On Monday around mid-day I turned on the radio and heard Donald Trump speaking. I immediately recognized his voice but the style was unfamiliar, slow and measured, without the little riffs, asides, and digressions that are his hallmark. It did not surprise me to learn later that he had been reading from a Teleprompter, the device that he so despises when used by president Obama or Hillary Clinton and that Fox News absurdly suggests is because they are unable to speak extemporaneously and always need scripts provided by others.
I remembered then that he was due to give what his team had billed as a big speech on the economy. This was not at one of his raucous allies but to a more subdued and select audience of the Detroit Economic Club and he no doubt felt obliged to keep strictly to his script. Critics of his speech said that his economic proposals were vague and handed out gifts to the wealthy, but it did not generate any real controversy and observers, and especially the GOP establishment, wondered whether it signaled a new, improved Trump, who was going to be more deliberate in his utterances and avoid the kinds of intemperate remarks that have created one controversy after another and thus avoid the deep dive in the polls that he has suffered lately.
Well, that hope lasted just one day. The very next day, he resorted to his freewheeling style and went off script. This time he said at a rally:
“Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know”
Trump feeds off the crowd and likes to say things that rouse them and has a knack for doing so, even if it lands him in hot water later. As Katy Tur, who has been following Trump on the campaign trail for over a year, says:
Trump is a room-reader. He’ll slow down a line, rephrase a point, work in a pause, and ride the energy of his audience wherever it takes him. For 45, 60, even 90 minutes, he’ll run through classic riffs, like bomb the hell out of ISIS, build a wall, make America great again. But he’ll also experiment, as when he launched an ethnically tinged attack on a Mexican- American judge deciding the civil fraud case against Trump University.
The usual signal that Trump is going to freewheel is when he says ” By the way …”, a phrase that must be causing his advisors heartburn in anticipation of what might come next.
Critics have charged that his Second Amendment statement was meant to incite his followers to violence and even to kill Clinton. I don’t think that was his intent. At his public rallies, he is like a stand–up comedian, constantly gauging the mood of his audience, sensing what will get them to respond positively, and then delivering his punch line. He is careless in his choice of words and thoughtless about the effect they can have on his more rabid supporters. His seems to get in the most trouble when he is pandering to his followers on conservative issues (like guns and abortion) that he has not really cared about in the past and thus does not know much about, and out of that ignorance ends up saying things that are too extreme, even for his conservative base.
The Secret Service has its own rules as to what can be said about people under their protection and one former official thinks that Trump’s words do not rise to the level of a threat though there is no telling what his more dim-witted followers might think. There have been some reports of the Secret Service reportedly talking to the Trump campaign, possibly to warn about the danger of loose talk and to tone it down, though Trump himself denies that such a meeting ever took place.
As has become routine now, one controversy-generating statement gets quickly superseded by another and yesterday he accused president Obama of being the founder of ISIS, though again his exact meaning was vague.
Donald Trump is now accusing President Barack Obama of founding the Islamic State group that is wreaking havoc from the Middle East to European cities.
“In many respects, you know, they honor President Obama,” Trump said Wednesday during a raucous campaign rally outside Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “He is the founder of ISIS.”
He then repeated the allegation three more times for emphasis.
Asked in an interview with CNBC on Thursday morning whether it was appropriate for him to call the sitting president of the United States the founder of a terrorist organization that kills Americans, Trump doubled down.
“He was the founder of ISIS, absolutely,” said Trump. “Is there something wrong with saying that? Why? Are people complaining that I said he was the founder of ISIS?”
Trump has long blamed Obama and his former secretary of state — Hillary Clinton — for pursuing Mideast policies that created a power vacuum in Iraq that was exploited by IS. But in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, that message appeared muddled. Hewitt said that as he understood Trump’s comments to mean Obama created unstable conditions by withdrawing U.S. forces that allowed IS to thrive. Trump responded, “No, I mean he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player,” according to interview transcripts.
The problem with Trump is that while he enjoys being the center of attention and has a knack for becoming so, he is also taking attention away from Clinton, even as she makes missteps with statements about her emails and the revelations of the activities of the Clinton Foundation, both of which have been shifted to the margins of the news.
During the primaries, Trump was successful because he hogged the media attention and deprived most of his rivals of the media oxygen they needed to establish themselves and get their names before the public. But he does not need all the attention anymore, even the bad kind. Also denying Clinton attention does not help him because she does not need to put that much effort into name recognition. She is already well-known and as the Democratic nominee she cannot be ignored.
If he cannot control his impulse to making controversial claims when speaking extemporaneously, he might be better served by using a script and a Teleprompter more to avoid such off-the-cuff remarks or lying low for a couple of weeks and have the spotlight shift to Clinton and her problems. The question is whether he can stand to be out of the limelight for long. My guess is no. I think he really enjoys the notoriety that his statements bring him and thinks it is a winning strategy.