By the standards of earlier this week, today was surprisingly quiet on the Trump front. I think his supporters were all taking a deep breath and steeling themselves for whatever he does next. Still, there were a few tidbits.
We can start with last January, when the US government announced that (a) it had finally reached an agreement to pay Iran $1.7 billion to settle claims that had been in litigation since 1979, and (b) Iran would release four US prisoners. Was this timing just a coincidence, or was this actually a ransom payment? Republicans all insisted it was ransom, of course, and Obama insisted it wasn't. It was a story for a couple of days and then disappeared.
Until yesterday, when the Wall Street Journal reported that the initial payment of $400 million was made in cash. That is, pallets stacked with euro notes and Swiss francs. This was kind of juicy, though it wasn't really news. The agreement is still for $1.7 billion, the same as always. But then Trump stepped in to say that he'd seen a really high-quality "military" video of Iran unloading the stacks of cash. Everyone was bewildered. No such video exists, as far as anyone knows. So what did Trump really see?
The Washington Post asked Trump's staff to explain what Trump was talking about and emailed a link to a Fox News clip that showed the January footage from Geneva, asking if that was the video the nominee saw. "Yes," spokeswoman Hope Hicks responded in an email. "Merely the b-roll footage included in every broadcast."
The January footage from Geneva? What's that? According to the Post, it's "dark, grainy footage of shadowy figures walking off a small private plane with bags in hand," taken in Geneva where three of the American prisoners first landed after being released. Not Iran. Not military. Not top secret. No stacks of cash. The Trump campaign has explicitly admitted this. So what did Trump do today? Do I even have to tell you?
Despite Donald Trump’s claim of having seen video footage of the $400 million cash delivery to Iran having been acknowledged as false by his own campaign, the Manhattan billionaire kicked off a rally Thursday afternoon by repeating the tall tale.
....Trump once again spoke of the nonexistent footage at his rally Thursday in Portland, Maine....He suggested that the payment was made in a combination of euros, Swiss francs and other currencies because “they probably don’t want our currency.”
For the record, the deal was done in euros and francs because US law prohibits the transfer of dollars to Iran. But whatever. In that same rally, Trump:
Repeated a false claim that neighbors of the San Bernardino shooters saw bombs in their apartment.
Lied yet again about opposing the Iraq War.
Once more claimed falsely that shootings of police officers were at "record levels."
In other words, just another day on the ranch for Trump. Here's another slice of life from that same rally:
People at a Trump rally hold up copies of the constitution. They are booed, and escorted from the room. This is definitely a new GOP.
See? Tea partiers will literally boo at anything if it happens to be associated with Democrats. In the upper echelons of the Republican Party, things are no better: Trump's supporters are getting nervous and starting to turn on each other. Remember the "intervention" that was supposed to happen yesterday? Rudy Giuliani blamed the whole fiasco on Newt Gingrich:
"That word, I think, honestly I love him dearly, but I think that word was used by Newt in a memo that got around," Giuliani said. "What a ridiculous word. An intervention is for a drug addict and it's for someone who's an alcoholic and I've had to do them with people at times. There's nothing wrong with them, if that's the case. Donald Trump doesn't drink or smoke, by the way. We don't have that problem."
Well, no, not that problem. But we do have another problem: Trump is looking increasingly deranged, hardly the kind of person you want near the nuclear codes. What do you think of that, John McCain?
QUESTION: Are you comfortable with Donald Trump possibly having control of the nuclear arsenal?
McCAIN: [Silence, followed by unintelligible stammering.] Anyone that the people of this country choose to be the commander in chief....Anyone who is elected president fairly in this country....The American people select the next president of the United States....I have the utmost respect for the verdict of the people.
Hmmm. Perhaps you noticed that McCain never actually answered the question? So did a lot of other people. In other news, there's a kerfuffle going on about whether Melania Trump is an illegal immigrant. Paul Ryan made it clear that he doesn't think much of Trump and is pretty sure he's going to lose in a landslide. Indeed, multiple polls now show Hillary Clinton with a huge lead over Trump. Her lead is so big that she's even "paused" her advertising in Virginia because it's not clear if she needs it anymore. Who knows? Maybe this will turn out to be the cheapest presidential campaign in recent memory.
Speaking over the phone for an unrelated story, Carl Paladino—the 2010 GOP candidate for governor of New York—abruptly changed subjects and assailed the sitting president and his policies. The Buffalo-based real estate developer and Tea Party activist maintained that Obama, a practicing Christian, has sought to mislead the public about his religious affiliation, but that the citizenry has not fallen for his falsehoods.
“In the mind of the average American, there is no doubt he is a Muslim,” Paladino said. “He is not a Christian.”
Just to make this perfect, it appeared in the New York Observer, owned by Ivanka Trump's husband, Jared Kushner.
Men had been the bedrock of Trump support. Last month, he was up by 14 percentage points among men; he's now down 8. Clinton remains strong with women, as she's up 20.
Trump collapsed almost everywhere that he'd built decent support. Even among white voters, which favored Republican White House candidates in recent elections, Trump was lagging, ahead of Clinton, but only just barely, 41-39.
…Clinton wins moderates, 50-27 percent. She is far ahead with black voters, 93-2 percent, and with Latinos, 55-26 percent.
…On issue after issue, Clinton ranked ahead of Trump. She's up by 8 when asked who can best handle the war on terror. She's ahead 21 on immigration, 14 on gun violence, 14 on trade and 4 on creating jobs, which had been one of Trump's strengths.
I used to think that Barack Obama was one of the luckiest politicians alive. I still think that. But Hillary Clinton is giving him a run for his money.
I wonder if Trump has any idea how bad this is going to get for him. He's basically a B-list celebrity laughingstock, and the only thing that's made people take him seriously over the past year is his poll numbers. Once those tank, and there's no longer any fear of going after him, he's going to become the target of more mockery and derision than he can bear. Literally the entire world will be laughing at him. After November I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up retreating permanently to his gilded apartment to become this era's Howard Hughes.
Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, foot traffic to Trump-branded hotels, casinos and golf courses in the U.S. has been down....After he entered the race, his branded properties failed to get their usual summertime traffic gains. In August 2015, the share of people coming to all Trump-branded properties was down 17% from the year before.
....Breaking out Blue States, the loss in foot traffic runs deeper than the national average. For the past five months, Trump’s blue state properties — spread between New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Hawaii — have taken a real dip, with diminishing visits starting in March and a widening gap that continues straight through July, when share fell 20% versus July 2015.
When we dissect this traffic further, we see that the market share losses have been driven by a fall-off among women. Trump properties have seen a double-digit decrease in visits from women this year, with a gap that widened starting in March 2016.
....Like pollsters and data scientists have been doing for decades, we normalize our data against U.S. census data, ensuring that our panel of millions accurately matches the U.S. population to remove any age or gender bias (though urban geographies are slightly over-represented in our panel).
I've made this point before, but it's interesting enough to make it again. Despite all of Trump's endless controversies, idiotic feuds, assorted ups and downs, and even taking into account his convention bounce and recent meltdown, his overall trajectory has been surprisingly stable over the past year: down. His support in a matchup with Hillary Clinton has declined steadily by about a point every few months, and the fact that it's down to about 40 percent right now is roughly what you could have predicted back in May.
Trump may have won over the Republican base—helped along by the fact that the rest of the Republican field couldn't really criticize him wholeheartedly—but among non-true-believers, the more they see of Trump the less they like him. His current descent into madness may hurt him even more than usual, or it may blow over and do him no more than the usual damage. But that's enough. At this rate, he'll be lucky to break 43 percent in the popular vote in November once you give him a share of the currently undecided voters.
Donald Trump has proposed a trillion-dollar infrastructure spending program, and conservative voters seem to have no problem with this. Conservative elites purport to be puzzled. Why did tea partiers go nuts over Obama's stimulus, but seem fine with Trump's? That is indeed a chin scratcher, isn't it? Jonathan Chait wastes some gray cells pondering this:
The entire Republican Party treated Obama’s stimulus as a threat to the Republic, yet has said nothing as Trump has embraced a proposal with equally objectionable features....Unlike the conservatives baffled at the voters’ acceptance of their nominee’s heresies, I do have an explanation.
....Conservatives did not believe that fiscal stimulus can’t help a depressed economy until Obama took office. When the economy showed signs of sputtering in early 2008, Congress passed a fiscal stimulus by overwhelming margins....With the economy in utter collapse a year later, the economic case for stimulus had grown exponentially stronger — in fact, if there was only one time over the last three-quarters of a century when a Keynesian remedy was needed, early 2009 was it. But at this moment, Republican support for Keynesianism collapsed. Likewise, Mitt Romney ran for president in 2008 advocating what became Obamacare — regulated exchanges with subsidies and an individual mandate — and faced hardly any blowback from his base. John McCain ran as an advocate of cap and trade. But once Obama embraced those ideas, the entire party, including Romney and McCain, turned against them.
....The truth is that the freaked-out Republicans in America, watching Fox News in their Barcaloungers, were not animated by newfound appreciation for Rand and Hayek. As careful studies of the tea-party movement revealed, what animated Republican voters was a fear of cultural change. Their anti-statism was confined to programs that seemed to benefit people other than themselves. Racial resentment and ethnocentrism, not passion for limited government, drove the conservative base.
Actually, I'd give the tea party a break on the racial resentment front here. I don't doubt that was a factor, but the truth is that Republican support for deficit hawkery follows a pretty simple pattern: they don't care about it when a Republican is president, but it becomes their #1 issue whenever a Democrat is president. It's basically just an excuse to oppose liberal spending priorities, and not much more. Their actual dedication to balanced budgets has been pretty close to zero ever since the late 70s.
Their conversion in 2009 was, perhaps, a bit more amusing than usual, though. Instead of just making the switch, tea partiers declared, with heavy hearts, that George W. Bush had been a heretic on the deficit, but they had only just figured this out on January 20, 2009. So Obama had to pay the price. Unfortunate, perhaps, but what can you do?
During a conversation with former CIA director Michael Hayden, Scarborough said a “foreign policy expert on the international level” advised Trump several months ago and the Republican nominee for president asked questions about nuclear weapons that might terrify you.
“Three times he asked about the use of nuclear weapons. At one point, ‘If we have them, why can’t we use them?’,” Scarborough said that Trump had inquired. “Three times in an hour briefing, ‘Why can’t we use nuclear weapons?’”
Oh dear. Well, at least Trump still has Newt Gingrich. I mean, the guy defended Trump even when he said he might not defend a NATO ally against a Russian attack. That's a true friend. What do you have to say, Newt?
"Trump is helping [Hillary Clinton] to win by proving he is more unacceptable than she is....Anybody who is horrified by Hillary should hope that Trump will take a deep breath and learn some new skills,” he said. “He cannot win the presidency operating the way he is now. She can’t be bad enough to elect him if he’s determined to make this many mistakes.”
Ed Rollins, a co-chairman of a super PAC backing Donald Trump, thinks that Trump is watching too much TV, and that he needs something akin to horse blinders, because he gets too caught up in attacking his opponents.
“I think one of Donald Trump’s singular difficulties with this campaign is that he sits and watches TV all day long and feels he has to react to every single thing that’s said against him,” Rollins said today on Kilmeade and Friends when asked how he thought Trump was handling criticism leveled at him by Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a slain Muslim American soldier.
This all prompted a lot of chatter about "interventions" earlier today. Supposedly a team of Gingrich, Reince Priebus, and Rudy Giuliani was going to make a pilgrimage to Trump Tower and beg Trump to clean up his act. (Chris Christie wasn't on the team because he's still nursing a grudge over not being chosen for vice president.) But that never materialized. For now, the operative strategy remains, "Let Trump be Trump."
Top Trump aide Paul Manafort swore that the campaign had nothing to do with a radical change in the official Republican Party position on Ukraine. He was lying.
Manafort said on NBC’s Meet the Press this past weekend that the change in language on Ukraine “absolutely did not come from the Trump campaign.” But this account is contradicted by four sources in the room, both for and against the language.
....Meanwhile, records for the meeting seem to have disappeared. A co-chair for the national security platform subcommittee told The Daily Beast that the minutes for the meeting have been discarded. The Republican National Committee had no comment when asked whether this was standard procedure for all the subcommittees.
Funny thing. Trump used to be pretty hawkish about Ukraine, as you'd expect. But that changed a few months ago. Why?
While the reason for his shift is not clear, Trump's more conciliatory words — which contradict his own party's official platform — follow his recent association with several people sympathetic to Russian influence in Ukraine. They include his campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has worked for Ukraine's deposed pro-Russian president, his foreign policy adviser Carter Page, and the former secretary of state and national security adviser Henry Kissinger.
So Manafort not only lied about this, but he was probably the guy directly responsible for softening the Ukraine plank in the first place. But what about this Carter Page guy? What's he all about?
“Washington and other Western capitals have impeded potential progress through their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption, and regime change,” Page said last month during a commencement speech at a Moscow economics graduate school.
....Page also suggested the United States should ease economic sanctions imposed on Russia following its 2014 incursion into Ukraine and Crimea, which was condemned in an overwhelming vote in the United Nations. In exchange for sanctions relief, Page said, American companies might be invited to partner with Russian firms to exploit Russia’s oil and gas fields.
Page has close ties to Gazprom, so I suppose he's pretty annoyed with the US sanctions on Russian oil and gas. And we all know how loyal Trump is to his friends, so he probably figures he should help out a pal by easing up on Russia. Plus Putin is a helluva guy anyway, amirite?
On another subject, I've gotten several questions about why I'm not doing a Hillary Clinton roundup each day. It's because she's not doing much. As near as I can tell, she's decided that if her opponent wants to douse himself in gasoline and light himself on fire, she should lie low and give him as much air time as he wants. You see, contrary to popular opinion, it turns out that all press is not good press. Just ask Charlie Sheen.
In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama blasted the Supreme Court's Citizen United decision. It would, he said, open the floodgates for special interests to spend vast amount on our elections, "including foreign corporations." Justice Samuel Alito was outraged, mouthing "not true" while Obama spoke.
A corporation owned by a Chinese couple made a major donation to Jeb Bush’s Super PAC Right to Rise USA — and it did so after receiving detailed advice from Charlie Spies, arguably the most important Republican campaign finance lawyer in American politics.
....Spies presented his advice in a memo, obtained by The Intercept, which he prepared for Right to Rise USA, where he served as treasurer and general counsel. “We conclude,” he wrote, “that a domestic subsidiary corporation may now directly contribute to a Super PAC in connection with a federal election.”
For campaign finance experts, Spies’s roadmap provides compelling evidence of a phenomenon many already suspected was well-entrenched. “Spies’s memo is an explicit how-to guide for foreign nationals to get money into U.S. elections through U.S.-based corporations that they own,” said Paul S. Ryan, deputy director of the campaign finance watchdog organization Campaign Legal Center. “It shows that although Obama was attacked in public for misleading Americans about Citizens United, in private people like Spies and others like him seemingly realized that Obama was right and set to work making his prediction a reality.”
There are still some hoops that rich foreigners have to jump through before they can donate to their favored candidate, but they're not too onerous for anyone who's serious. And as the authors note, money is fungible. Even if it technically comes out of the earnings of the US subsidiary, in the end it comes out of the pockets of its Chinese owners. Welcome to the brave new world the Supreme Court has given us.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is in talks to buy online discount retailer Jet.com Inc., according to people familiar with the matter, in what would mark a disappointing end for one of the most ambitious challengers to Amazon.com Inc.
....It isn’t clear how much Wal-Mart would pay, but a person familiar with the matter said Jet could be valued at up to $3 billion in private markets. Jet, barely a year old, has drawn more than $500 million in capital from the likes of venture firms New Enterprise Associates and Accel Partners.
Let me get this straight. Jet is one year old. Venture funds have invested "more than" $500 million (actually around $800 million). They will sell themselves to Walmart for about $3 billion. And this is a "disappointing end."
I get it: they wanted to take over the world and they didn't. That's disappointing. At the same time, it appears that investors are going to quadruple their money in 12 months, give or take. And the founders are going to do even better. If they own, say, 20 percent of the company, they'll walk away with $600 million for a year's work.
Can I please sign up for a slice of this disappointment?
Mark Manson agrees that by all objective measures, the country is in pretty good shape these days. So is the rest of the world. And yet:
Like you, like seemingly everybody, I have also felt as though the world is spinning out of control and there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m exhausted from all the stories of shootings and attacks and bombs and the constant stream of awful stuff that is happening out there. I, too, feel desensitized and dejected from the seemingly constant carnage raging across the planet. And because this feeling is new and unique to me, my first assumption is that the world must be more fucked than it’s ever been before. After all, I never felt this way 10 years ago or 20 years ago. So things must be worse, right?
This is via Tyler Cowen, who says Manson's explanation for this feeling is "not my view." However, it is my view. Or at least partly my view, anyway. Manson concludes that things aren't worse, but we're now so overexposed to the worst parts of society that it's hard to believe it:
Cameras, the internet, and most importantly, social media. This is what’s new....In the attention economy, people are rewarded for extremism. They are rewarded for indulging their worst biases and stoking other people’s worst fears. They are rewarded for portraying the world as a place that is burning to the ground, whether it’s because of gay marriage, or police violence, or Islamic terrorism, or low interest rates. The internet has generated a platform where apocalyptic beliefs are celebrated and spread, and moderation and reason is something that becomes too arduous and boring to stand.
And this constant awareness of every fault and flaw of our humanity, combined with an inundation of doomsayers and narcissistic nihilists commanding our attention space, is what is causing this constant feeling of a chaotic and insecure world that doesn’t actually exist.
....Outrageous news and information spread faster and further than any other form of information, dominating our daily attention. This is both good and bad. On the one hand, we become aware of some of the grossest injustices in our society as soon as they happen. On the other hand, all we hear about are the grossest injustices in our society as soon as they happen.
....This is our brave new world. When all information is freely available at the click of a mouse, our attention naturally nosedives in the sickest and most grotesque we can find....When we are exposed to police, we only see the worst 0.1% of police. When we are exposed to poor African Americans, we’re only exposed to the worst 0.1% of poor African Americans. When we’re exposed to Muslim immigrants, we only hear about the worst 0.1% of Muslim immigrants.
I think there's a lot to this. I doubt that police killings of unarmed black men has gone up. In fact, it's probably gone down. But now we know about it whenever it happens. Politics has always been divisive, but in the past we didn't have full-color cable channels dedicated 24/7 to rubbing our noses in it. Minor outrages happened in communities all over the country, and most of them we never heard of. But in today's outrage-driven social media, every ignorant school board decision, every college kid who sends a dumb tweet, every city council member who emails a racist photo of President Obama—all of them become national news. This doesn't mean that school boards, college kids, and city council members are any worse than ever. It's just that we're more exposed to it now.
This is hardly an all-embracing explanation of why we feel so chaotic and insecure. In fact, my guess is that the main explanation is that we don't really feel more chaotic and insecure. We've just forgotten about how we felt in the past. Still, there's something to this, and I agree that simple exposure to things that were formerly ignored has made the world seem worse. This is especially the case when interest groups insist on gathering up all these minor outrages on a weekly or monthly basis and blasting them out to their members. It's how gun owners can think that gun rights are under assault and foodies can think that everything we put into our bodies is poisonous. Neither is true, but if you're force fed a diet of small outrages constantly, it's hard to disagree.
So what's the answer? I don't know, and it's hardly unique to social media. I've long been convinced, for example, that local news is responsible for our often absurd fear of crime. It's been dropping steadily for 20 years, but it still leads the local news nearly every day. How would anyone know that America is safer than it's ever been?
My hope is that, like everything, we'll eventually get bored with outrage. Or at least with the social media version of outrage. It's a wan hope, perhaps, but in the meantime you can always read my blog.