For his supporters, Donald Trump made one of his most effective campaign appearances in months today. This despite the fact that his 40-minute speech was seasoned with falsehoods and credulous repetitions of debunked conspiracy theories.
Facing intense criticism for how he has managed his campaign thus far -- from a failure to hire the necessary staff to unprecedentedly weak fundraising numbers -- the presumptive Republican presidential nominee was plainly making an effort to appear more serious and focused in the remarks he delivered from one of his Trump-branded hotel properties in New York City.
Trump kept his meandering, discursive asides to a minimum, sticking mostly to the words on the teleprompter. Unfortunately, while the candidate demonstrated an uncharacteristic amount of discipline, whoever wrote the speech for him did not.
The point of the prepared speech was to hammer Hillary Clinton by casting doubt on her honesty, integrity and judgment. And it did. But the way it went after Clinton -- repeating the tropes of the fantasist right and the unhinged haters of all things Clinton -- will raise new concerns about the judgment of both the candidate and the people surrounding him.
Not least of all because as a candidate, Hillary Clinton is wide open to truth-based criticism on various fronts, none of which require compromising the honesty of the attacker.
A few examples:
* He claimed that Clinton’s plan is to “end virtually all immigration enforcement, and thus create totally open borders in the United States.” That is flatly untrue.
* Despite multiple investigations that revealed that there was no action that could have been taken once the 2012 attacks on the U.S. government compound in Benghazi, Libya, began, Trump suggested that Clinton had ignored the attack, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. “He was left helpless to die as Hillary Clinton soundly slept in her bed -- that's right, when the phone rang at 3 o'clock in the morning, she was sleeping.”
* He also quoted from an upcoming book by a former uniformed Secret Service agent that claims to spill sordid details about adultery and spousal abuse in the Clinton White House. This, despite recent comments by the author’s fellow USSS agents, insisting that he could not possibly have had access to the places he claims to have been.
Immediately afterward on CNN, David Gergen, a White House staffer in both Republican and Democratic administrations, got to the heart of the dual effects the speech is likely to have.
“He is doing a lot of things that, for his side of the argument, he has helped himself,” Gergen said.
“But, you can’t ignore the truth of what he says or the lack of truth of what he says. And I do think in coming days we’re going to hear an awful lot about a string of lies and exaggerations.”
He concluded, “I’m sorry, at this level you can’t slander somebody, and this was a slanderous speech.”
That is to say that among people already intensely committed to Trump, especially those who may have felt doubtful in recent weeks of his ability to actually mount an effective campaign, Wednesday’s remarks probably helped.
For those who desperately hate Clinton and view keeping her out of the White House as an end that legitimizes all means, this speech was plainly a winner.
But beyond that hard core of supporters who were going to vote for Trump anyway, the benefits are far less clear.
That’s because when Trump speaks off the cuff, some of his wilder claims can be brushed aside as momentary lapses. People desperate for a way to justify supporting him can console themselves with the idea that there are cooler heads in the shadows behind Trump who will bring him under control when he’s in the Oval Office.
But when Trump’s lies and exaggerations are put down in writing in advance, presumably by those same handlers who will be expected to exert a moderating influence over President Trump, that model crumbles.
His speech Wednesday confirmed that a disinterest in truth and decency extends beyond Trump and goes deep into his campaign. For some people, that’s not a problem. But those aren’t the people Trump needs to convince anymore.