Things were bound to turn ugly sooner or later, and they did:
A Donald Trump rally in southwest Virginia on the eve of Super Tuesday turned nasty, with repeated disruptions by protesters, and a scuffle between a Secret Service agent and a photographer.
Trump addressed a crowd of thousands in a Radford University gymnasium, as many more waited outside. The Republican front-runner started his remarks by citing a new CNN poll showing him with a huge national lead. The New York billionaire is poised to win many of the states voting on Tuesday and has led the polls in Virginia. He said he’s positioned to win states that historically back Democrats, including New York and Michigan.
As Trump spoke, he lamented interruptions to his message about how he’d keep jobs in the United States.
Trump was describing how he would react to companies like Carrier moving air conditioner production to Mexico when he was interrupted by commotion in nearby bleachers. The crowd was jeering at an apparent protester.
“Are you from Mexico?” he repeatedly shouted at the woman as she stepped down from the bleachers.
She was hustled out of the room to Trump’s shouts. Are you from Mexico? That said it all, and then there was this:
On the other side of the room, three rows of young people, mostly African Americans, stood up, holding hands and shouting, “No more hate.” It took nearly 10 minutes to escort them out of the room as supporters jeered, and Trump shouted to get the protesters out.
“All lives matter,” Trump shouted as they left to loud cheers, mirroring similar comments made Sunday in Alabama.
Get those uppity black people out of here – that was what Trump seemed to be shouting, over and over – and then there was this:
Shortly after, Christopher Morris, a photographer for TIME magazine, was attempting to leave the press section to photograph the Black Lives Matter protesters when he was “thrown to the ground in a choke hold,” TIME said, by a Secret Service agent.
Morris later told reporters that he “never touched” the agent. Video shows that after Morris was thrown to the ground by the agent, he kicked at the officer who was trying to restrain him. Video also shows Morris reaching for the officer’s neck, which Morris says was to demonstrate what the officer had done to him. TIME said Morris was briefly detained.
To get a sense of what was going on, understand that at the Trump rallies, the press is confined to a “pen” – fenced off from the crowd but it the middle of things – and Trump repeatedly points at them during the event and calls them liars and awful people – and the crowd screams at them and sometimes throws things. Covering a Trump rally is a bit unpleasant. Christopher Morris took a step or two out of the “pen” for a better shot of what was going on – a big mistake. The Secret Service has been told by the Trump folks what to do about that – so they did. It wasn’t pretty, and that led to this:
Trump also reiterated his calls to make it easier to sue reporters for libel, maintaining that he’s a strong believer in the freedom of the press.
There may be a contradiction there, but Trump moved on:
One audience member shouted an expletive after Trump repeated a likely false story about U.S. Gen. John J. Pershing ordering Muslim terrorists shot with pig blood-soaked bullets more than a century ago.
Here’s a refresher on that:
To explain his support for waterboarding and other heavy-handed interrogation tactics, Donald Trump told a rally audience a story Friday night that involved U.S. Gen. John J. Pershing, a terrorist attack in the Philippines more than a century ago, 50 terrorists and bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. It’s a tale that has circulated on the Internet for years – and is most likely not true.
The story came up as Trump reiterated his support for waterboarding, the advanced interrogation technique that the Obama administration considers torture and has ceased using. Earlier this week, Trump said he supports this controversial method, along with those that are “much worse,” because “torture works.” Proponents of waterboarding have long been careful to not label it as torture, which is strictly forbidden by U.S. and international law.
“The big question is: Is it torture or not?” Trump said at a rally at a convention center here, the night before the South Carolina primary. “It’s so borderline. It’s like your minimal, minimal, minimal torture.”
Trump criticized his Republican rivals for not embracing waterboarding as enthusiastically as he has, which he says sends the wrong message to terrorists who use barbaric techniques like chopping off the heads of their foes.
And that led to the pig’s-blood story:
As the crowd cheered him on, Trump told them about Pershing – “rough guy, rough guy” – who was fighting terrorism in the early 1900’s. Trump didn’t say where this happened, but variations of this story online usually state that it happened in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War – part of the island nation’s protracted battle for independence – early in Pershing’s career.
“They were having terrorism problems, just like we do,” Trump said. “And he caught 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage and killed many people. And he took the 50 terrorists, and he took 50 men and he dipped 50 bullets in pigs’ blood – you heard that, right? He took 50 bullets, and he dipped them in pigs’ blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said: You go back to your people, and you tell them what happened. And for 25 years, there wasn’t a problem. Okay? Twenty-five years, there wasn’t a problem.”
At one point in telling this story, Trump said: “By the way, this is something you can read in the history books – not a lot of history books because they don’t like teaching this.”
It’s in no history books – it never happened – and back in Radford:
Thousands waited in a line to get in the stadium that snaked around the parking lot and onto the sidewalk of the street leading in. Dozens wore white shirts touting Trump as “Finally someone with balls.” Hundreds sported orange stickers saying “Guns save lives.”… Frank Pruitt, a 22-year-old Virginia Tech student, said he’s been drawn to Trump as an outsider with good business chops ever since the billionaire declared his candidacy. He said he cringes at some of Trump’s remarks, but added that the conservative resistance to Trump is misplaced.
“The way I see it is you are going to eventually have to vote for him if you want to support a Republican,” said Pruitt, who was carrying a paperback copy of Trump’s “The Art of the Deal.”
“And honestly, it can’t be worse than Obama.”
That’s a matter of opinion, and as for suing the press for libel, Daniel Politi explains that:
The leading contender to become the Republican candidate for president wants to make it easier to sue news organizations. Donald Trump said on Friday that he wants to change the country’s libel laws in a way that could strike at the heart of the First Amendment.
“One of the things I’m going to do if I win – and I hope we do, and we’re certainly leading – I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” Trump said. “So when the New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”
Trump then went on to utter what sounded like a straight-up threat: “We’re going to open up libel laws and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”
And there it gets a little obscure:
Although Trump did not give any details about what he would do to turn his threat into a reality, he does seem to want to undo New York Times v Sullivan. In that 1964 landmark case, the Supreme Court determined that public figures must prove that any defamatory statements were made with “actual malice,” meaning it “was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.”
Many conservatives have long criticized the 1964 decision, including late justice Antonin Scalia, who said in 2012 that he “abhors” the ruling. “Who told Earl Warren and the Supreme Court that what had been accepted libel law for a couple hundred years was no longer?” Scalia said in a Charlie Rose interview.
Marc J. Randazza, a prominent First Amendment attorney, explains what that’s all about:
Trump has a history of filing SLAPP suits. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation. This describes a lawsuit filed against someone for exercising his or her First Amendment rights – filed with little chance of success, but with the knowledge that the lawsuit itself is the punishment. After all, if people have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend themselves because they criticized Donald Trump, they might think better of doing so again in the future.
However, some states, like California and Nevada, have strong anti-SLAPP laws, which dispense with such cases early and force the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s attorneys’ fees. … Trump recently got stung with an anti-SLAPP decision, which he probably had in mind when he spoke about “opening up” our libel laws. In fact, he isn’t the first big shot to try to make it easier to sue for defamation after having a SLAPP suit blow up in his face.
To get a sense of what Randazza is talking about, think back to April 2, 2013:
Donald Trump is withdrawing his lawsuit against television host and comedian Bill Maher seeking $5 million that Maher said he would give to charity, in a seemingly facetious offer, if Trump could prove he was not the son of an orangutan.
The lawsuit stems from comments Maher made during an appearance on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” in January in which he said an orangutan’s fur was the only thing in nature that matches the shade of Trump’s trademark hair.
Records in Los Angeles Superior Court show the real estate mogul requested the lawsuit be dismissed without prejudice on Friday, eight weeks after he filed it.
California has a strong anti-SLAPP law. He was going to lose, of course – that was a given – but he would have had to pay Maher’s legal costs. He couldn’t bankrupt Maher by burying him in those massive legal fees he’d have to shell out to defend himself against Trump’s legal team with nearly unlimited resources and all the time in the world. Trump’s money was negated, so what was the point? But the case was interesting:
Maher offered a $5 million donation to the charity of Trump’s choice – “Hair Club for Men,” he suggested – if Trump produced a birth certificate that proved he was not half-ape. … Last year, during the presidential campaign, Trump offered to give $5 million to charity if Democratic President Barack Obama would release his college records. Trump, who briefly considered a White House run, had previously questioned Obama’s citizenship and boasted that his skepticism prompted the president to release his so-called “long-form” birth certificate.
In a letter to Maher before filing the lawsuit, Trump’s lawyer wrote, “Attached hereto is a copy of Mr. Trump’s birth certificate, demonstrating that he is the son of Fred Trump, not an orangutan.”
Legal experts said Trump was unlikely to succeed in his lawsuit because Maher’s offer was obviously a joke, and courts rarely enforce verbal contracts that are clearly satirical in nature.
No shit, but there was this:
In an appearance on Fox News after the lawsuit was filed, Trump said he was convinced that Maher was not joking. “That was venom,” he said. “That wasn’t a joke.”
No, it was a joke – get over it – and three years later, Randazza explains the niceties of the law that Trump now wants to change:
Defamation law is a matter of state law, leaving little for a president to do about it. To win a defamation case, the plaintiff must show publication of a false statement of fact that damages the plaintiff’s reputation. This standard can vary a bit from state to state, but it generally fits that general set of requirements.
Therefore, what could Trump do to “open up” the libel laws? He personally? Nothing legally, but if elected, he could pick Supreme Court justices willing to revisit New York Times v. Sullivan, which is in my view the most important case protecting our First Amendment rights. It is the greatest protection we have from government officials or powerful businesses choking the life out of public debate and a free press. Overturning it would change everything we know about freedom of the press.
And this is what we know:
In a defamation case involving an ordinary citizen suing for defamation, the citizen only needs to show that the defendant knew the statement was false, or failed to exercise “reasonable care” before publishing it. So let’s say that a blogger writes an article about a private citizen accusing that person of a crime, based on a false statement by a witness, without following up. That might be a failure to exercise reasonable care, and the blogger might lose the case.
But if the same blogger wrote one about a public figure, like Trump, then Trump has to prove that the blogger did so with “actual malice.”
Even some judges and lawyers get this wrong, so don’t feel bad if you didn’t know what “actual malice” means. It has nothing to do with “malice” at all. It means that the defendant published the statement knowing it was false or with a reckless disregard for the truth.
So if we return to my example, let’s say someone wrote a blog post about Donald Trump, accusing him of a crime, but based it just on an anonymous email, without following up – that might be considered to be “reckless disregard.”
Why the different standard depending on the plaintiff?
From New York Times v. Sullivan: “(W)e consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
That’s the ruling that conservatives and Donald Trump hate:
The court recognized that public figures have access to the media to defend themselves, and it went on to reject any notion that the speaker must prove truth; instead the plaintiff must prove falsity. This is all because the First Amendment needs “breathing space” in order for free speech to survive. And if we impose liability for merely erroneous reports on political conduct, it would reflect the “obsolete doctrine that the governed must not criticize their governors.”
So what if Trump appoints one or two Supreme Court judges who are willing to overturn Sullivan? Justice Elena Kagan has already voiced skepticism about the extension of Sullivan too far into other kinds of libel cases. The only member of the court I think we could count on to be strongly opposed to overturning it is Chief Justice John Roberts.
No matter how flawed it is, our democracy depends upon robust free speech and free press rights. New York Times v. Sullivan matters more than anything else. If we lose the right to criticize the government in wide-open and robust debate, we lose an important part of what it means to be free.
There is that to consider, not Donald Trump’s hurt feelings, or his sense that his obvious and impressive “power” is threatened, and then there is what happened at a second Trump rally in Georgia:
About 30 black students who were standing silently at the top of the bleachers at Donald Trump’s rally here Monday night were escorted out by Secret Service agents who said the presidential candidate had requested their removal before he began speaking.
The sight of the students, who were visibly upset, being led outside by law enforcement officials created a stir at a university that was a whites-only campus until 1963.
“We didn’t plan to do anything,” said a tearful Tahjila Davis, a 19-year-old mass media major, who was among the Valdosta State University students who was removed. “They said, ‘This is Trump’s property; it’s a private event.’ But I paid my tuition to be here.”
You paid your tuition to be here? Trump has more money than you, kid. Get over it.
The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson doesn’t want to get over any of this:
It is the great, democratic virtue of presidential campaigns that they subject candidates to every kind of stress, eventually revealing their core, their character. For Donald Trump, the test has been political success. After leading the Republican field for six months, and in some quarters receiving adulation nearly equal to his self-regard, how has Trump responded? Has he been sobered? Have his rhetoric and temperament matured?
No. Decidedly, no. The realistic prospect of executive power has only increased Trump’s swagger. He has threatened a Republican donor who opposes him. “I hear the [Ricketts] family,” he tweeted, “who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $’s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!”
Trump has threatened the media, promising to “open up our libel laws” so he can more easily sue outlets that differ in their view of the truth about him. “I think the media is among the most dishonest groups of people that I’ve ever met. They’re terrible.” he said recently. Referring specifically to The Post, he added: “If I become president, oh, do they have problems. They’re going to have such problems.”
Trump has attempted to smear and intimidate a district judge, Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over a lawsuit for fraud against Trump University, with its distinguished faculty of cardboard cutouts and allegedly bankrupt real estate investors. Trump accuses Curiel of hostility against him because “I’m very, very strong on the border” – another shrill pipe of the ethnic dog whistle.
Gerson sees a pattern here:
Trump roots his intimidation in a worldview – the need for the strong hand. It is the most consistent commitment of Trumpism. As early as 1990, Trump criticized Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for not having a “firm enough hand.” He cited China’s butchers of Tiananmen Square as examples of his conception of power: “They were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak… as being spit on by the rest of the world.” Following allegations last year that Russian leader Vladimir Putin had killed several high-profile journalists, Trump responded, “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.”
And Trump’s supporters seem to welcome this aspect of his appeal. According to a Vox analysis of the South Carolina Republican primary vote, the best statistical predictor of Trump support is an inclination toward authoritarianism – a belief in the need for “aggressive leaders and policies.” So Trump, if he wins the nomination and the presidency, will feel a mandate for his menace.
Then all bets will be off:
We have seen the lengths to which Trump will go to threaten and intimidate his enemies, armed mainly with social media. It seems reckless beyond reason – reckless with the republic itself – to arm him with the immense power of the executive branch. Consider the inherently threatening quality of the words “Trump’s military” or “Trump’s FBI” or “Trump’s IRS.” The grant of vast influence to a leader of such vindictive temperament is utterly frightening. …
Trump’s conception of leadership is to become large by making others small. In a reality television star, this is a job qualification. In a president, it would raise the prospect of serious damage to our democratic system.
The Post’s Dana Milbank takes it from there:
Stuart Stevens, who was a top adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012, had heard enough. “It’s becoming obvious that supporting or not supporting [Trump] isn’t a political choice,” he tweeted. “It’s a moral choice. The man is evil.”
“To support Trump is to support the hate and racism he embodies. That is simply an intolerable moral position for any political party,” Stevens elaborated Monday in the Daily Beast. “If Trump wins the nomination, politicians who support him will be acquiescing to, if not actively aiding, his hate.”
The Republican strategist said that losing the presidential election wouldn’t be as bad as “the shame of pretending that an evil man was not evil and a hater really didn’t mean what he said. We hold elections every two years, and there is always the chance to regain lost offices. But there is no mechanism to regain one’s dignity and sense of decency once squandered. That defeat is permanent. To support Trump is to support a bigot. It’s really that simple.”
There’s a lot of that going around:
Republican leaders had incorrectly gambled that ignoring Trump would make him disappear. Now it’s time for them to take sides – and the divisions are telling.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) chose one side Sunday, becoming the first senator to endorse Trump. No surprise: Sessions is an immigration hard-liner, and he came to the Senate after his nomination to be a federal judge had been voted down over accusations of racism and hostility to the Voting Rights Act.
Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a young, conservative freshman senator, took the other side. He posted a letter to Trump supporters Sunday night on Facebook decrying Trump’s “relentless focus” on “dividing Americans” and saying a candidate who “refuses to condemn the KKK cannot lead a conservative movement in America.” Sasse wrote that if “Donald Trump ends up as the GOP nominee, conservatives will need to find a third option.”
Yeah, well, good luck with that. It’s too late. Things were bound to turn ugly sooner or later, and they did – but that’s okay. Soon we won’t know a thing about any ugliness. President Trump will get that law changed and bury the New York Times and Washington Post and CNN and MSNBC and all rest in expensive litigation that will put them out of business. America will then be great again, as far as anyone knows. Maybe that was the plan all along.