaled that the election was over and he lost fair and square.

What Trump is doing is new. And it’s bad. Other people have not done this.

And while Paul Ryan said today that he was “fully confident” in the election process and rejected the “rigged” suspicions, he still supports Trump for president.

Twenty-three days to go.

More Notes From The Atlantic
  • Notes Home