If Donald Trump’s weekend was already a train wreck, the derailed cars burst spectacularly into flame on Sunday morning with the release of a taped interview the Republican presidential nominee gave to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. Trump appeared to be unaware that Russian troops are fighting in Ukraine, and have been for some time. He also suggested that Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which Russia invaded and declared Russian territory in 2014, be ceded to the Kremlin.
In a discussion about US policy toward Ukraine, Stephanopoulos asked Trump about his campaign operatives’ successful effort to block the addition of a plank to the GOP platform that would have advocated providing lethal weapons to Ukraine to help defend against the Russian-backed insurgency in its eastern Donbas region.
Trump said, “I was not involved” no fewer than five times in trying to avoid the issue, which put him in direct opposition to the majority of the Republican foreign policy establishment.
It wasn’t even clear that Trump knew what the change entailed until Stephanopoulos spelled it out for him and asked why he thought it was a good idea.
Trump again dodged, appearing to claim that there was no need for the weapons by arguing that Russian President Vladimir Putin wasn’t going to take action against Ukraine.
“He's not going into Ukraine, OK? Just so you understand. He's not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.”
“Well, he's already there, isn't he?” asked Stephanopoulos.
“OK, well, he's there in a certain way, but I'm not there yet,” Trump said, rapidly trying to shift the conversation to the subject of President Obama. “You have Obama there. And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama, with all the strength that you're talking about and all of the power of NATO and all of this, in the meantime, he's going where -- he takes -- takes Crimea, he's sort of -- I mean…”
It was a place Trump should not have gone, because Stephanopoulos then asked about a recent suggestion that he would recognize the Crimea as Russian territory and eliminate sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of the Ukrainian territory.
“I'm going to take a look at it,” he said. “But, you know, the people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”
The idea of simply allowing Russia to take part of another country’s territory by force with no consequences is anathema to most if not all of the United States’ European allies, who have come to consider the US a major bulwark against Russian aggression on its Western borders.
In a part of the interview that was released Saturday, Trump also attacked the family of Pakistani-American US Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who died in 2004 while protecting his troops in Iraq. Khan’s father, Khizr Khan, delivered a blistering takedown of Trump during the Democratic National Convention last week, challenging Trump’s knowledge of the Constitution and questioning his right to impugn the patriotism of others when “You have sacrificed nothing. And no one.”
Asked to address Khan’s criticism, Trump began by insinuating that his wife, Ghazala Khan, had been silent during her husband’s speech because she wasn’t “allowed” to speak -- relying on his go-to assertion that “a lot of people have said that” make what looked very much like an attack on the Khan’s Islamic faith a part of the public record.
“I saw him. He was, you know, very emotional. And probably looked like -- a nice guy to me. His wife, if you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably -- maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say. You tell me, but plenty of people have written that. She was extremely quiet and looked like she had nothing to say. A lot of people have said that.”
Trump went on to say that he has “made a lot of sacrifices. I've worked very, very hard. I've created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I've done -- I've had tremendous success.”
“Those are sacrifices?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“Oh, sure. I think they're sacrifices," he said, before going on to list things, like hiring people with employee benefits and raising money for charity, that don’t qualify as sacrifices in any context, much less when comparing them to a family who lost a son in the nation’s service.
The Trump campaign issued a furious denial Saturday night, claiming that he had not attacked the Khan family or compared his “sacrifices” to theirs. But the transcript doesn’t lie.