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Trump's Rambling Gets a Pass Again

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Donald Trump gave an interview to the Washington Post editorial board on Monday. He also was interviewed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

Neither went well.

I gave my reaction to his incoherent CNN interview on Twitter, so I'll focus on the Washington Post session, which was, if anything, even worse. Here’s a sample, with the Post’s Fred Hiatt pressing him on his proposed ban on Muslims coming into the U.S.:

HIATT: How would you identify people to keep them out of this country?

TRUMP: Well look, there’s many exceptions. There’s many – everything, you’re going to go through a process. But we have to be very careful. And I was really referring in particular, you know, to migrations – Syrians, the whole migration, where we’re going to take in thousands. And I heard in the Democrat debate, I heard 55,000, okay. 55,000. Now they say it’s really ten [thousand], but it’s already 10, and I just don’t think we can take people into this country. You saw what two people did – the woman and the man, whether she radicalized him or [inaudible] – but you saw what two people did, and I just don’t think we can take people in when we have no idea who they are, where they come from. There’s no documents, there’s no paper, and we have ISIS looming over our head, and we have tremendous destruction. We lost the World Trade Center, we lost the Pentag – you know, we had a plane go into the Pentagon, etc.

There’s no argument here. There are barely two consecutive sentences on the same topic. He takes a bunch of sentence fragments and tosses them into a paragraph, but they rarely have anything to do with one another. 

The best thing the Post editors did -- and they asked excellent questions -- was to press Trump on his nonsensical claim that the U.S. should have been sure to “keep the oil” when it withdrew from Iraq.

TRUMP: We then got out badly, then after we got out, I said, “Keep the oil. If we don’t keep it Iran’s going to get it.” And it turns out Iran and ISIS basically—

HIATT: How do you keep it without troops, how do you defend the oil?

TRUMP: You would… You would, well for that– for that, I would circle it. I would defend those areas.

HIATT: With U.S. troops?

TRUMP: Yeah, I would defend the areas with the oil.  And I would have taken out a lot of oil. And, uh, I would have kept it. I mean, I would have kept it, because, look: Iran has the oil, and they’re going to have the oil, well, the stuff they don’t have, because Iran is taking over Iraq as sure as you’re sitting there. And I’ve been very good on this stuff. My prognostications, my predictions have become, have been very accurate, if you look.

This is gibberish. As Kevin Drum points out, “the oil” isn’t nicely arranged in a compact area. Encircling it would require defending about, as Drum figures it, a 1,500-mile perimeter. Trump has often phrased it, too, as “take the oil,” as if it was just sitting around in barrels that could be carted off. In reality, seizing, operating and protecting Iraq’s oil fields -- even a fraction of them -- would be an ongoing effort, providing plenty of ammunition for anti-American propaganda as well as easy targets for terrorists.

None of this is new, of course. I’ve talked about it after debates, and James Fallows at the Atlantic had a nice piece (and a good follow-up) comparing Trump unfavorably to Sarah Palin. Others have been good on this question, too.

But the media in general haven’t really made enough of it. Journalists are quick to accuse him of bullying and bigotry (and rightly so), but he’s rarely called grossly incompetent for his basic factual understanding of the world, or even called out on his inability to speak coherently.  

I have two theories. One is that he’s given the presumption of competence because he's a man, while Palin needed to (and failed to) earn it. I can think of men who can serve as counter-examples (Fallows mentioned Rick Perry, who picked up a reputation for stupidity based on a few gaffes, not a campaign-long trail of them), but that doesn't discredit the thesis.

The other, which I think is the most likely to be the main factor, is that reporters assume that he knows what he’s doing because he’s wealthy. The same thing happened when Ross Perot ran for president -- and Trump's way of speaking is very reminiscent of Perot's.

I'm not sure it would make much difference if Trump was more generally called out for his apparent ignorance of government and public affairs, but it might have helped.

  1. And I'm not even talking here about the 600 words Trump devoted to how large his hands are. 

    Also on Monday, Trump delivered a rare scripted speech to the AIPAC conference, demonstrating that he could pretend to be a somewhat informed candidate for half an hour. Later, he performed a bizarre press conference/promotional appearance at the Old Post Office in Washington, demonstrating again that he has no idea what he's talking about most of the time. 

  2. There has been some good reporting about his phony claims of business genius and success, including excellent items from my View colleague Tim O'Brien. But that's not quite the same thing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net