The debate-guest gamesmanship is on again. In the latest iteration, it’s Donald Trump inviting President Obama’s estranged half-brother, Malik Obama, and Patricia Smith, the mother of one of four Americans killed in Benghazi. He’s also inviting the former fiance of another American killed in Benghazi, Ambassador Chris Stevens, according to NBC’s Katy Tur:
More Trump Debate Guests: Amb Chris Stevens’ fiance, “Lone Survivor” Marcus Luttrell, 4 Angel Moms, Malik Obama, Pat Smith.
— Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) October 19, 2016
It’s still not clear what the point of all of this is.
The Clinton campaign, it should be noted, got the ball rolling on attempts to troll the other side through debate guests. It invited Trump antagonist and fellow billionaire reality-TV star Cuban to the first debate. (They’ve now invited Cuban and former California GOP governor candidate Meg Whitman to Wednesday’s third and final debate.)
If any guest invitation had an impact, that was the one. It seemed to draw Trump out. In response, he threatened to invite Bill Clinton’s former mistress Gennifer Flowers and then, at the second debate, actually invited four women who have accused the Clintons of misdeeds.
But the plot to have the women confront Bill Clinton at the start of the debate was foiled, as the Post reported at the time:
The campaign’s plan, which was closely held and unknown to several of Trump’s top aides, was thwarted just minutes before it could be executed when officials with the Commission on Presidential Debates intervened. The commission officials warned that, if the Trump campaign tried to seat the accusers in the elevated family box, security officers would remove the women, according to the people involved, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions were confidential.
The gambit to give Bill Clinton’s accusers prime seats was devised by Trump campaign chief executive Stephen K. Bannon and Jared Kushner, the candidate’s son-in-law, and approved personally by Trump. The four women — three of whom have alleged that Bill Clinton sexually assaulted or harassed them years ago — were to walk in the debate hall at the same time as the 42nd president and confront him in front of a national television audience.
Given what happened last week, you can rest assured that Malik Obama, Patricia Smith and whoever else shows up will be watched closely at this debate. And the Clinton campaign has reportedly arranged for the official guests not to greet each other at Wednesday night’s debate.
So assuming there’s no scene created, the main purpose would seem to be … to distract the other candidate?
It’s certainly conceivable that seeing those four women — who also did an event with Trump shortly before the debate last Sunday — could have thrown Hillary Clinton off her game. And it’s possible that Cuban’s presence was a distraction for Trump in the first debate. Clinton claimed after that first debate that Trump was “unsettled” by it.
But there was nothing about Clinton’s debate performance last week that seemed distracted or unfocused. Trump, meanwhile, offered an excused for his poor first debate performance, but it was the sound system and not Cuban (and that’s to say nothing of his apparent lack of preparation).
So here we are today, with Malik Obama, Patricia Smith and reportedly Stevens’s former fiance Lydie Denier heading to the debate in apparent efforts to throw off the other side.
The idea of a Benghazi mother who has blamed Clinton for her son’s death being in the audience would certainly seem to be a potential distraction. But the last debate featured a woman, Kathy Shelton, who was a child when Hillary Clinton successfully defended her alleged rapist. And yet, Trump didn’t even drive home that attack and the Bill Clinton attacks basically at all, and the debate quickly moved on. It was a sideshow, in the truest sense.
And Stevens’s one-time fiance, it bears emphasizing, was someone he was engaged to in the mod-1990s — long before the Benghazi attack — and doesn’t speak for Stevens’s family, which has said Clinton is not to blame for the ambassador’s death.
Similarly, inviting Malik Obama is a curious decision. As Obama biographer David Maraniss noted Tuesday night, Malik Obama is known for his attention-seeking:
As Obama biographer, I dealt with many Kenyan relatives. Now Trumpster Malik by far the least reliable, consumed with pub & money.
— david maraniss (@davidmaraniss) October 19, 2016
What’s more, inviting him might make sense if Trump were debating Barack Obama. He’s not. And if he’s not a distraction to Clinton, it’s not clear what the point of all of this is, besides pointing out that a popular president has a Kenyan-born half-brother with whom he has basically no relationship who is supporting Trump. At least Whitman is a Republican who is backing Clinton; that’s something.
If this is the best strategy Trump has, he’s truly out of ideas and throwing stuff at the wall.