How would Donald Trump assess Donald Trump’s candidacy? As he might put it: A lot of people are saying his campaign is an operation on behalf of the Democratic Party to destroy the Republicans.
“A lot of people are saying”? That’s not a very high evidentiary standard. What else?
Well, to start there is the photo. You know the one, where Trump and his new bride Melania are rubbing elbows with the Clintons. Bill Clinton spoke with Trump right before Trump announced his candidacy. Trump has of course contributed to Clinton campaigns in past years as well. This doesn’t even get into the fact that Ivanka Trump and Chelsea Clinton are friends.
All of that adds up to a lot of conjecture and coincidence. It’s more likely there is a less sinister explanation for Trump’s obvious political errors in the general election: An isolated egomaniac rejects the advice of political professionals.
And yet the “Trump is a plant” theory has more compelling evidence than Trump could amass for claims like “Obama founded ISIS” or his allies could muster for “Democrats murdered a DNC official because he leaked e-mails” (which by the way most security experts say were pilfered by Russian intelligence).
The Republican candidate’s wild lunges and errors in recent weeks, particularly on national security, certainly do more harm to his own adopted party than to those he purports to target.
This is not just because Trump’s comments about the Islamic State, the Iraq War, and the Khan family (to name just three) are comically false. They also let President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton off the hook. It’s easy to dismiss a crazed accusation about Obama being the founder of a jihadi organization; it’s much harder for the administration to respond to serious and pointed criticism of its foreign policy.
Let’s start with the Iran deal. The Wall Street Journal reported this month that $400 million in cash arrived in Iran just as the Iranians were releasing Americans they had detained. Republicans in Congress are now following up. On Aug. 12, Senators Mike Lee and Ted Cruz wrote a scathing letter to Obama asking him whether the payment to Iran violated U.S. prohibitions against financial interactions with Iran. This is the kind of fodder that a typical Republican presidential campaign would seize upon. Trump’s campaign doesn’t even seem to be trying.
Then there is a report released last week from House Republicans on the Intelligence, Armed Services and Appropriations Committee. It didn’t get much airtime because the political conversation was dominated by Trump giving Clinton and Obama the ISIS MVP award and musing about the “Second Amendment people.”
The report found that in 2014 and 2015, U.S. Central Command intelligence analysts’ accurate and pessimistic assessments of Obama’s new war against the Islamic State were often edited out of the finished product.
“I believe the reporting out of U.S. Central Command, which showed a rosier picture about U.S. efforts against ISIS, led the United States to inadequately provide resources to take on the threat that has now grown and metastasized against the U.S.,” Representative Mike Pompeo, an author of the report and a Republican member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told me.
This falls into a pattern. Obama, like most modern presidents, engages in selective disclosure of state secrets. Filmmakers are provided extraordinary access to research a movie about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. At the same time, the White House slow rolled House oversight committees in their investigation of the 2012 attack at Benghazi. So far, the few documents released from the 2011 bin Laden raid to the public paint a picture of an antagonistic relationship between bin Laden and Iran. Former officials who have studied them, like former Defense Intelligence Agency director, Michael Flynn, say there are still classified documents from the raid that show Iran and al Qaeda enjoyed a much cozier relationship.
This critique of Obama is not as bold as calling him the founder of the Islamic State. But it has the benefit of being true. Trump’s current approach has the benefit of helping his political opponents. So again, it’s worth asking who in the end really gains from Trump’s paranoid, fact-free campaign style. After all, a lot of people are saying it’s Hillary Clinton.