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Of course it’s relevant, Mr. Trump

If you run for President, your entire adult life becomes fair game for journalistic scrutiny.

Quite frankly, I would have thought that was the kind of entirely obvious thing that wouldn’t have needed saying. Candidates for the most powerful political position in the world waive any claim that their personal histories are not worthy matters for investigation and possible reporting. If you have peccadilloes you’d prefer nobody find out about, then throwing your hat into the biggest electoral ring in the country isn’t for you. (If you happen to have been paying attention at the time, perhaps you’ll recall the Important Question of whether or not Bill Clinton “inhaled” when he was in college.)

And so it is with Mr. Donald Trump. In case you hadn’t noticed, the real estate mogul, reality star and all-around swell guy is running for President of the United States. He is, at present, doing rather well in the polls.

Two days ago, The Daily Beast ran a story about an allegation made against Trump by his former wife Ivana during their divorce proceedings. As detailed in a biography published in 1993, she stated that one night in 1989 he became enraged at her and, by her description, raped her. Though she tried to soften the term in a later statement, she did not dispute the actual facts as stated, and still used the word “violated” to describe what transpired.

When the reporters from The Daily Beast reached out for comment from Trump’s camp, they were put in touch with a lawyer named Michael Cohen. In the course of their conversation, he not only threatened them in incredibly graphic ways, but denied that there was even such a thing as spousal rape.

Let’s just pause with that for a moment. The person the Trump campaign provided for comment responded to questions with threats and a blatantly incorrect legal opinion about rape. That is the level of prudence and probity we are dealing with when discussing the candidacy of Donald Trump.

Since the story ran, it has dominated much of the subsequent news cycle. Trump has responded in his usual thoughtful, considered manner. He’s tried to create some daylight between himself and his lawyer, but I happen to think the candidate has to own the comments his lackey provides when speaking on behalf of said candidate.

What’s striking to me is that, by way of trying to delegitimize the story, both Megyn Kelly and Joe Scarborough asked Tim Mak (one of the story’s authors) why the subject was relevant in the first place. Both seemed to suggest that all manner of inflammatory things are said during divorce proceedings, and that there was nothing worth covering about Ivana’s allegations from years ago.

At this point I should disavow any claim to neutrality. The Daily Beast runs my writing on a consistent basis, a fact that makes me nothing but happy. (On that note, this post does not in any way represent the editorial opinions of anyone at that publication, and was not written on their behest. I am speaking for nobody but myself.) Furthermore, though I have never met Tim, the article’s other author Brandy Zadrozny is someone I have not only met, but consider a personal friend. I am unambiguously on #TeamDailyBeast here.

But having said that, on what planet is something included in an easily-available biography of a man who was already a very famous figure at the time of the alleged events somehow not relevant for discussion when the subject decides to run for President? No matter what Donald or Ivana have said since, she made the statements as reported in sworn testimony, and it speaks very much to his character then and now. The lighter-fluid-on-a-brushfire nature of the lawyer’s threats and comments only make the article more relevant, but even without them the subject is in-bounds.

Candidates for high office cannot redact their own histories and put blinders on reporters. They can’t. An argument can be made for childhood incidents to remain off the record, I’ll grant. But from legal majority onward, if you don’t want people investigating your life, don’t make a play for votes.

[Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons]

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74 thoughts on “Of course it’s relevant, Mr. Trump

  1. I was really taken aback by Morning Joe’s treatment of Tim Mak (which I only read about, but didn’t see). Why invite him on the show if you think the information he provides is useless? (And I actually like Morning Joe more than most people I know. That is, I like it more than people I know like it, I don’t like it more than the actual people I know.)

    That said, like you, I fail to understand how even a decades-old rape allegation is irrelevant. It so obviously speaks to someone’s character whether or not they have ever raped that I find myself simply speechless when someone suggests it’s a long time ago, or has no bearing on ability to lead.

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  2. But having said that, on what planet is something included in an easily-available biography of a man who was already a very famous figure at the time of the alleged events somehow not relevant for discussion when the subject decides to run for President?

    This may be a rhetorical question. I’m going to risk it and give you an answer. The relevancy of anything in the context of a political campaign is wholly and completely dependent on the agenda of the person doing the evaluating. If that strikes you as an unsatisfying answer, that is because it is.

    The way to deal with this is simple. Never, at anytime, assume that anyone involved in electoral politics – sitting politicians, candidates, their aides, the pundits, anyone- is ever acting in anything remotely resembling good faith. The entire thing is being actively stage-managed. The only time you glimpse the truth is when someone messes up and you manage to catch a glimpse of the strings.

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      • No, because that happened in your alternate universe.

        Reid said Romney didn’t pay taxes from 1991-2011. Not because he was a cheat, but because he had enough big time tax lawyers to find enough loopholes for him not to have to pay taxes. He never called Romney a tax cheat.

        He did end up being very, very wrong about his claim though, which is one more data point for why you should always disregard any “fact” a politician backs up by attributing it to some nameless guy who knows a guy.

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      • REID’s allegations? Call me when wikileaks backs him up.
        (I’m pretty sure Wikileaks has the info, actually. Whether or not they’ve published it…)
        Romney’s cheating (via use of offshore accounting), and subsequent taking advantage of IRS rules for remittance, is the only sensible reason for him to not publish his taxes.

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    • j r: The relevancy of anything in the context of a political campaign is wholly and completely dependent on the agenda of the person doing the evaluating.

      This at least partly explains why it’s a bigger deal that Tom Brady deleted his texts than that Hillary Clinton deleted her e-mails.

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      • Yes, and to continue the comparison: My FB feed has more than one Patriots fan posting indignantly about the outright injustice that the NFL is doing to Tom Brady.

        People like what they like and they rationalize what’s relevant after the fact.

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  3. “If you happen to have been paying attention at the time, perhaps you’ll recall the Important Question of whether or not Bill Clinton “inhaled” when he was in college.”

    There was a more Important Question, which is closer parallel to what is being alleged with Trump.

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  4. Three thoughts.

    First of all,

    Both [Kelly and Scarborough] seemed to suggest that all manner of inflammatory things are said during divorce proceedings, and that there was nothing worth covering about Ivana’s allegations from years ago.

    The first part of that statement is true. All manner of inflammatory things are said during divorce proceedings, and for that reason statements made in that context should be taken with serious skepticism.

    The second part of that statement is not true, for the reasons stated in the OP: they are statements suggesting that a man who is presently the front-runner (!) for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States raped his own wife during an argument. If true, this speaks volumes about his dynamics for resolution of conflict.

    We most certainly should consider that fact that the former Mrs. Trump made the statements in a contested divorce proceeding funded by unlimited money to pay for lawyers when evaluating the veracity of her statement. We most certainly should consider subsequent remarks by her attempting to walk back the forcefulness of the earlier remark. And we most certainly should consider Mr. Trump’s statement that the whole thing simply never happened. As third-party investigators attempting to discern truth, these are all things that factor into a superficially simple but in fact complex inquiry about something that happened many, many years ago.

    Saying that a statement is subject to impeachment is not the same thing as saying it is irrelevant.

    (Welcome to my world, by the way.)

    Second, I cannot express in strong enough terms just how weary and professionally embarrassed I am by yet another incident of SIHTAF:

    I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know,” Cohen said. “So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?”

    “You write a story that has Mr. Trump’s name in it, with the word ‘rape,’ and I’m going to mess your life up… for as long as you’re on this frickin’ planet… you’re going to have judgments against you, so much money, you’ll never know how to get out from underneath it,” he added.

    I get this sort of thing about one time in four that I make first contact with counsel for an opposing party. “I don’t know what kind of malicious lies your client has told you, but you’d better back down fast, buddy, because if you don’t I won’t just be coming after your client I’ll be coming after you. I’ll be coming after your house, I’ll be coming after your bank accounts, I’ll be coming after your license to practice law because you’re a f[ish]ing disgrace to the profession for even filing this thing, and you have one f[ish]ing chance to redeem yourself — One. F[ish]ing. Chance, counsel. — By dismissing this piece of s[alt] lawsuit this very f[ish]ing day.”

    One time, I got a variant on that speech and when the other lawyer paused for breath, I asked him, “Does that ever work?” It derailed him. “Huh? What do you mean?” “I mean, when you give that speech, does it ever convince an opposing lawyer to actually do what you say he should?” “I don’t think you’re TAKING THIS VERY SERIOUSLY, COUNSEL!” “No, I’m not. Do what you’ve got to do. Now, can we meet and confer on the Rule 16 statement, please?” (Once again, welcome to my life. Hey, college students: still thinking law school might be a good option?)

    Which is actually not a very distant analogy from the matter at hand. What did the lawyer think was going to happen when he threatened a reporter with a retaliatory lawsuit? (I’ve got a pretty good idea of what he ought to have expected and it’s a shame New York’s law in that realm is not as robust as California’s.) It’s a transparent bluff to all but the most gullible and spineless, and therefore hugely ineffective. It creates conflict and friction in a situation where the conflict and friction will more often than not backfire. It makes your adversary want to double down against you rather than back off.

    In the world of law, you get exposed to all sorts of people, making all sorts of accusations. You deny them. You point out that they’re just accusations. You point out that the accuser has a reason to say things that aren’t true. Or, if you can’t think to do anything like that, you punt — “Well, I’m not going to respond to that,” or at the worst-but-still-at-least-marginally-acceptable level, “No comment.”

    What you don’t do is misstate the law and then hide your client behind that incorrect statement of law. You can rape your own spouse and this guy should have known that, the change in the law wasn’t that long ago and it wasn’t exactly a secret when it happened. What you don’t do is respond to something in a way that makes it worse than it was before you had to respond to it.

    Third, and dovetailing with my own thoughts about The Donald today, it’s worth noting that Trump’s response to the whole thing is to belittle everyone involved — the Daily Beast itself, its reporter, and his own lawyer — as incompetent and unworthy of attention or respect. Why? What’s the point of doing this? The Daily Beast is most certainly not what Trump portrays it to be — exhibit 1, the fact that this story by the Beast is being taken seriously and threatens to drive a stake into Trump’s very candidacy. But the response is not a denial or even a spin — it’s an aggressive, off-point, scarcely-credible, and obviously diversionary counter-attack.

    Maybe this sort of s[alt] works in the hallways of one of the civil terms of a branch of the New York Supreme Court or over the phone when talking to a vastly underfunded vendor. What it reveals, though, is a deep and profound disrespect for the people on the receiving end of these remarks, contempt which transcends the sorts of disagreements that are inherently part of both law and politics. Which, in turn, reveals a temperament thoroughly unsuitable for holding a position of high office in a government, like ours, which is committed to democratic selection of leaders and division of power and authority amongst those leaders.

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          • I’ve found that such bluster is just about always the best way to delay or prevent settlement from happening quickly. When a white shoe partner does it, I suspect it’s mostly a way of making it look like you’re “fighting” for your client and that the other side is to blame for your exorbitant fees. When it’s a dude on a billboard, odds are that it’s because his clients hire him for the express purpose of hiring someone who will act like the biggest jerk possible because they think (wrongly) that’s what wins cases or gets great settlements.

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    • See, people don’t understand… lawyers tend to be pretty law abiding people. Even when they aren’t, they are generally smart enough not to go on record making threats they intend to keep (stabbing you in the back later is a timehonored tradition, but generally done legally. Read The Contract, folks!).

      Then there’s shit like this:

      You find me a lawyer that deliberately talks a man into getting himself tasered on video camera.
      Yeah, like that’s likely.

      Police? Yeah, I can totally see them doing extralegal stuff.
      But if a lawyer takes his shoe off and starts pounding the table, that’s generally his only move.

      Given how much the judges throw the book at the inane people who DO slap liens on everyone in sight, I’ve gotta admit that they’d probably start throwing the gavel at a lawyer pulling that crap. Because a lawyer ought to know better.

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    • What you don’t do is misstate the law and then hide your client behind that incorrect statement of law. You can rape your own spouse and this guy should have known that, the change in the law wasn’t that long ago and it wasn’t exactly a secret when it happened. What you don’t do is respond to something in a way that makes it worse than it was before you had to respond to it.

      Yeah, that was sorta an amazing rebuttal. ‘I deny my client forced sex on his wife, and even if he did, it was entirely legal!’.

      Oh, okay, as long as it’s *legal*. Glad you cleared that up.

      WTF?

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      • Once upon a time, there was a lawyer named Richard “Racehorse” Haynes. Out of Houston. He’s still alive, I think, but he’s got to be pushing 90 years old now. He gave a rather famous speech to the American Bar Association in the early 70’s, including something to the effect of, “You you want to sue me because YOU say, my dog bit you? Well, my dog doesn’t bite. Besides, my dog was tied up that night. And what’s more, no dog bit you at all. Oh, and I don’t have a dog.”

        We call this sort of thing “pleading in the alternative” and it is a perfectly valid sort of thing for a defendant to do in legal pleadings, especially early on in the case before the lawyer can get a really good handle on what happened. But, what works well at an early stage of legal proceedings in a court of law is not necessarily going to work well in the court of public opinion. Trump isn’t responding here to a legal charge of rape, it’s political mud being slung.

        Racehorce Haynes. Dude’s a frickin’ legend.

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        • We call this sort of thing “pleading in the alternative” and it is a perfectly valid sort of thing for a defendant to do in legal pleadings, especially early on in the case before the lawyer can get a really good handle on what happened.

          Yes, but I suspect, in reality, it would be closer to ‘We do not admit there was a dog, and, if there was one, we do not admit any hypothetical dog bit anyone.’.

          No need to stipulate facts the other side might not be able to prove. Prove a dog exists. Prove the man was bitten. Prove that specific dog did it. Prove that specific dog is my dog.

          But it’s hard to see how flatly saying both that I *have* a dog (Who doesn’t bit anyone), and I *don’t* have a dog, would not be lying in one of those statements.

          But, what works well at an early stage of legal proceedings in a court of law is not necessarily going to work well in the court of public opinion. Trump isn’t responding here to a legal charge of rape, it’s political mud being slung.

          Which makes it all the more weird his *lawyer* responded to it.

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  5. I saw someone on Twitter this morning saying that the attorney worked on the Dukakis campaign and proudly voted for Obama. Trump himself has strong ties to the Clintons as I understand.

    Now, to be clear, I’m like 99% certain that Trump, and the people who surround him, really is just this much of an a-hole, idiot and huckster. That he is doing so well in the polls is beyond astounding to me, even if you accept the idea that people like him because they think he speaks his mind and trust him in a way they don’t trust the average consultant-driven politician. I mean…..even if you accept that this is why people are supporting him, the problem is that so much of the crap that comes out of his mouth is a demonstrable, documented, and obvious lie. In other words, he’s not just wrong about almost everything about which he speaks, he’s often openly dishonest. To say that one likes him because he speaks his mind is to confuse political incorrectness with honesty, which ….ugh.

    I’m not even (just) talking about policy here. Let’s start with his well-documented lies about his personal wealth. He lied about the amount he bid on the Buffalo Bills last year: http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikeozanian/2014/08/06/donald-trump-offers-less-than-900-million-for-buffalo-bills/

    He’s facing several massive lawsuits for fraud, including one from the NY Attorney General’s office. And those allegations are not exactly weak or tenuous.

    But I digress. As I was saying, he’s got ties to the Clintons and his attorney seems to be a lifelong Democrat until now. There is a small part of me that looks at those facts and then looks at all the crazy ass crap that’s been coming out of his mouth and then looks at how his polling numbers keep rising, and then thinks “y’know what, maybe this is just an elaborate troll job against the GOP base.” This small part of me half expects that sometime after there’s been some primaries, he’ll hold a press conference and essentially say “yeah, I didn’t believe any of the crazy-ass crap that came out of my mouth, I was just trying to see what the most outrageous and idiotic thing I could say or do would be before I started losing support. What the hell is wrong with you people?”

    Honestly, I hope this is what ultimately happen, because it would almost be easier to understand than the truth.

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    • It’s not that hard to understand Trump. He is a shameless self-promoter, who after years of honing his skills in the NY media circus finally got a national stage with The Apprentice. The presidential elections are just his next project.

      I have never believed for one second that Donald Trump has had any desire to run a serious campaign for president or to serve in the role. His whole business persona is based on presenting the appearance that he is very good at making deals (and to some extent he is), but his operational business acumen is rather suspect. I cannot believe that Trump wants any part in the grinding, day-to-day political work of the presidency.

      My guess is that he is as surprised as everyone else that his shtick is working (or maybe he’s such a sociopath that he has no capacity to be surprised by this) and simply looking to ride this out as best he can and cash out with the most chips. Will Wilkinson makes the most compelling argument that I have seen in regards to Trump’s motives: http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2015/07/politics-and-deal-making

      So if you have the money, why not run? Mr Trump’s lust for attention, combined with his fortune, seemed to be all the explanation needed. “Do I look like I have a plan?” says the Joker in “The Dark Knight”. “I’m a dog chasing cars. I don’t know what I’d do if I caught it”. Mr Trump’s havoc-spreading run seemed to share this improvisational spirit.

      Wilkinson goes on to propose that Trump’s exit strategy is to use the threat of a third party candidacy to force some boon from the Republican Party. If I had to bet, I would bet on some version of that theory.

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      • j r: Wilkinson goes on to propose that Trump’s exit strategy is to use the threat of a third party candidacy to force some boon from the Republican Party.

        I just wondering what that is. Trump already got from the Republican establishment an outsized microphone on Fox News over the last 7-8 years. Fox’s entertainment division is philosophically, if not formally, firewalled from the news side, so it’s unlikely there’s enough leverage to pick up Apprentice after NBC dropped it. Republicans universally like tax cuts well enough, and every municipal elected Republican already is the the pocket of developer interests and votes that way.

        What possibly could Trump get that he doesn’t already get in one way or another?

        eta: to the extent that Trump’s business enterprises are still tied to real estate development, rental and sales, that interest is completely at odds with Trump’s immigration stance.

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        • Sometimes staying in the limelight is enough of a reward in itself. Also since he has some big court cases going on he may feel this will give him an easy explanation for losing since he was being persecuted or that being a prez candidate will insulate him from losing in the first place. But i would bet on just getting attention for as long as possible is a good enough reason for his trumpness.

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          • I think a lot of this attempted tea reading I see about Trump’s 5D chess end game — which in seeing a lot on the tubes these days — is overthinking.

            I think has it right: Donald Trump is being Donald Trump because that’s who he is.

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            • Oh i agree. He has always been this way. He wants attention and to be in the center ring of the circus. That is enough for him.

              Or he is in cahoots with Berkley Breathad to drag us back a few decades. They are working with the Bush and Clinton teams to replicate the late 80’s/early 90’s because they all have money in Aqua net hair spray and a neon clothing line.

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          • I’d say if he has a grand plan, it’s to get his name and face on more TV sets and stroke his ego as long as he can, and then maybe get the Republican party to pay him to go away (and not threaten to split the vote as an independent candidate) by giving him an important looking title in the party’s operations. National Chairman for Bluster or something like that, so he can feel like he has his thumb on the throbbing pulse of the political world just as much as he has mastered the business world. He came, he saw, he conquered.

            Like you said, sitting in the Oval Office almost certainly has nothing to do with it, although I’m sure he’d make the most of it if it fell into his lap.

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      • Trump has always been, in my mind, the male version of Sarah Palin. (Or, rather, she was the female version of him.) He’s in the news solely to promote his brand. There is nothing else there.

        If he actually *got* elected, he’d probably quit halfway through. Or, hilariously, drop out after he made the ballot.

        But I’m not *entirely* convinced that he isn’t running as a Republican so, *in addition* to promoting himself, he can completely and utterly screw up the Republican primary, and then, if he wants, run as an independent and screw the election for the Republican…

        …and, hey, look, his old friends the Clintons are back in the White House. What a coincidence.

        I don’t think he’s running *to* sabotage the Republicans…but I do think he’s deliberately set up his self-promotion so it *does*.

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      • “Do I look like I have a plan?” says the Joker in “The Dark Knight”. “I’m a dog chasing cars. I don’t know what I’d do if I caught it”.

        Incidentally, this is a really strange quote for the article to use. The Joker had an *amazingly convoluted* plan in that movie, and he was *lying* when he said he didn’t have one. In fact, it’s so convoluted the movie has a bunch of plotholes because it wouldn’t have been possible for the Joker to have planned certain things, especially how his jailbreak worked.

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    • I’m personally coming around to the idea that we’re attributing “significant” to that which is mostly just “interesting.”

      Trump has the die-hard support of the anti-immigration crowd, in large part because they don’t have anyone else to trust. The closest being Walker and Cruz, the latter having little momentum and the former being suspect in and of himself.

      His name is everywhere, and it stands to reason a lot of other people who aren’t following the race would throw his name out there.

      He doesn’t actually have all that much support, he’s just sitting atop a fragmented field. He is not doing appreciably better than Fred Thompson was doing at this point in 2007, and worse than Rudy Giuliani was.

      Obviously, he’s not going to win the nomination, but it’s not even clear that he’s skewing the race all that much. He’s attracting a lot of attention, but at least at this juncture I’m not sure he’s drawing attention that would otherwise be on more legitimate candidates, rather than drawing attention from Caitlyn Jenner.

      And it’s not clear that he’s doing a particular job of driving the agenda. The commentators are running on autopilot with the suggestion that the Republican candidates are all desperate for the right-right vote like so many were in 2012, when that’s not true of most of the candidates in the top couple of tiers.

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  6. Every time a media-type says something is not relevant to the campaign, I’d love to hear them explain precisely what a campaign is for. Because if the point is just to get the candidates’ positions on the issues, why does it take you over a year to do that?

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  7. I’m shocked that ANYONE could argue with a straight face that rape allegations are ever irrelevant when judging an individual’s character.

    The way I see it, there should be some sort of sliding scale of relevancy based on the particulars of the act in question.

    Rape — along with a few other acts — should be on the end of the scale that has big bold lettering that says, “ALWAYS FREAKIN’ RELEVANT!”

    Which isn’t to say that the existence of rape allegations (or a single rape allegation) should immediately disqualify someone from the Presidency (officially or otherwise). But Trump should be expected to answer questions about his ex-wife’s statements and that he apparently was caught off guard that they were brought up or does not seem how they could be a factor in decided the appropriateness of his fit for the office of the President is… well… wow. I mean, if you didn’t think this guy was wholly unfit to serve previously, how can you draw any other conclusion now? Even if the allegations are wholly false, if he can’t see why people would want confirmation of that before voting for him, that just demonstrates an appalling lack of perspective, rationality, and understanding of what the President’s job is.

    Then again, this IS Trump we’re talking about so…

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    • Kazzy uses a word that is makes it unavoidable to raise a very important question, important both in general, and in the more specific context of judging the fitness of politicians’ characters for office. (If not in this particular instance, since this character is never getting elected to any office regardless, then for candidates for office generally.) It’s one of the most vexing questions in all of moral and legal philosophy: what exactly can constitute *confirmation* that certain criminal allegations are false?

      We can be certain that this or that is *evidence* for their falseness. We can decide to be *satisfied* by this or that amount of evidence. We can choose to be satisfied that the charges are false, for instance, by the fact that Ivana Trump recanted the allegations – or we can choose not to be. But when is it in fact *confirmed* that some allegations are false; that it doesn’t matter whether we’re inclined to believe it or not: it’s confirmed they’re false.

      This is the dangerous nature of allegations of infamous crimes, whether truthful or slanderous. It’s why there have been so many murders committed over the years over disputes about whether someone’s “honor” has been wrongly besmirched. It’s very difficult to “confirm,” much less then to get people to believe it has been confirmed, that an allegation is false, once it’s been made and become part of the bundle of things the world “knows” (that the allegation was made, whatever its truth) about a person.

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      • A very fair point. Better wording would have been along the lines of Trump providing convincing or satisfying evidence of the falseness of the claims, with both of these being decided largely on the individual level.

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        • Didn’t mean it so much as a nitpick of your wording as an opportunity to make the point. People will at certain times be very disinclined to allow that some allegations are false. “Confirmation” (as you put) then becomes important, though, as I say, it is very elusive. Which is problematic.

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          • My observation is that people who want “confirmation” of such things are often impossible to please. See: Birthers, anti-vaxxers, creationists, climate change deniers, etc.

            I would not need Trump to *confirm* that the allegations are false. But, good god man, at least respond to the allegations with something other than attacking those asking the questions (via a proxy).

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  8. When a presidential candidate has committed a crime, or has been credibly accused of such – and not a victimless crime such as smoking weed, but a serious assault – then yes, of course it is relevant to their campaign.

    So yes, this is absolutely worth being talked about.

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