Political campaigning is a bit like gambling. As the song goes, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away and know when to run. Donald Trump’s advisors probably told him that he really shouldn’t bring up Vladimir Putin at that Commander-in-Chief Forum on NBC. Insisting that Putin is a great leader and Obama is not, because Obama isn’t as “strong” as Putin, and imply that he, unlike Obama, would be just like Putin, is playing a losing hand.
Putin is the bad guy. Don’t go there, but this was a half-hour with no notes and no Teleprompters – no prepared text that everyone on the team had hashed out – and Trump decided to play that losing hand. There was no way to stop him. He’s an impulsive guy, and a gambler. This was a pair of deuces, but perhaps he could bluff that into winning the pot. It’s easy enough to imagine his advisors cringing as he went on and on about what a great leader Putin is, and it’s not that the moderator, Matt Lauer, baited him. Trump seemed to want to see if he could pull this off, to win it all with those two deuces.
That didn’t work out, but the next morning he still wouldn’t fold that hand:
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump told a Russia-funded television network Thursday that “it’s probably unlikely” that Russia is trying to influence the U.S. election.
Trump, who has faced backlash from both parties in recent days for praising Russian President Vladimir Putin, was interviewed by Larry King, a veteran American journalist whose show airs Thursday evenings on RT America, the U.S. partner of a network originally called “Russia Today.”
Yes, he spoke on state-sponsored Russian television, saying once again Putin wasn’t a bad guy:
When King asked about reports that U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating whether Russia is trying to disrupt the election, Trump said that he’s skeptical.
“I think it’s probably unlikely. I think maybe the Democrats are putting that out,” Trump said. He added, “I hope that if they are doing something, I hope that somebody’s going to be able to find out, so they can end it, because that would not be appropriate at all.”
Sure, but the general idea was that this was probably some sort of misunderstanding hyped up by the Democrats, and then the clean-up began:
A Trump spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, suggested that Trump was not aware that King’s program was linked to the Russian-backed network.
“Mr. Trump recorded a short interview with Larry King for his podcast as a favor to Mr. King,” Hicks said. “What Larry King does with the interview content is up to him. We have nothing to do with it.”
Hope Hicks has a hopeless task. Trump didn’t seem to care, and may have seen this as a poke in the eye of those who foolishly doubt his gambling skills, but Republicans were doubting those skills:
During a televised forum Wednesday on national security, Trump complimented Putin for having “great control over his country.” Putin has offered kind words for Trump in the past as well.
“He’s been a leader far more that our president has been a leader,” Trump said of the Russian president.
The Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, offered Trump a warning when asked about the relationship on Thursday.
“One has to be a little careful to let flattery affect one’s judgment,” Corker told CNN.
“Let’s face it, over the last several years, President Putin has operated in ways that very much have been against our interests,” Corker said. He said Putin “has done so in many ways, in a very ruthless manner.”
He doesn’t want to be forced by the new leader of his party to say he loves Putin, but this interview might have been expected:
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn – one of Trump’s closest advisors – received payment to deliver a speech at an RT party last year, where he sat next to Putin. In an interview with The Washington Post last month, he said that he saw no distinction between RT and news outlets like CNN or MSNBC.
Bob Corker hasn’t been paying attention and may be left behind:
Donald J. Trump’s campaign on Thursday reaffirmed its extraordinary embrace of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, signaling a preference for the leadership of an authoritarian adversary over that of America’s own president, despite a cascade of criticism from Democrats and expressions of discomfort among Republicans.
“I think it’s inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country,” Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, Mr. Trump’s running mate, said on CNN, defending Mr. Trump by echoing his latest praise for the Russian leader, offered Wednesday night in a televised candidate forum.
Get on board or get run over, in spite of the scorn:
Hillary Clinton excoriated Mr. Trump for asserting that Mr. Putin is a better leader than President Obama, saying it was “not just unpatriotic and insulting to the people of our country, as well as to our commander in chief – it is scary.”
She seized on Mr. Trump’s assertion in the televised forum that Mr. Putin’s incursions into neighboring countries, crackdown on Russia’s independent news media and support for America’s enemies were no more troublesome than Mr. Obama’s transgressions. She said it showed that, if elected, Mr. Trump would be little more than a tool of Mr. Putin.
“It suggests he will let Putin do whatever Putin wants to do and then make excuses for him,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters Thursday morning at the White Plains airport, stepping up her criticism as polls indicate the race has tightened, and as Mr. Trump continues to say things rarely heard before from a major party’s presidential nominee.
That is a problem:
While railing against Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern countries, Mr. Trump has continually praised Mr. Putin’s government: He has hailed Mr. Putin’s tight control over Russian society, hinted that he may not defend the NATO-aligned Baltic nations formerly in Moscow’s sphere of influence, and for a time employed a campaign chief with close ties to Ukraine’s pro-Russian forces.
Most extraordinarily, he used a news conference over the summer to urge the Russians to hack into Mrs. Clinton’s emails to find messages the FBI might have missed.
It is all rather confounding – unless Mr. Trump is simply eyeing postelection business interests – for congressional Republicans, who evince little doubt that Moscow was behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee. On Thursday, they volunteered the sort of hard-edged criticism of Mr. Putin more typical of conservatives discussing an adversary of the United States.
They did their best with a guy they have to support:
“He’s a thug,” said Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. “He’s a dangerous and bad guy.”
But Mr. Rubio, who is running for re-election, has gotten behind Mr. Trump since withdrawing from the presidential primary, and he declined to say whether Mr. Trump’s comments were out of bounds because, he said, he did not want to “be a commentator.”
Even Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, perhaps Mr. Trump’s closest ally on Capitol Hill, appeared ill at ease when pressed about Mr. Trump’s statements.
Asked whether political combat should stop at the water’s edge, Mr. Sessions paused for nearly 10 seconds before saying, “I’ve tried to adhere to that line pretty assiduously, but less and less does that get adhered to in the modern world.”
This was just too new for them:
Scholars could recall few parallels in modern American history. Only the campaign of Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party nominee in 1948, was so willing to align itself with Russia, the historian Richard Norton Smith said. “We’ve become to some degree numbed to this, saying, ‘That’s just Trump,'” he said. “And that’s dangerous.”
In her news conference Thursday, Mrs. Clinton invoked the right’s most venerated president, from whose library Mr. Pence appeared on CNN. “What would Ronald Reagan say about a Republican nominee who attacks American generals and heaps praise on Russia’s president?” she asked.
That hurts, and some won’t make the necessary adjustments:
“Other than destroying every instrument of democracy in his own country, having opposition people killed, dismembering neighbors through military force and being the benefactor of the butcher of Damascus, he’s a good guy,” quipped Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) of Putin.
Graham, a former presidential candidate, has often sparred with Trump and is one of his most vocal critics. “This calculation by Trump unnerves me to my core.”
That’s nice to know, but in the primaries Graham lost badly to Trump, early, so this isn’t his party anymore. Who the hell cares what he thinks? Trump would probably say that, if this were worth a comment at all, which it isn’t.
Trump will continue to play what others see as a losing hand:
Donald Trump’s decision to offer up a politicized readout of his confidential national security briefings has set off alarm bells in the intelligence community, with some high-profile former officials warning the Republican nominee crossed a “red line.”
During the NBC’s Commander-in-Chief forum on Wednesday night, Trump said “there was one thing that shocked me” from the briefings he received, going on to say that he could tell that government officials were unhappy with President Barack Obama for not following expert advice.
“I was pretty good with the body language,” Trump said.
But former officials with decades of experience in the intelligence community say Trump is bluffing – that trained government officers wouldn’t have betrayed such opinions.
Yeah, but bluffing with a bad hand is what he does, because it befuddles the other players, who simply sputter:
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who has over four decades in the intelligence business and led the agency under George W. Bush, adding, “That’s just awful.”
“I mean a candidate used the intelligence professionals who were briefing him in an absolutely nonpolitical setting, he imputed to them views that were politically useful to him in the moment,” he said.
Hayden, who is not endorsing either candidate but has previously warned that Trump could create a “crisis” in the military, said telegraphing such dissatisfaction “just would not have happened.” He added that the briefing would have been conducted by “very senior folks, very sober.”
Former acting CIA Director Michael Morell, a Hillary Clinton supporter, also forcefully hit back at the notion that intelligence officials would have suggested any displeasure with White House decisions on national security matters.
“Intelligence officers provide objective views of what’s going on in a situation and how that situation might change given the policy options on the table,” said Morell, who will attend a bipartisan meeting of former national security officials that Clinton will convene on Friday.
Recommending policies, added Morell, “is not their job and anyone running for president should know that.”
Says who? Trump does the unexpected:
Morell added in an interview, “It’s the first time a candidate for president has ever, ever given any sort of readout from a national intelligence briefing. And the first time a presidential candidate has ever politicized a national intelligence briefing. Both of those things are highly inappropriate. Both of those things cross a long-standing red line, respected by Democrats and Republicans.”
Yeah, but they’re all fools:
Trump did have a staunch defender in retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who has joined Trump during intelligence briefings.
Flynn, who has often appeared on television as a Trump surrogate and was a contender to be his running mate, told NBC’s Today Show on Thursday that he agreed with the GOP candidate’s suggestion that the intelligence community is unhappy with Obama.
“The intelligence we’ve received in the last two briefings was in stark contrast to the policy decisions being made,” Flynn said.
Flynn doesn’t back down either:
As U.S. officials cast doubt on Donald Trump’s claim he read the “body language” of intelligence officials at a recent briefing, NBC News has learned exclusive details of what unfolded in the room – and of reported tension between one of Trump’s advisers and the briefers.
Six current and former senior officials said they were aware of friction between retired Gen. Michael Flynn, one of the advisers Trump brought to the briefing, and the officials who conducted the briefing. Four sources with knowledge of the briefing – including two intelligence officials who spoke to people in the room – said Flynn repeatedly interrupted the briefers until New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie intervened.
Both Christie and Flynn denied the officials’ version of events, with Flynn calling the report “total bullshit” and Christie calling it “a complete work of fiction.”
Flynn seems to think that the CIA and NSA and Defense Intelligence Agency, with their operatives and agents and Keyhole-15 satellites listening to everything around the world, know nothing. He has none of those assets and he knows what’s really going on, and it got hot:
Two sources said Christie, the New Jersey governor and Trump adviser, verbally restrained Flynn – one saying Christie told Flynn to shut up, the other reporting he said, “Calm down.” Two other sources said Christie touched Flynn’s arm in an effort get him to calm down and let the officials continue.
Christie denied that he had silenced or restrained Flynn.
None of these guys ever backs down, even with bad cards in their hands, and they’ll play those losing cards:
On Thursday morning, Donald Trump Jr., the son and adviser of the Republican presidential nominee, shared the latest Clinton conspiracy theory with his 637,000 Twitter followers: Hillary Clinton may have been wearing an earpiece during the candidates’ forum held the previous night. Just as surprising was Trump’s source for this latest news flash: the website of Alex Jones, the nation’s top conspiracy theorist. Jones is a 9/11 truther who has suggested that the Sandy Hook massacre never happened and that the government is deliberately turning kids gay by sneaking estrogen into juice boxes.
This sort of thing drives some to distraction, like Matt Yglesias:
What Donald Trump said at Wednesday night’s Commander-in-Chief Forum on the aircraft carrier was shocking. He specifically defended Vladimir Putin as superior to Barack Obama, suggested women serving in the military should expect to be raped, hinted at a political purge of the officer corps, he blatantly lied about his own past statements on Iraq and Libya, and called on the American military to commit war crimes…
But this isn’t a media story. It’s a Trump story. And it’s about whether we, and the American public, are willing to stay shocked. We’re used to Trump’s lying and his nonsense because we’ve been hearing it for a long time. But it’s not normal.
And then there’s Nancy LeTourneau:
Every now and then I have a “moment.” It tends to come when I realize that the Republican Party of the United States of American has nominated a guy to lead the most powerful nation on the planet who talks like this.
When those moments hit, I literally get speechless. I subsequently see headlines that talk about how the polls are narrowing or about pundits trying to suss out what a President Trump would REALLY do on immigration and imagine that I must have fallen into some wormhole in which an alternate reality exists simply to mock us.
This can’t really be happening, can it?
Kevin Drum feels the same way:
Letourneau’s reaction is precisely mine. Sure, I can churn out blog posts about Trump that are alternatively snarky, shocked, analytical, etc. And God knows, millions of words have been spilled trying to explain the guy. But on the occasions when I stop to really think about this election, my mind goes sort of fugue-like. My mental state is something like this:
“What the fuck is going on? Donald Trump! Donald fucking Trump! He’s a jackass reality TV star. He’s goddamn clueless. For fuck’s sake, this can’t be happening. Can it? Fucking fuck. Why isn’t anyone calling it out? It’s like Alice in fucking Wonderland. How can we be doing this? Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck…”
I guess you can see why I don’t generally share these moments with you – though I shouldn’t really call them moments. This internal narrative is pretty much in my head every time I write a post about Trump. I just suppress it in order to get some G-rated words onto the blog.
This is all new:
I have a feeling Nancy and I are far from alone in feeling this way. And it’s a first. I obviously haven’t been a fan of any of the GOP’s recent presidential candidates, but I’ve never felt this way before. We are well and truly down the rabbit hole.
And Drum is not hopeful:
Trump’s biggest liability is that he goes on TV constantly and acts like a crazy man. That appeals to some people, but it turns off a lot more. As long as he keeps doing this, the folks who don’t want a crazy man in the White House will vote for someone else.
But a lot of voters have very short memories. It’s always been true that if Trump can manage to act relatively sane for a mere few weeks, that would be plenty of time for a chunk of credulous voters, pundits, and hacks to decide that he’s turned over a new leaf and wouldn’t be a crazy man after all. So far – knock on wood – the remarkable thing is that Trump hasn’t been able to do this for even a few days, let alone a few weeks. And yet, he still could.
Now add this:
Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit movement in the UK and formerly head of the far-right UK Independence Party (he retired after the Brexit win), is in talks with the Russian government-owned RT news network to be their roving reporter covering Donald Trump’s presidential campaign this fall.
Of course he is, and the Washington Post’s David Ignatius adds this:
The Trump-Putin bromance is becoming genuinely frightening. Putin has invaded Crimea. He is fighting a proxy war in Ukraine. He has intervened in Syria, tipping the military balance in the Middle East. His thugs are assaulting U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers overseas. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warns that Putin’s Russia poses an existential threat to the United States.
And Trump’s response is “I think that I’ll be able to get along with him.”
Trump’s vision of foreign policy seems to be a kind of authoritarian “big guys” club – stealing other countries’ oil, sacking generals, politicizing intelligence and buddying up to a Russian leader who may be running a covert action against the U.S. political system.
Really, was this the presentation of a man who would be commander in chief?
No, it was the presentation of a compulsive gambler who never folds ’em. You cannot win that way. Trump never backs down, and Josh Marshall, looking at that Commander-in-Chief Forum, explains that this way:
Trump has spent weeks saying he has a secret plan to destroy ISIS and now he says his plan is to get his generals to take thirty days to come up with a plan. So clearly he never had a secret plan. That’s obvious. Matt Lauer makes it obvious. But Trump doesn’t want to or is probably characterologically incapable of admitting the obvious. So he spends the whole exchange going on about tactical surprise, his secret plan, the generals’ plan, a possible combo plan. It’s like all the words are noise and Trump is saying to Lauer again and again: I’m not going to give in.
I think that was pretty obvious for people in a way that transcends politics and ideology. Trump is the kid telling the teacher the dog ate his homework. Then the teacher points out that he has no dog. But he’s not going to apologize or come clean. He’s just going to keep talking.
This really is new:
People always come back to me and say some version of “What about Bush? He was a moron and people ate it up because people went easy on him.”
Well, that’s sort of true. But it’s not the whole story.
Bush had low expectations, certainly. And his ignorance and incuriosity turned out to have very damaging effects on the country over eight years. But this is a mistaken or at least incomplete read about who Bush was and how he succeeded. And we shouldn’t mislead ourselves. Bush wasn’t stupid. And how he succeeded in debates was very specific. He went into debates with four or five pat overview answers and hammered them in response to almost any questions. It was clear that Bush wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about the world abroad or much of any policy question. But he also never pretended to be. His conceit was that he had good instincts and good motives and would surround himself with the best people.
That’s not the case here:
What Trump did was very different. He riffed and made a lot of nonsensical points. He said a bunch of things which for better or worse will offend a lot of Americans across the political spectrum. And in a way that I think was obvious to people across a broad swathe of the political spectrum, he was obviously making stuff up as he went along, not only showing his ignorance but also his arrogance.
Remember, one of the things that charmed people about Bush was that he didn’t claim to be an expert. Trump is definitely an expert, according to Trump. On everything. He’s smarter than the generals. He’s smarter than everyone at the VA. He’s never wrong. About anything.
Well, neither is Putin, according to Putin, and Trump. Putin has been destroying every instrument of democracy in his own country and having opposition people killed, but he’s strong – he’s a winner. Expect the same from Trump. He too never backs down. That’s why people love him. That’s why we’re in trouble. You do have to know when to fold ’em.