HIGH POINT, N.C. — Donald Trump’s week began in the wake of explosions in New Jersey and New York. It ended in the aftermath of shootings and riots. For a candidate whose strategy relies on painting a dystopian view of the nation – often based on inaccurate and questionable claims – the tragedies yielded a trove of political opportunities.
Shortly after the first bomb went off — Trump boasted that he had been ahead of newscasters in calling it a “bomb” — he seized upon the terrorist act as justification for some of the most disputed things he has said since announcing his presidential bid.
Terrorism wouldn’t have happened if others had opposed the Iraq war as he did, Trump said, even though he had said at the time in a radio interview he supported the war. The problem increased because Hillary Clinton has “been silent about Islamic terrorism for many years,” Trump claimed falsely. Trump called for profiling people, but insisted he “never” suggested targeting Muslims, even though he held an event specifically to propose a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and has called for “surveillance of certain mosques.”
Trump’s campaign is hardly the first to spin things its way, and Clinton has made had her share of questionable claims, but Trump has nevertheless revealed himself to be a candidate who at times seems uniquely undeterred by facts.
An examination by The Washington Post of one week of Trump’s speeches, tweets and interviews show a candidate who not only continues to rely heavily on thinly-sourced or entirely unsubstantiated claims, but uses them to paint a strikingly bleak portrait of an impoverished America, overrun by illegal immigrants, criminals and terrorists – all designed to set up his theme that he is uniquely suited to “make America great again.”
African-Americans communities, he said, are in the worst shape they have “ever, ever, ever” been — notwithstanding the days of slavery and Jim Crow. The U.S. military is “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.” Terrorists are winning, and the United States is losing, he said, because “all of these young people in our country and other countries are looking up to ISIS.”
Trump is expected to employ this approach, in both style and substance, at the first debate between the two major-party candidates on Monday night. Anticipating that the moderator, Lester Holt of NBC News, will serve as a real-time fact-checker during the debate, Trump has repeatedly said that Holt should not do so. (Trump initially criticized Holt, saying “it’s a phony system. Lester is a Democrat,” but after reports surfaced Holt has registered Republican, Trump said he thought the moderator would be fair.)
Trump’s tactics, and his disregard for the truth in numerous cases, drove his primary opponents to fits earlier this year and last. An exasperated Jeb Bush said Trump was creating an “alternative universe.”
But if there was any thought that Trump’s Sept. 16 abandonment of his years-long effort to question whether President Obama was born in the United States would lead him to back away from other false or questionable claims, that idea was dismissed in the week that followed. Nor was Trump intimidated by the increasing practice of media outlets to bluntly call out statements as “lies” and “false” in headlines and news stories, not just in fact-checking columns.
To the contrary, Trump doubled down during the past week on some of his most controversial and debunked statements, and made surprising new ones. It is a strategy Trump has long employed. In his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, he wrote that “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.” When the media questioned his claims, the former reality television star called them “dishonest” and “disgraceful,” and said the reporters were “wacky” or “crazy” or “neurotic.”
After criticizing Clinton for not holding press conferences, Trump held none himself. (His campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said on CNN that “he gives press availability every day by doing these rallies,” although that does not involve actually taking questions from reporters.)
In an effort to track Trump’s words, the Post attended his events, reviewed transcripts, and sought to compile every word uttered by him in a seven-day period beginning on Sunday Sept. 18, and ending on Saturday. During that time, Trump planned to appear at nine events in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. He gave seven television interviews, all but one on Fox News channels. He tweeted more than 40 times, posted on Instagram and Facebook, and sent out daily press releases, many with the subject line “Crooked Hillary” (even as running mate Mike Pence criticized Democrats for “name calling.”)
After remaining relatively quiet on Sunday – other than a pre-taped interview that ran on Fox’s Media Buzz program in which he called journalists “disgraceful” and “unbelievably dishonest” – Trump woke Monday and promptly dialed into the Fox and Friends show at 7:02 a.m. for an interview that lasted nearly a half-hour, uninterrupted by commercials. The bombings in New York City and New Jersey, and a knife attack in Minnesota, gave Trump an issue that seemed to play directly into his campaign’s theme that the nation is under attack because of a failure to screen immigrants.
“If somebody looks like he’s got a massive bomb on his back, we won’t go up to that person,” Trump said. “If he looks like he comes from that part of the world, we’re not allowed to profile. Give me a break.”
In fact, there is nothing to stop police from questioning a person suspected of carrying a massive bomb, and the U.S. does allow certain types of profiling of airline passengers and immigrants.
Trump then spoke at a massive rally in Fort Myers, Fla., at which he delivered a series of disputed claims. He said Clinton had “allowed thousands of criminal aliens to be released into our communities,” and favors a 550 percent increase in Syrian immigrants, even though “law enforcement said there’s no way” to vet them. He said it is a “plain fact” that the U.S. “makes no real attempt to determine the views of the people entering.”
After the rally, Trump went on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, where he issued his call for profiling people to detect potential terrorists. Host Bill O’Reilly was skeptical about spotting lone attackers inspired by propaganda. Trump responded by saying that officials didn’t go after the alleged New York bomber because “they don’t want to get sued,” a claim for which there is no evidence. Trump then denied he was targeting Muslims. “You go in to profile people that maybe look suspicious. I didn’t say they were Muslims.”
Trump arrived at a midday rally at High Point University in North Carolina, where supporters packed a basketball gymnasium. Asked in interviews whether they were concerned about the veracity of Trump’s statements, supporters variously said the comments were misinterpreted by the media or were nothing compared to Clinton’s falsehoods.
“I don’t think he means some of the things that come out of his mouth in the most derogative way,” said Pam Guy of Thomasville, N.C. “I think he says things sarcastically at times. If you listen, and you hear him clarify things later, the puzzle pieces start to come together and make sense.” Guy, who said she has only been to two political rallies in her life – both of them for Trump – said her main concern is, “I need someone to come in and just explode the system.”
The question of whether Trump’s statements are true was a “non-factor” to John Clinard of High Point. “I am definitely voting for the lesser of two evils. I’m not 100 percent for Trump but I’m 200 percent against Hillary. I don’t know what’s true and what’s not. I just try to listen and make my own opinion.”
Observing it all was Brandon W. Lenoir, a High Point University professor of political communications and campaign veteran, and he was not surprised that Trump’s supporters are undeterred by fact-checks.
“When new information comes in, if it is consistent with your world view or your opinion of that particular candidate, you let it in; if it is inconsistent, you block it out,” Lenoir said. “So what happens is, people who have already pledged their allegiance to Trump, when they hear this information, they basically discount it and say, `Oh, that’s just the other side trying to break him down.’”
Trump’s next stop was Kenansville, N.C., population 850, where he made one of his most outlandish comments.
“Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in before, ever, ever, ever,” Trump said. Not only did the comment ignore the history of slavery and Jim Crow, but Trump delivered it in an area where blacks once were captives of slave plantations; indeed, the town of Kenansville was named after the family of a slave owner. Trump’s statement was promptly called out on social media by reporters traveling with him, but the campaign made no effort to explain or defend it; indeed, no campaign official was made available to the press corps all day except for a travel coordinator.
The event in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was billed as a Trump town hall to discuss issues facing African Americans. The audience was mostly white, and the forum was run by Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, a conservative commentator who is one of Trump’s most vocal supporters. Earlier in the week, he had appeared as a “TV personality” who backed the Republican nominee in a campaign video called “Heartland 4 Trump.” The network told Hannity not to appear in any more such ads, but allowed him to continue his role as on-air booster, and let him proceed as host of the town hall – which came across much like another campaign video.
As Hannity introduced Trump, he said, “The Obama years have been disastrous for the country, especially for African-Americans. But believe it or not, Democrats still feel entitled to their vote.” Then, after Hannity said, “the left is stoking racial tensions,” a video was shown of protesters chanting, “Black Lives Matter!”
Trump was then showing saying: “Vote for Donald Trump. I will fix it.”
“And Donald Trump is the only candidate promising to bring about real change,” Hannity said, according to the network’s transcript.
The hour-long Hannity program marked the fourth time in four days that Trump appeared on Fox News.
A rare non-Fox interview, with an Ohio television reporter, was brief but revealing.
Asked why he had acknowledged that President Obama was born in the United States, Trump said he just wanted to get on with his campaign, saying nothing about being convinced by the evidence.
Then Trump was asked about a Washington Post report that he had used $258,000 from his charitable foundation to settle lawsuits related to his for-profit companies. Trump evaded the question, saying, “The Trump Foundation is really there. It gives money to vets. It’s been doing a really good job.” Trump concluded by saying his campaign had put the story “to sleep just by putting out our last report.” That appeared to be a reference to a statement by campaign spokesman Jason Miller, who attacked the story as inaccurate without providing any specifics, and said it was the result of “a biased reporter who is clearly intent on distracting attention away from the corrupt Clinton Foundation.” The campaign, meanwhile, put out a series of press releases attacking the Clinton Foundation.
As it turned out, the Hannity town hall did not air Wednesday night as planned because the network coverage shifted to riots on the streets of Charlotte, where protests occurred following the police shooting of a black man, Keith Lamont Scott. Trump seized upon the riots as more evidence of his view of a shattered nation. “We need unity & leadership,” he tweeted.
As violence continued in Charlotte, Trump again called in to Fox & Friends, his fifth appearance of the week on the network, which ran an image of the candidate super-imposed over video of clashes between rioters and police. “It’s very sad,” Trump said, lamenting a “lack of spirit between the black and the white.”
Trump’s solution was “you have to have law and order…there has to be a unity message,” and he repeated his call to allow police to “stop and frisk” suspects.
Trump later said in a Pittsburgh speech that there has been a 17 percent rise in violent crime in the largest 50 cities in the United States, and sharp spikes in homicides in Washington and Baltimore, to make the case that violence is a “national crisis.” Violent crime rose 1.7 percent nationally in 2015, according to preliminary FBI data.
Trump also seemed to connect drugs to urban crime in Charlotte during the speech in Pittsburgh, which many took to suggest that protesters in Charlotte were taking drugs.
“And if you’re not aware, drugs are a very, very big factor in what you’re watching on television at night,” he said.
That led reporters to question Trump about why he was tying drugs to the protests. Trump denied it. “That was never said, you know that,” Trump responded, adding, “Drugs are a big problem all over the country.”
The unrest, Trump said, was partly Clinton’s fault. “Those peddling the narrative of cops as a racist force in our society — and this is a narrative that is supported with a nod by my opponent, you see what she’s saying, and it’s not good — share responsibly and the unrest that is afflicting our country and hurting those who have really the very least,” Trump said.
It was supposed to be an easy appearance for Eric Trump on the Fox News show, Outnumbered. With his father taking the day off the campaign trail to prepare for Monday’s debate, Eric Trump was playing surrogate when he was asked a seemingly easy question about how his father could appeal to millennials.
Eric Trump said that his father, in contrast to Clinton’s political career, “has been an entrepreneurial guy…he’s become the epitome of the American dream. He’s gone from just about nothing to a man who…”
“Nothing?” one of the hosts interjected. “He got a million bucks, Eric!”
The host had correctly referred to a gift that Donald Trump’s father gave to give him a head start in business, among a number of gifts and loans that Fred Trump provided to his son. Donald Trump nonetheless went more than $1 billion in debt and put his businesses through six corporate bankruptcies, barely surviving financially before he reemerged as the star of The Apprentice.
As for millenials, Eric said they are largely uninformed except on issues that directly affect them, such as student debt. “I don’t think millenials relate to policy very well because they haven’t lived their lives long enough to understand so many of the issues,” said Eric Trump, who, at 32 years old, is himself a millennial.
Trump spent part of his Saturday morning on Twitter, urging people to come to rally later in the day in Virginia, and handing out accolades and insults. He tweeted a link to a Washington Post story that quoted a professor predicting he would become president, said it was a “wonderful surprise” that arch rival Senator Ted Cruz on Friday endorsed him, and mocked “dopey Mark Cuban,” the Dallas Mavericks owner who has become a leading critic of Trump and who plans to sit in the front row of Monday’s debate. “Perhaps I will put Gennifer Flowers right alongside of him,” Trump tweeted, referring to a woman who said she once had an affair with Bill Clinton. (It was a rare case of making a correction; Trump deleted an initial tweet that spelled her name as “Jennifer.”)
Trump’s success so far, even as he makes questionable claims about the state of the nation, is “very different” from most presidential campaigns, according to Lenoir, the High Point University professor .
“People are just upset with the way things are and they are willing to go with that person who goes against the grain, and Trump represents that on the Republican side,” Lenoir said. “If any other candidate said half of the things Donald Trump has said, they would be out of the race. But this is a unique election cycle, so we will have to see how it all plays out.”