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Analysis: Donald Trump crafts a potent message, but proves a weak messenger

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee delivers a speech Wednesday in Manhattan
(Getty Images)

Donald Trump on Wednesday, for the first time, assembled a somewhat coherent message detailing Hillary Clinton’s vulnerabilities.

He also demonstrated that he is a supremely flawed messenger.

For almost every criticism Trump leveled at Clinton, a corresponding criticism could be made of Trump:

He targeted her support for regime change in Libya and the Iraq war, both moves that he supported.

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He criticized her for failing to release emails and speeches to Wall Street, even as he refuses to release his tax returns.

He accused her of treasonous acts to sell out America for personal profit, even as he faces a federal trial over allegations he defrauded paying customers at Trump University.

He assaulted her as a “world-class liar,” even as he made statements that have repeatedly been shown to be untrue.

Trump’s speech, delivered at one of his properties in Manhattan, underscored much of what has powered his campaign—and what limits his reach.

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He focused on areas important to many Americans, such as the uneven economic recovery and widespread suffering in communities dependent on now-shuttered factories. He pledged to “end the special interest monopoly” in Washington, and rebuked Clinton’s campaign slogan “I’m with Her.”

“You know what my response is to that? I’m with you,” Trump said.

But for all the potency in those arguments, Trump’s speech was rife with mis-truths, exaggerations and contradictions.

“No secretary of State has been more wrong, more often and in more places than Hillary Clinton,” he said at one point after raising—as Democrats have before him—some fact-based criticisms of Clinton’s foreign policy actions.

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But he immediately followed that with words so apocalyptic that they were more likely to provoke eye rolls than gain him a second look among voters trying to decide on a presidential candidate.

“Her decisions spread death, destruction and terrorism everywhere she touched,” he said.

Trump’s apparent goal with Wednesday’s speech was to quell an uprising among Republicans worried that his free-wheeling castigation of Muslim immigrants and the Latino judge hearing the Trump University case—as well as weaknesses in his lean campaign structure—threatened a blowout Clinton victory in November.

He may have temporarily quieted concerns, at least among Republican officials, about his demeanor: He spoke with the aid of a TelePrompter without straying dramatically from a text that omitted some of his more antagonistic proposals, such as building a wall on the Mexican border. He collected in one address many of the disparate Clinton criticisms made by Republicans and, in the recent Democratic primary season, by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

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But then he reverted to being Trump.

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He asserted that Clinton would pave the way for abolishing the 2nd Amendment, which she has specifically defended as she calls for restrictions on the availability of some weapons to some Americans. He said that Clinton’s immigration policy called for “totally open borders”—a statement he repeated for emphasis, but which is not true.

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He said Clinton was solely responsible for a U.S. “invasion” of Libya; the action in Libya was instead a NATO-led air campaign in support of rebels. He said that during her four years as secretary of State, Clinton had “almost single-handedly destabilized the entire Middle East,” a statement that greatly underestimated the roles of both President Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Trump faces a difficult navigation as he seeks to coalesce support among skeptical Republicans and, at the same time, extend his reach among non-Republicans. (He made repeated entreaties Wednesday to Sanders’ supporters and lifted the senator’s liberal use of the words “rigged” and “corrupt.”)

A credible line of attack against Clinton, for example, is her 2002 vote as senator in support of the Iraq war. Both Obama, in his 2008 campaign against Clinton, and Sanders this year, used that profitably against Clinton because many Democrats opposed military action.

But the Iraq war was proposed by a Republican president and backed by almost all GOP elected officials, making Trump’s criticism of it Wednesday problematic. And although Trump has repeatedly claimed that he opposed the war, the public record includes recordings of him saying, at the time, that he supported it.

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Trump faces the same problem with his criticism of Clinton’s support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was backed by Republicans and negotiated by the George H.W. Bush administration.

Trump’s newborn general election message seems caught between making the zingers that draw rapturous applause from his campaign crowds and demonstrating a presidential grasp of the nuances of foreign and domestic policy.

He was tied in that knot Wednesday on the topic of Muslim immigrants and his proposed ban on their entrance into the United States.

In what seemed an attempt to telegraph sympathy, Trump first said that the Islamic State terrorists threaten “peaceful Muslims…who have been victimized by horrible brutality and who only want to raise their kids in peace and safety.” Only minutes later, he scored Clinton for proposing an increase in refugees from Syria – those same refugees.

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He then said Clinton wanted to spend “hundreds of billions” to resettle Middle Eastern refugees in this country, money that he said could otherwise be used to “rebuild every inner city in America.” The statement seemed aimed at softening his image among minority residents of those areas, but it bore no relation to the truth: The current resettlement budget for all refugees is in the low single digits of billions and the increase Clinton advocates, while sixfold, would apply only to the small subset from Syria.

What Wednesday demonstrated, anew, is that Trump’s campaign exists outside the universe occupied by previous candidates. No presidential candidate can credibly argue, as Trump did, that he would lower taxes for everyone and yet also build “the greatest infrastructure on the planet Earth.” No previous candidate got away with the repeated misstatements that Trump relishes.

But Trump has succeeded for months because his pitch has everything to do with playing to the grievances of a substantial portion of Americans, who do not always demand factual accuracy from him. How he holds on to those voters, as he tries to attract others with this new TelePromptered Trump, is the challenge ahead.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

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Twitter: @cathleendecker

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