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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Published with permission from the Washington Monthly

Critics were right Wednesday in blasting CNN commentators for describing Republican Donald Trump as presidential. He had given remarks beside Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. As the Washington Posts’s Greg Sargent predicted, he didn’t vomit. He didn’t urinate. So … he’s presidential!

In fairness, this is a judgment based on Trump’s own standards. Those standards, of course, are very, very low. When he rose above them, voila! Even Bill Kristol, he of never-ever #NeverTrump, thought he looked pretty good.

The problem in my view is when commentators make judgments independent of Trump’s standards. For instance, that it was OK for him not to tell Peña Nieto his country would pay for a wall along the US-Mexican border.

I’ll get to the facts in a moment. Meanwhile, this is not Trump’s standard. His standard has always been that Mexico will pay. He has said that to media. He has said that to allies. He whips up crowds with a feverish call and response.

So when he said that they had not discussed who would pay for the wall, that should have raised a fat red flag. On the one hand, you could say he looked presidential. On the other, you could say he had his chance but choked.

I know that’s sounds uncharitable. Indeed, if this were any other candidate, I would say no way no how should a candidate visit a foreign country to make extraordinary demands of its leader. But that is precisely Trump’s way.

He savaged Republicans for exhibiting weakness. He knee-capped “low energy” Jeb Bush. He humiliated “Little” Marco Rubio. He memorably blamed Mitt Romney for losing to Obama in 2012. He said Romney choked under pressure.

These are Trump’s own standards: One, making Mexico pay for the wall. Two, making Mexico pay because only he has the strength to make Mexico pay. Everyone else is weak.

That facade fell to pieces Wednesday, or should have. Trump said during questions that he and Peña Nieto had not discussed payment. That was a choke, and bad enough. But it turns out they had discussed payment. Peña Nieto flatly told him that Mexico would not do any such thing.

So: Not only did he choke, he lied about it. Not only did he lie about it, he lied about getting played — by a man shorter than he, a man classier than he, a man who rises above petty demonstrations of machismo. Trump looked plain weak.

Remember, these are not my standards. These are Trump’s. More importantly, these are standards his supporters demand, and they may (fingers crossed) prove to be his undoing.

Later that same day, Trump held a rally in Arizona during which he presented his clearest vision of immigration policy. He restated that Mexico will pay for a wall.

“They don’t know it yet, but they will,” he said.

That statement should have deepened the impression that Trump is all talk. It should have given the impression that, like every bully, he becomes unglued in the face of strong opposition but returns to form when surrounded by people whose greatest wish is for him to demonstrate dominance.

The next day, Peña Nieto again took to Twitter to reiterate: Mexico will not pay. Let’s hope this lasts till November.

The Democrats are now trying to turn his greatest strength — the illusion of strength — into his greatest weakness. If he is made to look small at the presidential debates, he’s done. That can only be done if he’s held to this own standards.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale, a journalism fellow at Wesleyan, and US News & World Report contributing writer.

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