Just how gullible does Donald Trump suppose the American voter is?
The billionaire showman has been the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for only a couple of weeks, yet his general election strategy is already becoming clear: hope for a mass nationwide outbreak of short-term memory loss. His top strategist, Paul Manafort, has said that the “part that he’s been playing is evolving.” But this isn’t evolution – it’s reincarnation.
That call Trump made “for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”? Turns out that was “just a suggestion,” he now says.
The federal minimum wage increase, which he repeatedly opposed? Now he’s “looking at” an increase, he says.
The massive tax cut he proposed during the primary, which analysts said would add $10 trillion to the federal debt? Never mind! He’s hired experts to rewrite it in a way that cuts taxes less for the wealthy.
Those tax returns he promised “certainly” to release? Not going to happen, he says now.
One of his key surrogates, Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., now declares that he doesn’t expect Trump to build a border wall or deport 11 million illegal immigrants – the cornerstones of Trump’s primary campaign. The congressman told The Buffalo News that Trump would build a “virtual wall” and that his deportation plan was “rhetorical.”
Remember all those companies Trump blasted for sending jobs overseas? Ford was a “disgrace,” Disney had “outrageous” practices, Carrier deserved higher taxes, Apple should be boycotted because it didn’t help the FBI in a terrorism case, and Trump’s never eating an Oreo again because Nabisco outsourced. Financial disclosures last week showed Trump has invested in all of the above.
Or his incendiary (and retracted) claim that women who have abortions should face criminal punishment? What he really was saying was “women punish themselves,” he told The New York Times Magazine.
The list goes on and on. Trump, who said that “if you’re running for president, you should not be allowed to use a teleprompter,” has used that very device in at least two recent speeches. Trump, who previously boasted that “I don’t have pollsters” because “I want to be me,” hired a pollster, Tony Fabrizio.
Some of those who backed Trump must feel like suckers. But will his clumsy effort to somersault into the mainstream appeal to the rest of the electorate? Perhaps. Yet it also reaffirms the biggest worry about Trump: He has no mooring other than self-love – and that’s why he’s dangerous.
To rationalize these wild shifts in position, let’s bring in John Miller, the Trump “publicist” who called journalists in the 1990s to praise Trump but who was actually Trump himself. My Washington Post colleague Marc Fischer unearthed a recording of a 1991 call from “Miller” to People magazine about Trump’s shifts from Ivana to Marla to Carla Bruni and others. Substitute policies for women and the words go a long way toward explaining Trump’s political views today as he flirts with positions then discards them:
“He really decided that he wasn’t, you know, he didn’t want to make any commitment.”
“He’s somebody that has a lot of options, and, frankly, he gets called by everybody. He gets called by everybody in the book, in terms of women.”
“Marla would’ve liked to get married, obviously, but it was just something he didn’t want to do.”
“I think that he’s got a whole open field really. … Actresses, people that you write about just call to see if they can go out with him and things.”
Madonna “called and wanted to go out with him, that I can tell you.”
“Marla wants to be back with him.”
“Ivana wants to get back with Donald.”
“I mean, he’s living with Marla, and he’s got three other girlfriends.”
“So now he has somebody else named Carla who is beautiful.”
“He’s not making any commitments to Carla either, just so you understand.”
There were words from “Miller” that ring true today: how Trump is “immune” from and “actually thrived” on bad press, and how self-interest drives him above all else, because “he does things for himself.”
Trump immediately said the unearthed recording wasn’t of him. Given the sound of the voice and Trump’s prior admission to posing as his own publicist, this was obviously false. But perhaps to Trump it wasn’t a lie. Back then, he spoke of Ivana, Marla, Carla and Madonna. Now it’s Muslims, the minimum wage, taxes and the wall. In both, Trump’s idea of the truth means whatever words last came out of his mouth.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.