Donald Trump was served the political equivalent of batting practice last night. He took a mighty cut and swung for the fences. The presumptive GOP presidential nominee didn’t whiff, but he didn’t knock it out of the park, either. Call it a golden opportunity that was missed.
We refer to his speech in Raleigh, North Carolina, delivered just hours after FBI Director James Comey announced he would not recommend prosecution for Hillary Clinton in her e-mail scandal. And while Mr. Comey did a grave disservice to the rule of law, he methodically destroyed the various defenses that Clinton has offered for her “home-brew” e-mail system, which was used to transmit hundreds of classified messages. Comey’s point-by-point demolition of Mrs. Clinton’s arguments played perfectly into Trump’s claims about “Crooked Hillary” and the wholesale corruption associated with her political machine.
Comey finished his announcement before 12 noon (eastern time); Mr. Trump didn’t take the stage in Raleigh until roughly eight hours later. That was, presumably, enough time to craft a speech that expounded on the corruption and cronyism themes illustrated by the FBI decision; Hillary’s “convenient” weekend interview with the bureau and that “chance” meeting last week between her husband Bill and Attorney General Loretta Lynch in Phoenix. “The system is rigged” Trump tweeted after Comey’s announcement. That (supposedly) teed things up for a full-throated indictment of Clinton corruption during his Raleigh speech, with the e-mail scandal as merely the latest example.
To his credit, Trump did offer a couple of zingers about Hillary and her e-mails:
“We’re talking about the life blood of our country, the safety of our people,” said Trump, who took no time at all is using this ammunition against Clinton’s questionable judgment.
“Stupidity is not a reason that you’re going to be innocent,” Trump said.
But overall, the Raleigh address was merely a variation on his typical, rambling stump speech. Build the wall; protect our borders, strengthen our military, take care of our vets, repeal Obamacare–the same stuff you’ve heard a hundred times before.
To be fair, those are critically important themes and they do resonate with conservative voters. And every politician has a standard campaign address that is typically delivered at every stop. We’ll even give Mr. Trump credit for doing something most politicians avoid; he speaks from a few notes, rarely using the teleprompter that President Obama and Mrs. Clinton rely on like a crutch.
But last night wasn’t a time for the regular stump speech. The Raleigh forum provided an excellent opportunity to go after Mrs. Clinton’s illegal handling, transmission and storage of classified material–and the lies she used to justify her practices. An expanded speech, focused on those points, would have played very well in North Carolina for very important reasons, which were apparently lost on the Trump campaign.
For starters, the Tarheel State has one of the largest military populations in the nation. Well over 100,000 active duty personnel are stationed at Fort Bragg near Fayetteville; Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, Seymour Johnson AFB in Goldsboro and the Marine Corps Air Stations at New River and Cherry Point. Additionally, there are National Guard and Reserve units scattered across the state and North Carolina is home to hundreds of thousands of veterans and military dependents.
What do all of those service members–current and former–have in common? Virtually all of them hold (or have held) a security clearance. They are intimately aware of the requirements for gaining access to the nation’s secrets, and the standards of conduct necessary for maintaining a security clearance. Based on what we’ve learned from the FBI investigation, Hillary Clinton would no longer be eligible for a security clearance, based on her patterns of conducts and lies.
In other words, that Army Specialist at Fort Bragg, the Marine Lance Corporal at Lejeune and the Airman First Class at Seymour Johnson are being held to a higher standard than the woman who was First Lady, a Senator, Secretary of State and now wants to be Commander-in-Chief. The contrast could not be more stark–or compelling.
And, it’s a fair bet there were a number of military personnel at that Trump rally. We’re betting the room would have exploded if Trump had compared their conduct with that of Hillary Clinton, and told the crowd that she is not fit to lead those men and women.
Instead, we got the usual from Donald Trump. And it wasn’t a bad speech–just the wrong speech for that time and place. Maybe his handlers decided there wasn’t enough time to roll out an address on the e-mails and give him enough time to rehearse it before arriving in North Carolina. Or, perhaps the pollsters determined that such a speech would be too narrowly focused; better stick to the usual script and offer a little something for everyone.
Unfortunately, that calculation was a tactical error which (hopefully) won’t become a strategic mistake. Having escape prosecution yet again, Mrs. Clinton is desperate to change the topic, so she’s attacking Trump’s business record and his use of bankruptcy laws when a handful of his deals went bad.
Hillary is betting that Trump will take the bait and spend the coming days (or weeks) defending his business practices, and neglecting other issues. Obviously, Mr. Trump has every right to defend his long and successful career in various enterprises. But he shouldn’t take his eye off the prize; Hillary Clinton remains very vulnerable on the e-mail issue (and related corruption charges). And, even in a day when only 1% of the population serves in the military, most Americans can understand the difference between a junior enlisted member and a cabinet official. We’re also betting they can appreciate the difference in how those young troops uphold the highest standards of conduct and Mrs. Clinton doesn’t.
Mr. Trump needs to draw that distinction, every time he faces a campaign crowd or a TV camera. And his “ad team” (assuming they exist) need to craft spots which reinforce those themes, and air them in the swing states where Hillary now dominates the airwaves. In Norfolk, Virginia, for example, the Clinton campaign will air more than 1,000 TV spots before the end of the summer. We’re still waiting for the first Trump ad.
And did we mention that the Norfolk/Hampton Roads area has an even larger military/veterans population than North Carolina?