If the 2016 presidential race were a boxing match, Donald Trump would be spread-eagled on the canvas, blood running from his broken teeth … or wherever … having knocked himself out with a roundhouse punch to his own mouth in mid-screech. And his handlers would not be trying to revive him – they would be slinking out the side of the arena. Unfortunately, the race is not a sporting event but the real thing, a process intended to elect the political leader of the United States Government, the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. military and the leader of the Free World.
The latest firestorm surrounding the presidential campaign of Donald Trump derives from Trump’s reaction to the appearance of Mr. Khizr Khan and his wife, Ghazala Kahn, at the Democratic National Convention. Mr. Kahn spoke about the death of their son, a Muslim who was a captain in the U.S. Army killed in combat in Iraq in 2004. He criticized Donald Trump and endorsed Hillary Clinton. Mr. Kahn’s brief statement can be read at http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/full-text-khizr-khans-speech-2016-democratic-national/story?id=41043609.
Trump implied that Mr. Kahn’s remarks were written by the Clinton campaign staff, implying that the grieving parents were stooges for Clinton saying what they were told to say. He also attacked Mrs. Kahn who said nothing at all on the DNC stage. Using a favorite meme of his, Trump said “plenty of people have said” that Mrs. Kahn wasn’t allowed to speak, a claim she later refuted. In response to Mr. Khan’s statement that Trump had sacrificed “nothing” and “no one,” Trump, when later directly asked about the sacrifices he claims to have made, said “I’ve made a lot of sacrifices,” citing the many people employed in his businesses and his claimed (but as yet not verified) contributions to veteran’s organizations.
This approach is a common Trump tactic: purporting to be reporting what other people have said while denying that he is adopting their statements as his own. This tactic reminds many of us of the old political semi-joke in which a politician repeats in every stump speech: “I will not be associated with the rumors being spread by others that my opponent is a communist sympathizer/wife beater/traitor/you name it.”
In his attack on the Kahns, Trump saw no inconsistency in having Patricia Smith, aggrieved mother of a victim of the Benghazi attack, appear at the Republican National Convention and directly blame Hillary Clinton for the death of her son while calling for Clinton’s imprisonment. Nor did Trump see inconsistency in having two members of the so-called Benghazi Annex Security Team accuse the State Department security agents of abandoning the Security Team to their own defense, using words like “ass” and “tampon” for what they thought was humorous effect, and claiming that the four men killed would have survived but for Hillary Clinton who somehow had left Americans behind to die. Their co-sourcing of the book “13 hours” was, of course, mentioned at the outset. One wonders if Trump is getting a cut of the book and movie royalties. I’m not saying he is, but others may be asking the same question.
More seriously, Trump’s response to the Kahn appearance raises several important questions. While Trump is, of course, as free as any politician to push back against people who challenge his candidacy, there is the matter of what is revealed by his decision to attack the authenticity of the parents of a Bronze Star-awarded American soldier who died trying to protect the men under his command. One would expect a presidential candidate, knowing the issue of Mr. Kahn’s statements would come up again, would consult with key family and campaign advisors, in this case Melania and Ivanka Trump and his campaign managers, regarding the appropriate response.
If Trump did consult them and they agreed that attacking the Kahns was a smart approach, this would be strong evidence that Trump’s instant retaliation against all critics is now official policy of the Trump campaign with full buy-in from his core team. And that they are rank amateurs.
If, on the other hand, Trump did not consult his campaign leadership team, or did and chose to ignore their advice, then we have raised again the gravest concerns about Trump’s temperament and personal discipline in the face of even minor adversity. Really, how much harm to Trump’s ambitions would the Kahns have been if Trump had simply ignored them? Compare Ms. Clinton’s reaction to the personally insulting accusations that she essentially murdered Ms. Smith’s son. Trump is more like a school-yard bully who can tolerate no challenge to his standing, no matter how trivial. His striking out at everyone he sees as an adversary seems to be automatic and uncontrollable. Any doubts that this is the one and true Trump should by now have been laid to rest. Some of us are reminded of Richard Nixon.
CNN reported that Trump “has again put leaders of his own party in a no win position …. Once again they have been forced to choose between rebuking a nominee who destroyed the most talented GOP primary field in a generation and won the votes of millions of Republicans they need to show up in November or of tarnishing their own political brands. That’s why, when House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell issued statements on Sunday, they implicitly condemned Trump’s comments but did not mention their nominee by name.” http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/01/politics/donald-trump-khizr-khan-ukraine/index.html?eref=mrss_igoogle_cnn
What does this mean — the repeated unwillingness of top Republican leadership to reject Trump’s out-of-control approach to politics? This repeated equivocation in the face of Trump’s attacks suggests that Republican leadership is prepared to endure any offense to the common weal in order to protect their political flank. If, as some data suggests, Trump’s seat-of-the-pants flying-blind behavior is not eroding his support among the Republican far-right, Republican leadership may yet be banking on salvaging enough Congressional seats, and possibly even the presidency itself, regardless of the damage to the nation’s economy, culture and international standing. This is cynicism and “party above country” in its purest and most egregious form.
John McCain, previously the target of a Trump attack on his heroism due to his having been captured in Vietnam, could not find coherence in his response, try though he did: “In recent days, Donald Trump disparaged a fallen soldier’s parents. He has suggested that the likes of their son should not be allowed in the United States — to say nothing of entering its service,” McCain wrote. “I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump’s statement. I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates.”
Err…Senator McCain, Donald Trump is a Republican Party candidate. Top of the ticket. You cannot have it both ways, saying that Trump is wrong and that, simultaneously, his statements do not represent the views of the party that nominated him. The Republican Party that you refer to as “our” is in reality “his” and most of the leaders of that party are placing the party and their perceived self-interest above that of the country when they refuse to repudiate him and wash their hands of his campaign.
The Chair of the Republican National Committee, Reince Preibus, said: “We don’t go there, and I don’t go there. Donald Trump is going to speak for Donald Trump. I mean, he wants to defend himself, and it’s understandable. But look, like I said before, this is a family that is grieving and they have a right to and we have an obligation to honor them and to love them and to cherish them. That’s where I come from; that’s where our party comes from.”
That is in fact not where the Republican Party is coming from. It nominated Trump quite handily and joyfully and must now accept the consequences of what it has done. No amount of sidestepping can escape the problem that Trump’s personality, well known and fully on display throughout the primaries, has created.
No doubt inspired by the adverse coverage of his doubled-down attack on the Kahns, Trump also lashed out at CNN, claiming that it was slanting the news in favor of Hillary Clinton. This is ironic in light of the near-constant CNN coverage of Trump’s every word and move throughout the primaries. Again, shades of Richard Nixon’s enemies lists.
Attacking the media has never been considered a smart political strategy, but Trump has defied most of the “rules” of politics and gotten away with it so far. No doubt this time he was angry that Fareed Zakaria, host of a CNN news analysis show, derided Trump for saying Russian President Vladimir Putin “is not going into Ukraine, you can mark it down,” when Russia has been in the Crimea since 2014. Trump later claimed that he really meant Russia would not try to move on Ukraine if he became president. Another gaffe demonstrating how little Trump, who says he has never had time for books, actually knows about the international political scene.
The bigger question, of course, is whether any of Trump’s gaffes actually hurt him with his supporters. Much press commentary suggests that the attack on the Kahns may have been a bridge too far, while attacks on the media will continue to charm his political base. It’s too early to tell, but for anyone seriously and rationally thinking about the qualities needed in the person who is President of the United States, Trump’s performance in the Kahn episode should be causing sleepless nights.