Donald Trump had two high-profile appearances on national security on Wednesday. One was a carefully prepared speech in Philadelphia that morning that included detailed policy proposals. The other was the half-hour Commander-in-Chief Forum with no notes and all answers delivered off the cuff.
They did not go the same.
“Instead of an apology tour, I will proudly promote our system of government and our way of life as the best in the world — just like we did in our campaign against communism during the Cold War,” Trump said in Philadelphia. “We will show the whole world how proud we are to be American.”
Hours later, Trump was pressed on his praise for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, despite his annexation of Crimea, support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and suspected role in hacking the Democratic National Committee. His answer: America has no moral authority to criticize him.
"Do you want me to start naming some of the things President Obama does at the same time?" he said.
As Trump’s campaign touts a more carefully stage-managed approach to bring in wavering Republican voters and independents, Wednesday night’s Commander-in-Chief Forum was a reminder that the old Trump is waiting to run wild again once the teleprompters and speechwriters are gone.
It’s of particular concern given the importance of the upcoming debates, where Trump will be onstage for significantly longer and have to maintain his composure while taking jabs from Hillary Clinton in addition to questions from a moderator.
The “apology tour” line, for example, is a cliche in speeches by normal Republican candidates, which is how it ended up in a speech trying to appeal to normal Republicans. But Trump is not a normal Republican: He has a long history of defending Putin and other authoritarian leaders from criticism on the basis that the United States is too ethically compromised to judge them.
Teleprompter Trump knows to avoid the topic, or at least the people who write his lines. But the other Trump, let’s call him “Trump After Dark,” reverts to form when asked about his old positions, which means teeing up a stance that GOP leaders are unwilling to defend.
The gap was evident on Thursday when Speaker Paul Ryan, who has struggled with his support for Trump, gushed to radio host Hugh Hewitt in the morning over the “much more disciplined” nominee he had seen on the trail recently. He credited Trump’s new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway with the transformation, saying she was a “breath of fresh air.”
But there was an important element missing: Ryan hadn't watched the Trump who showed up the previous evening. “I was working late last night,” he said.
Hours later, however, Ryan faced a Capitol Hill press corps who peppered him with questions about Trump’s remarks on Putin and other comments he made during the evening forum. He said he had since read a “snippet” of his appearance.
“Vladimir Putin is an aggressor that does not share our interests,” Ryan said. “Vladimir Putin is violating the sovereignty of neighboring countries.”
Gone were any happy words about how “disciplined” the nominee had become. After several follow-ups on Trump’s performance, Ryan finally told reporters he was “not going to sit up here and do tit-for-tat on what Donald said last night or the night before.”
Trump’s ongoing bromance with Putin wasn’t the only issue where Teleprompter Trump clashed with Trump After Dark.
On Wednesday morning, Trump declared that upon taking office, he would “ask my generals to present to me a plan within 30 days to defeat and destroy ISIS.”
On Wednesday night, though, Trump told moderator Matt Lauer their ideas would only be a guideline, because he still had a secret plan to defeat ISIS all his own and knew more about their inner workings than America’s generals, many of whom he planned to replace as president anyway.
“Let me tell you, if I like maybe a combination of my plan and the generals’ plan, or the generals’ plan, if I like their plan, Matt, I’m not going to call you up and say, ‘Matt, we have a great plan,’” he said.
Trump added that America’s military leadership was “embarrassing” and had been “reduced to rubble,” leaving General George Patton “spinning in his grave.”
Lines like that left one of Trump’s top military advisers, retired Lt. General Michael Flynn, on cleanup duty the next morning.
“This business about this, you know, the generals being reduced to rubble—Donald Trump has enormous respect for our military, enormous respect for our military leadership,” he said on the "TODAY" show.
On Wednesday morning, Trump pledged he “will emphasize diplomacy, not destruction” in order to prevent “endless wars.”
“The current strategy of toppling regimes, with no plan for what to do the day after, only produces power vacuums that are filled by terrorists,” he said. “Gradual reform, not sudden and radical change, should be our guiding objective in that region.”
It was a reassuring series of lines designed to quell fears that Trump who has suggested he might abandon core alliances and spoken approvingly of military atrocities, would be an unstable warmonger as president.
On Wednesday night, however, Trump inflamed those fears when he strongly defended his past proposal to order American troops in Iraq to claim oil fields and siphon the profits indefinitely, a colonial-era prescription that almost by definition would mean “endless war” and certainly “sudden and radical change.”
“We go in, we spend $3 trillion, we lose thousands and thousands of lives, and then, Matt, what happens is, we get nothing,” Trump said. “You know, it used to be to the victor belong the spoils.”
The pattern continued into the next day. On Wednesday night, Trump After Dark boasted that he had put so much pressure on Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto with his visit this month that the Mexican officials who arranged it had been "forced out of government" in response, an apparent reference to Finance Minister Luis Videgarary's resignation.
"That’s how well we did," Trump said.
The next day, a more diplomatic Teleprompter Trump tweeted that Mexico "has lost a brilliant finance minister and wonderful man who I know is highly respected by President Peña Nieto."
The debate is September 26 and Trump has said he's reluctant to do too much prep work.
"I don't want to present a false front," he told the New York Times last month. "I mean, it's possible we'll do a mock debate, but I don't see a real need."