I was arguing on Twitter with Mickey Kaus last night about the Trump Muslim registry story, and today he’s touting a Byron York piece about how the “Trump database story was built on a foundation of nothing.” But that’s not fair. The whole thing started when Yahoo’s Hunter Walker asked Trump about Syrian refugees. York asked Walker for audio of the interview, which he provided. Here’s the relevant excerpt:
WALKER: France declared this state of emergency where they closed the borders and they established some degree of warrantless searches. I know how you feel about the borders, but do you think there is some kind of state of emergency here, and do we need warrantless searches of Muslims?
TRUMP: Well, we’re going to have to do things that we never did before. [Blah blah blah] But we have to err on the side of security for our people and our nation.
WALKER: And in terms of doing this, to pull off the kind of tracking we need, do you think we might need to register Muslims in some type of database, or note their religion on their ID?
TRUMP: Well, we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely….
When I first read Walker’s story, I concluded that he had been on a fishing expedition. I still think that, but this transcript actually softens my objections. The first question is reasonably motivated by the French response to the Paris attacks, and Trump makes it clear that he’s willing to go pretty far to deal with the ISIS threat. So Walker takes the bait and goes further. Trump then tap dances and never really addresses the question about registries.
So far, though, the most you can do is criticize Trump for not immediately denouncing the registry proposal. But he’s now on notice. Headlines began appearing about this, and it was a big topic of discussion on Thursday. After the Yahoo story hit, Trump could no longer pretend to be taken by surprise if someone asked again about registering Muslims. And sure enough, MSNBC’s Vaughn Hillyard did. Here’s the transcript:
Hillyard: Should there be a database or system that tracks Muslims in this country?
Trump: There should be a lot of systems. Beyond databases. I mean, we should have a lot of systems. And today you can do it.
[Some talk about Trump’s wall on the Mexican border ensues.]
Trump: We have to stop people from coming in to our country illegally.
Hillyard: But specifically, how do you actually get them registered into a database?
Trump: It would be just good management….
Hillyard: Do you go to mosques and sign these people up?
Trump: Different places. You sign ‘em up at different, but it’s all about management. Our country has no management.
Hillyard: Would they have to legally be in this database, would they be–
Trump: They have to be — they have to be — let me just tell you: People can come to the country, but they have to come legally. Thank you very much.
This is pretty plain. Sure, Trump is at a ropeline and he’s distracted. But he knows the registry issue is a live question, and Hillyard is very clear about what he’s asking. There’s some confusion in the middle about whether Trump is talking about a Muslim registry or a wall on the Mexican border, but there’s no confusion at all when Hillyard asks “Do you go to mosques and sign people up?” And York himself agrees:
Trump’s offhand decision to tell MSNBC he would implement a database was an enormously stupid thing to do. And by Friday afternoon, Trump tweeted, “I didn’t suggest a database — a reporter did. We must defeat Islamic terrorism & have surveillance, including a watch list, to protect America.”
But the damage had been done. In the end, the responsibility is always the candidate’s to be on guard for attempts, by journalists or rival campaign operatives, to entice him into saying damaging things.
So was the Muslim registry story built on a foundation of nothing? Sure, in a way. But reporters ask hypothetical questions all the time. This is hardly a startling new technique. What’s more, Trump has built his entire campaign on saying things outrageous enough to get lots of media attention. But now he’s complaining that a reporter gave him a chance to say something outrageous and it generated a lot of media attention? Give me a break.
As York says, Trump has since backtracked on Twitter: “I didn’t suggest a database-a reporter did.” True enough. But Trump pretty obviously agreed. This wasn’t a gotcha or a cleverly loaded question. It was obvious what both reporters were talking about. The first time he tap danced. The second time he agreed. Trump is a grown man who’s accustomed to dealing with the press. There was nothing unfair about this. He may have backtracked now, but he thought it sounded like a fine idea until the blowback became a little too intense.