Despite the myth that the presidential campaign begins on Labor Day, this election might well turn out to have been decided in August. Though Hillary Clinton’s double-digit lead in the popular vote that prevailed in the first part of August shrank to three or four points at the end of the month, the narrowing had mainly to do with the inevitable evaporation of Clinton’s “convention bounce.” She still enjoys a strong lead in the Electoral College, and as of now it’s difficult to find a path for Donald Trump to win the needed 270 electoral votes in November. An in-depth survey of all fifty states by The Washington Post and SurveyMonkey published this week found that Clinton has “a big electoral college advantage,” though Trump “is within striking distance in the Upper Midwest.” Some usually reliable red states such as Texas and Mississippi were nearly tied, and if that remains the case for the next nine weeks, it’s unlikely to be a close election in any respect. But about 20 percent of likely voters have yet to decide whom to vote for.
For all the drama over the polls tightening, it’s very much worth remembering that in 2012 Barack Obama won what was considered a comfortable victory with only a 3.5-point lead in the popular vote, while the electoral college vote was 332-206. (Clinton does better in a two-way race than if the third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are included.) But the most significant development in August was that both Clinton and Trump took actions that further defined them—in both cases for the worse.
As Clinton smoothly delivered a solid if unexciting acceptance speech at the end of a highly successful convention, some of her supporters quietly prayed that she wouldn’t lie to the public again before the election. The private server Clinton used for her email while she was secretary of state has been the “damn spot” of her campaign. The problem for her has been that she didn’t come clean at the outset in that troubled press conference at the UN in March of 2015, following the discovery of the server, and that there followed other evasive, and sometimes outright dishonest, statements. Of late her campaign has been hoping that her acknowledgment that she made a mistake would shut off the questions. But that hasn’t happened, in part because new explanations raised new questions. Clinton has trapped herself.
At the heart of it there remains the puzzlement of why, exactly, Clinton wanted a private server. The answers proffered thus far—convenience, wanting to carry only one cell phone (though sometimes she carried more), or even her long-held suspicion of, if not paranoia about, her Republican opponents and the press—haven’t quite washed, and the vacuum on this question has given Republicans an opportunity to fill in their own speculations. And only three days after the Democratic convention, Clinton made more trouble for herself by saying to Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday that FBI director James Comey had said that what she’d told the public about her use of the server was true, though he’d indicated publicly the opposite. Then she got in trouble explaining that, by suggesting that Comey had said something he hadn’t. One can argue, as the Clinton campaign does, that compared to the great issues the country is facing and given her real strengths as well as her opponent’s serious shortcomings, Clinton’s mishandling of her official emails has received disproportionate attention. But that’s the way it works. It’s reached the point where the details of each new story about the server aren’t what matters—the story is that there’s another story.
A mystifying aspect of Clinton’s handling of the server issue is that she has told lies that are easily checked. She said that the email system she set up was the same as her predecessors’, which it wasn’t. She said that State Department officials had approved her use of the private server when she hadn’t sought approval. Many of her supporters have tired of clapping hand to forehead. They won’t abandon her because Donald Trump isn’t an option, but what if the dampened enthusiasm affects turnout in November? Even some of her strongest backers suggest that if she didn’t have such a flawed opponent she’d be in far greater political peril.
It has to be pointed out that when it comes to lying to the public and the press, Trump has Clinton beat hands down, and a growing number of journalists are becoming troubled by what they recognize as their own double-standard in dealing with the two candidates. Clinton’s deceptions, essentially on one subject, have invited a great deal of scrutiny while Trump has engaged in such a torrent of prevarications that they can’t be kept up with. And unlike the case of the server, Trump’s evident fabrications are harder to pin down—no FBI, no extended questioning by the press, often no documents.
Another baffling question is why Clinton and her husband didn’t take simple precautions that would have avoided a lot of trouble and unwonted speculation. The recent Associated Press article purporting to show that State Department officials did special favors for Clinton Foundation donors was based on newly-discovered emails between then-foundation official and former Bill Clinton sidekick Doug Band and Hillary Clinton’s close aide and deputy chief of staff at State, Huma Abedin. The evidence was slim and thus far the supposed largesse minimal—in a small number of cases donors had a meeting with the Secretary of State, though she would have seen several of these people anyway and some requests were denied. The point is that even those minor dealings shouldn’t have occurred. A big problem for Hillary Clinton for the remainder of the campaign is that more emails between her and her close associates have been discovered and will be released before the election. Clinton had claimed in her UN press conference that she’d turned over all her work-related emails to the State Department.
Just as the Clintons allowed their greed to get the better of them in accepting humongous speaking fees—Were they unaware that Hillary would run for president again?—they apparently felt they could flout the agreement she and Obama had made before she took office that there would be no overlap between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department. (Obama, who has been bent on running a scandal-free administration, can’t be pleased with this cavalier attitude on the part of the Clintons. But he really doesn’t want Trump to be elected president.) The Clintons themselves should have understood that they were vulnerable to even the slightest appearance of special favors for donors to the foundation. Inevitably, once the emails between Band and Abedin were disclosed it wasn’t long before the widespread impression took hold that some funny business, even pay to play, had gone on. (The excitable Rudy Giuliani called it the “biggest thing since” Teapot Dome and Watergate.)
For whatever reason, the FBI has let drop a lot of information that ordinarily wouldn’t be disclosed about a case it had decided didn’t warrant prosecution, and its unusual release—on the eve of the Labor Day weekend—of the transcript and notes of its interrogation of Clinton about the server brought her new troubles. In the transcript Clinton comes off as a naïf: Why, she had no idea that the “C” on some emails she received meant “Confidential” (the lowest level of classification); she figured, she said, that it might have been an alphabetical designation; the fact that there were no “B”s or “D”s apparently didn’t disturb this reasoning. Why, she couldn’t recall getting briefings on the security system at State because she’d had a concussion after that. (This wasn’t helpful, as Trump and other Republicans on the far right have been purveying rumors—for which there’s no medical evidence—that Clinton’s health isn’t up to par.) By the end of August, fewer respondents than ever—31 percent—said they considered Clinton honest and trustworthy.
For most of August, Trump had an even worse time than Clinton did. By mid-month, there was considerable speculation that because he was considerably behind Clinton in the polls and because of continual turmoil within his campaign, he just might drop out. As usual, this didn’t figure on Trump’s fierce determination not to be a loser however much he does or doesn’t want to be president. Trump’s dark and angry convention yielded him only a small “bump” that quickly disappeared and it was the starting point for a bad set of events for him. They all had a common origin.
Trump is a victim of his own hubris. His extreme self-satisfaction enables him to dismiss concerns on his part that his utter lack of pertinent experience and his unfamiliarity with the issues might cause problems. I think a large part of Trump’s difficulties have stemmed from the fact that much of the time he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He doesn’t understand politics; he can’t resist the urge to “hit” back whenever he’s attacked. Hence his deeply self-damaging attacks on the Muslim parents of a US army captain in Iraq who gave up his life to protect his troops. As Khizr and Ghazala Khan responded to him in print and on television talk shows, Trump, over several days, foolishly continued to lash out at the pair who had produced probably the most powerful few minutes of either convention. This tore it for numerous Republicans who hadn’t yet broken with Trump.
A truism developed during the primaries that Trump could get away with saying almost anything. But while that may have been true of Trump’s Republican following in the primaries, the rest of the country was listening. Trump’s serial offenses to their sensibilities were accumulating: thus when Trump assailed the Gold Star parents, a number of people brought up the fact that during the primaries he’d criticized John McCain for having been taken prisoner. So each of the candidates was haunted by past behavior.
Trump’s campaign has undergone an unusual churning of top personnel, never a good sign. A presidential campaign is small beer compared to the federal government. In August campaign chairman Paul Manafort—who’d replaced campaign manager Corey Lewandowski (now with CNN), with whom Trump has remained in close touch—came under increasing press scrutiny for his work for the former pro-Russia Ukrainian dictator Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort had helped Yanukovych retake power by jailing his major opponent Yulia Tymoshenko, but then Yanukovych met with such public opposition that he was forced to flee to Russia. The revelations about Manafort in his former career as a lobbyist who helped prop up dictators around the world brought attention to Trump’s murky dealings with Russian oligarchs and his odd enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin. Under these circumstances Trump became uneasy with having Manafort around, and he also resented Manafort’s efforts to turn him into a mainstream, “presidential” figure—and talking about it outside the Trump Tower. (Trump preferred aides who “let Trump be Trump.” That’s how he’d won the primary contest, he reasoned, and he resisted the idea that the general election was very different.)
Trump was known to have been agitated by an August 13 story in The New York Times describing the dysfunction in his campaign: that by then he was no longer listening to Manafort and Manafort had essentially given up. The Times reported that there were no clear lines of authority and that Trump didn’t resolve disputes among the people scattered in pods around him: his hired (though not necessarily paid) staff; his children, who could get to him but have no political experience; and people such as Lewandowski and the flamboyant troublemaker Roger Stone (Manafort’s former lobbying partner), whom Trump had supposedly cast off. (Stone was understood to have inspired Trump’s potentially dangerous mid-August tack to saying that if he lost the election it would be because it had been rigged; Trump even invited backers to be at the polls, watching for fraud—a recipe for violence on election day.) Chris Christie and Giuliani, who often traveled with Trump, also served as advisers. In discussing Trump’s entourage it must be remembered that not a lot of experienced Republican strategists sought to sign up.
Trump’s choices of new campaign officials reflect his own conflicting instincts. Kellyanne Conway, a pollster who’d been informally advising Trump and whom in August he named campaign manager, though she’d never run a campaign, specializes in sanding down the rough edges of conservative Republicans in order to appeal to more moderate voters. (She had supported Cruz in the primaries.) Conway makes for a superb propagandist. In her numerous television appearances she’s polite, friendly, and smiles a lot—which disarms her interviewers and tends to mask what she’s selling. She talks very rapidly and lies with finesse: according to Conway, the immigration laws aren’t being enforced though President Obama has been deporting illegal immigrants at a record rate that discomfits many Democrats, including Clinton. Conway insists that the press doesn’t talk about it when the race tightens.
At the same time, Trump named as CEO of his campaign Steve Bannon, a political ruffian and editor (now on leave) of Breitbart News, the hyper-nationalist, white supremacist, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, tinged-with-anti-Semitism, right-fringe online publication. This was an act of deep cynicism, taking to a new level Trump’s thumbing his nose at establishment politicians (Breitbart backed Paul Ryan’s primary opponent, whom Trump had praised, before he ultimately made peace with Ryan). But Trump had done and said so many shocking things that this alliance with the so-called alt-right didn’t stir up as much controversy as it otherwise might have. He had, after all, first soared to political prominence (when he was thinking of running for president) by promoting the “birther” idea that Obama was born in Kenya and demanding that Obama release his full birth certificate. (Obama didn’t forget this.)
These personnel choices heightened the question of Trump’s taste in people. It also became known in August that the wily Roger Ailes, who had just been ousted as head of Fox News amid numerous allegations of his having demanded sexual relations with his stars, had quickly landed up in what was described as an informal role advising Trump on the upcoming debates. Who other than Trump could get away with adding such a figure to his entourage? At the time much of the press was distracted by other events, especially Clinton and Trump trading charges over which one is a racist and which one a bigot. The noisiness of late August may also have obscured Trump’s amazing announcement that he’d added to his campaign David Bossie, the head of Citizens United—the organization that spawned the eponymous Supreme Court decision. Bossie had also had something of a career in scouring the Clintons’ record for possible scandal. (I had come across Bossie when he was an advisor to the arch-conservative North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, who unblushingly used race as a tool for his political success.)
Amid these changes, for about ten days, Trump’s “thinking” about immigration bobbed along the waves of competing advice and pressures. In making a clampdown on illegal immigration the spine of his campaign from the outset, Trump had aligned himself with the growing populist reaction to immigrants, which also fit with his anti-trade rhetoric. (This despite the fact that illegal immigration has been declining and the flow from Mexico to the United States is now net negative.) Trump’s calls to keep out or throw out undocumented Latino immigrants also catered to the latent fear among a great many white Americans that at some foreseeable time—now estimated to be in 2043—they will no longer constitute the majority.
Immigration has for years bedeviled the Republican Party, torn between its competing constituencies, on one side business and agriculture interests that want cheap labor and on the other its populist wing, now threatening to dominate the party. Some Trump advisers, including Conway and Christie, suggested he display a more moderate attitude in order to win over college-educated women and Hispanics. (The Republican Party “autopsy” after the 2012 election said that future Republican candidates had to do better with Hispanics than McCain or Mitt Romney if they were to win, and RNC chairman Reince Priebus was urging Trump to ease up on his immigration rhetoric.) But other Trump advisers (mainly Bannon) said he should “nail down” his base of white males—puzzling advice since his overwhelming need is to broaden his base.
On August 20, Trump convened a council of Hispanic advisers (who knew he had one?), and the word went forth that he’d shortly sort out his immigration policy in a major address, but then the scheduled speech was postponed; the sorting out didn’t come easily. (Much of the border is already walled off.) Trump couldn’t give up his chimeric wall along the border with Mexico: to his followers it would prevent the country being overrun by alien forces; also, the wall stands for the US’s nationhood. With the wall had to come his promise to make Mexico pay for it—otherwise he would be a big spender. It’s not that Trump expects to get the Mexican government to hand over a big fat check. As spelled out on his website, Trump would impose various economic or trade measures on Mexico to supposedly produce the funds for the wall. (Typically, Trump doesn’t think in terms of there being a Congress to enact these things.) But the flashpoint in Trump’s immigration proposals was his vow to remove 11 million illegal immigrants residing in the US. No one knows how to round up 11 million people who’ve largely disappeared into the country. Obviously such a policy would tear families apart and impose suffering on many people who were leading honest and productive lives.
On Wednesday, August 31, the eventual date for his much anticipated immigration speech, Trump surprised everyone by accepting the invitation of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to meet with him in Mexico. He may also have surprised Peña Nieto. (Clinton was invited as well but declined; she’s been to Mexico and doesn’t need to show that she can talk to another country’s leader.) Trump, a master of showmanship, shrewdly understood that if he stood behind a podium alongside a head of state and behaved with a modicum of dignity—no tirades or insults—he could con a great many Americans into concluding that he was “presidential.” On the basis of US press reports and commentators’ reactions on the following Sunday shows, on Labor Day weekend, Trump’s gambit was wildly successful. He still has a way to go in learning to appear interested when someone else has the microphone (he tends to look anywhere but at the speaker). As for the presidential quality of Trump’s comments in Mexico, here’s an excerpt of what he said:
And I happen to have a tremendous feeling for Mexican Americans not only in terms of friendships, but in terms of the tremendous numbers that I employ in the United States and they are amazing people, amazing people. I have many friends, so many friends and so many friends coming to Mexico and in Mexico. I am proud to say how many people I employ. And the United States first, second, and third generation Mexicans are just beyond reproach. Spectacular, spectacular hard-working people.
The venue for Trump’s big immigration speech that night— a large auditorium in Phoenix—was telling: this was to be a rally rather than a somber policy address. And Arizona has a strong current of almost rabid anti-immigrant sentiment. (It also has the sixth-largest Hispanic population. Arizona, long reliably Republican, has moved into the toss-up column.) To work up the crowd, Trump was introduced by the infamous anti-immigration sheriff Joe Arpaio. Then Trump, delivering the speech in the same bellicose tone as his convention acceptance address—defined immigrants coming across our southern border in the same way he had on the opening day of his campaign last year—as criminals who rape and murder innocent Americans. He proposed a harsh ten-point program, promising he’d have criminal immigrants out of the country within an hour of his becoming president—he didn’t specify whether he meant this would occur during the inaugural lunch or the next morning. There would be no amnesty or legalization for illegals living in the US. Trump would prohibit enactment of the proposed “Dream Act,” which would allow children born in the United States of illegals to become citizens. All those who were undocumented and seeking to become legal would have to return to their countries of origin and apply for legal entry—no slots would be reserved for them.
On the big question of the 11 million, Trump punted, saying he’d figure it out later, after his ten-point program had been implemented—on the assumption that it would be. (This itself would end in deportation of an estimated three million undocumented immigrants.) Was the harsh language and delivery of the speech intended to cover over Trump’s retreat on his pledge to deport 11 million illegal immigrants? If so, most of the press and his audience fell for it and didn’t realize for some time that Trump had just abandoned his great deportation proposal.
The speech doesn’t seem to have done Trump much good, though white supremacists cheered it. As it happens, according to Gallup, 65 percent of Americans say they favor giving undocumented immigrants living in the United States some kind of legal status if they meet certain requirements. (Clinton has said she favors comprehensive immigration reform including a path to citizenship.) Some members of Trump’s Hispanic Council resigned in protest over the Phoenix speech’s harshness. At the RNC Priebus, having expected a much more moderate address, shelved a statement of support he’d planned to issue. A seemingly chastened Trump told Laura Ingraham the next day that he had indeed “softened” his approach to immigration. Reporters continued to press him to clarify what he would do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants.
And so Trump and Clinton began the post-Labor Day campaign with a number of awkward and major unresolved questions hanging over their candidacies and with only nine weeks for each campaign to convince the country that their candidate should be president. Though the prognostications about the Electoral College vote all pointed in one direction, no one was ready yet to say that it couldn’t possibly go in the other one. Both major candidates had come into this final part of the race with vulnerabilities that threatened to outweigh their strengths. This was quite different from the fresh start to a presidential election that the Labor Day holiday was supposed to mark.
Elizabeth Drew, a regular contributor to The New York Review, is writing a continuing series on the 2016 election for the NYR Daily. (August 2016)