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Trump bombs in first Reform appearance
The Donald needs to do some homework before opening his mouth.

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By Micah L. Sifry

Oct. 4, 1999 | WASHINGTON -- Donald Trump is lucky the interview he gave last Friday wasn't published in Playboy. Because while Jesse Ventura was being raked over the coals for some flippant remarks he made about religion, Tailhook and fat people, the Donald was performing a huge belly-flop in front of the very folks he'll have to attract if he decides to battle Pat Buchanan for the Reform Party's presidential nomination.

Trump's stumble came at this weekend's convention of the American Reform Party at the Holiday Inn on the Hill. ARP is a splinter organization of ex-Perotistas that broke away from the Reform Party in 1997 out of disgust with the lack of genuine democracy within the organization.

Though the ARP is smaller than the Reform Party, with chapters in perhaps 20 states and ballot lines in none, it is a serious organization that primarily focuses on the issues rather than personalities.

Its platform, which has been developed through a process of ongoing deliberation, takes clear, specific stands on such topics as tax reform (move toward a graduated flat tax or a consumption tax), government spending (pay down the debt), immigration (tighten restrictions), political reform (term limits and public financing of elections) and trade (protection of labor rights and the environment).

And though its members are not currently part of the Reform Party, the two groups may reunite in the near future, making the ARP potentially a significant base for the more moderate voices in the whole Reform movement.

No doubt it was a desire to be seen as reaching out to these moderates (and to create some interference for Lowell Weicker, who had already agreed to keynote) that led Donald Trump to call the ARP's convention planners the day before the meeting began and ask to be added to the agenda, via a live telephone hookup that he offered to pay for.

But while the phone connection was clear, and the hundred or so assembled ARP leaders were clearly pleased at the attention and the chance to grill a prospective candidate, the Donald couldn't have played a worse hand.

"I am seriously looking at the Reform Party and the nomination," Trump began. "A lot of people are saying that maybe Donald Trump is just promoting a book, but that is not why I am involved."

"I am very comfortable with the Reform Party platform," he declared. And then he started to grab both feet and insert them into his mouth, one at a time.

"I'm strongly in favor of a very deep tax cut for the working people of America." People in the room started shaking their heads in bewilderment. If there is one thing all the various Reformers agree on, it is that paying down the national debt has to come before everything else, including tax cuts.

"Campaign finance needs an overhaul," Trump went on. Charles Riggs, an ARP activist who has led the party's thinking on political reform measures, asked for details. Does Trump support the McCain-Feingold bill banning soft money, or stronger measures being passed in the states creating full public financing systems? "I believe you should be able to help a candidate as much as possible," Trump answered, after bragging that he may well be the country's single biggest contributor to campaigns if you include the hundreds of thousands he's given to state and municipal candidates.

How would Trump reduce corporate welfare? Nelisse Muga of San Diego asked. "I am a believer in corporations," Trump answered. Someone murmured, "He is a corporation." "Corporate welfare is a word I hate," Trump continued. "I don't think it's a big factor." (It didn't help Trump that the group had earlier spent an hour listening to consumer advocate Ralph Nader on this very subject.)

How about moving toward a flat tax or a national sales tax? "We have a system that's working pretty well, and big changes can do big harm," Trump answered. There were more expressions of dismay from the audience.

What's wrong with the two-party system, someone else wanted to know. "I don't think anything is wrong with it," Trump answered, "though having a viable third party is important." Why was not clear.

The rest of Trump's comments were equally vacuous. He promised to fix America's trade deficit: "I do know something about negotiating." How would he save Social Security and Medicare? "You have to put some money aside, call it rainy day money." He refused to give any indication of who he would turn to for foreign policy advice: "We'd get the best people, the top talent."

The verdict of many of the ARP leaders I spoke to after the teleconference ended was plain. "He doesn't know what he's talking about, and he doesn't know who we are," said Kathleen Hopkins, the group's communications director. "He killed himself with us," said Charles Riggs. Rick Simon, a Reform Party candidate for George Brown's old seat in Congress, said, "I thought Trump was a lot of bad answers and empty answers. On three of our core issues: reducing the debt, he didn't care; campaign finance reform, he said he likes buying politicians; and corporate welfare, he said he doesn't see a problem."

So what did they think Trump was doing, arranging the teleconference and seeking their attention? "Being Trump," said Muga.

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