Out on a Limb

Daily Best of the Web   —   Posted on September 9, 2016

Out on a Limb

The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at The Wall Street Journal written by the editor, James Taranto.

Out on a Limb
“In Clinton vs. Trump, Forecasters Say Anything Could Happen”—headline, MarketWatch .com, Sept. 8

Other Than That, the Story Was Accurate
“An earlier version of this article misidentified the de facto capital of the Islamic State. It is Raqqa, in northern Syria, not Aleppo. . . . Because of an editing error, an earlier version of the above correction misidentified the Syrian capital as Aleppo. It is Damascus.”—“ ‘What Is Aleppo?’ Gary Johnson Asks, in an Interview Stumble,” New York Times website, Sept. 8

The Suspect Was Described as Armed and Dangerfield
“Bank Robbery Suspect: Incarceration Beats Living With Wife”—headline, Associated Press, Sept. 7

Donald Trump’s performance in last night’s MSNBC foreign-policy forum has supporters of rival Hillary Clinton terrified. “I had not taken seriously the possibility that Donald Trump could win the presidency until I saw Matt Lauer host an hour-long interview with the two major-party candidates,” writes Jonathan Chait of New York magazine.

So he learned something! Oddly, Chait continues: “Lauer’s performance was not merely a failure, it was horrifying and shocking.” Some people don’t want to learn.

Trump did well in the interview, in substantial part because expectations were low. National Review editor Rich Lowry summed it up nicely on Twitter: “fact is for someone who doesn’t know very much about this stuff Trump is a pretty adept communicator. Most people couldn’t pull it off.”

In other words, Trump did a creditable job of bluffing—of seeming knowledgable enough. Mrs. Clinton’s supporters find that frustrating, because she obviously knows much more than he does. And it’s true, she does. But how many voters choose a candidate on the basis of his breadth of knowledge, without regard to party, ideology and other personal qualities?

Expectations of Trump are low for a variety of reasons, but one of the big ones is his critics’ over-the-top disparagement of him. Here’s the New York Times’s Charles Blow, doing a bad C.S. Lewis impression:

We, an irresponsible media, have built a false equivalency in which the choice between [Mrs.] Clinton and Trump seems to have equally bad implications, because we have framed it as a choice between a liar and a lunatic.

But this obscures the fact that the lunatic is also a pathological liar of a kind and quality that we have not seen in recent presidential politics and perhaps ever.

Trump arguably came across as a “lunatic” during some of the Republican primary debates, but he did not last night. Mrs. Clinton and her surrogates have been at pains to portray Trump as a madman, but that will be difficult to sustain if he continues not to act like one.

One exchange in particular reinforced our sense that Trump is crazy like a fox:

Lauer: You recently—you recently received two intelligence briefings.

Trump: Yes, I did.

Lauer: Did anything in that briefing [sic], without going into specifics, shock or alarm you?

Trump: Yes. Very much so.

Lauer: Did you learn new things in that briefing?

Trump: First of all, I have great respect for the people that gave us the briefings. We—they were terrific people. They were experts on Iraq and Iran and different parts of—and Russia. But, yes, there was one thing that shocked me. And it just seems to me that what they said, President Obama and Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, who is another total disaster, did exactly the opposite.

Lauer: Did you learn anything in that briefing—again, not going into specifics—that makes you reconsider some of the things you say you can accomplish, like defeating ISIS quickly?

Trump: No, I didn’t learn anything from that standpoint. What I did learn is that our leadership, Barack Obama, did not follow what our experts and our truly—when they call it intelligence, it’s there for a reason—what our experts said to do. . . . And I was very, very surprised. In almost every instance. And I could tell you. I have pretty good [sic] with the body language. I could tell they were not happy. Our leaders did not follow what they were recommending.

The New York Times described this as “a classic Trump moment—a dark insinuation without evidence—and his campaign declined to provide details after the debate.” That’s accurate as far as it goes, but let’s go further.

For one thing, you can’t fault Trump for failing to give evidence, since he is constrained not to discuss in public the content of his classified briefings. (We were not the only viewer to whom it occurred that Lauer might have been testing Trump to see if he would violate that confidentiality—in which case the candidate passed the test. Interestingly, Lauer did not ask Mrs. Clinton about her briefings, although she is the one with a history of being, in the words of the FBI director, “extremely careless” with classified information.)

Trump also countered the criticism that he disrespects expertise. In fact, he flipped the script and accused Obama of doing so. That charge is perfectly plausible; the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza reported just after the 2008 election that then-President-elect Obama had once told a job interviewee: “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”

What was Trump talking about? Here’s one possibility, from the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes, a Nevertrump conservative, last December:

Barack Obama is releasing dangerous terrorists against the recommendations of military and intelligence professionals, he’s doing so at a time when the threat level from radical Islamists is elevated, and he is lying about it. He is lying about how many jihadists he has released and lying about their backgrounds, all part of his effort to empty the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.

But Trump’s story is more powerful by virtue of being vague. The viewer can fill in the blanks with whatever aspect of the administration’s foreign policy makes him most uneasy, and neither Obama nor Mrs. Clinton can rebut Trump’s claim. Even if they know what he’s talking about, they can’t say without spilling national secrets.

Lauer has taken considerable criticism for going too easy on Trump. “Mr. Lauer found himself besieged on Wednesday evening by critics of all political stripes, who accused the anchor of unfairness, sloppiness and even sexism in his handling of the event,” according to a “news analysis” by the New York Times’s Michael Grynbaum.

“Of all political stripes” is inaccurate, or at least unsupported by Grynbaum’s reporting. He cites five critics, of which three are partisan Democrats and one is a journalist at an anti-Trump newspaper: “Tommy Vietor, a former aide to President Obama,” “Glenn Kessler, the chief fact checker at The Washington Post,” “Nick Merrill, [Mrs. Clinton’s] press secretary” and “Neera Tanden, a close Clinton ally.”

The fifth critic is “Norman Ornstein, the conservative commentator.” At the Times website that description has been changed, without a correction, to “Norman Ornstein, the political commentator,” but the original line still appears at the Tampa Bay Times.

Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a generally conservative think tank, but in a 2007 New Republic piece, he described himself as “a centrist at a center-right organization.” In 2012 he and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution published a Washington Post op-ed titled “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem.”

Grynbaum concludes with a hint as to the objective of all this criticism:

If Mr. Lauer—who was passed over to host a debate in favor of his NBC colleague Lester Holt—was seeking a piece of the moderator experience, he got it. Warts and all.

The criticism of Lauer is aimed at the debate moderators—especially Holt, who hosts the first debate, on Sept. 26. Mrs. Clinton’s supporters want the moderators to go easy on her and get tough on Trump. Chait colleague Frank Rich makes the point explicit:

If [Holt] arrives onstage as poorly prepared as Lauer, and behaves as boorishly toward Hillary Clinton as Lauer, the first debate, likely to be the most-watched presidential debate in the history of broadcasting, is going to be a debacle for the country.

As for Chait, he never mentions Holt, but his conclusion sums up the prevailing media mindset:

The average undecided voter is getting snippets of news from television personalities like Lauer, who are failing to convey the fact that the election pits a normal politician with normal political failings against an ignorant, bigoted, pathologically dishonest authoritarian.

Is Chait really so caught up in his own political bias that he honestly mistakes his opinion for a fact? Probably yes. This isn’t the first time we’ve noticed anti-Trump commentators making that mistake.

But they should be careful what they wish for. If the moderators and Mrs. Clinton tag-team Trump, fair-minded viewers will see that it’s an unfair fight. And Trump is ferocious enough that he could still win.

For more “Best of the Web” from The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto click here.