A few people watching the debate on Monday night noticed Donald Trump seemed to be sniffling a lot into his microphone.
Eventually it became an internet meme, including a near-viral video clip from Vice News. Maybe he had a cold. Maybe he was nervous. Or maybe — as Trump himself might say, if he were talking about somebody else — there was something else going on.
But a meme doesn’t make news unless it gets repeated by a high-level official. And it was former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean who went there.
Apparently Dean didn’t think there were enough genuine reasons to criticize Trump’s behavior at the debate. So he started spreading the rumor that Trump’s audible sniffling was the result of cocaine use.
First, he tweeted during the debate:
Notice Trump sniffing all the time. Coke user?— Howard Dean (@GovHowardDean) September 27, 2016
But rather than blaming the tweet on an off-color joke, he continued to say it on MSNBC the next day:
Of all the things Donald Trump has done, no one else has thought to accuse him of having an addiction to illegal drugs.
But it is a stupid, baseless, bad-faith accusation. It’s the sort of thing that if Republicans were doing it, Democrats would call unacceptable, and they’d be right. And the thing about “unacceptable” attacks is that they don’t become acceptable just because the other side does them.
Donald Trump is famously abstemious
There is no evidence that Trump has a coke problem. Dean’s insinuation has exactly two pieces of information to support it: Trump’s microphone picked up the sound of his sniffles on Monday night; Trump then denied he was sniffling at all, even alluding to mic problems in post-debate interviews.
The sniffling has plenty of other legitimate explanations. And that Trump’s denial that he was sniffling at all might be evidence that something illicit was going on — even from a politician who lies, all the time, about everything — is dubious.
The accusation is actually worse than baseless, though. It is among the more ridiculous things to suspect Trump of.
Trump has plenty of vices, and thanks to decades of media coverage America knows about a lot of them. But he makes a big deal out of his abstemiousness: Read any of his books, and he’ll tell you he does not smoke, drink, or do drugs.
There’s a reason for this. Alcoholism killed Trump’s older brother, Fred Trump Jr. Trump brings up his family’s experience with addiction occasionally when he talks about the opioid epidemic in America — and by all accounts, it genuinely affected him. That makes the accusation that he is a secret drug addict particularly scurrilous because it’s likely to be genuinely hurtful; more importantly, it makes it more likely that it simply isn’t true.
Of course, a lot of the things Trump says in his books are not true. But we know they’re not true because evidence has come out to the contrary. There isn’t, however, any evidence that Trump is lying about his history with drugs and alcohol.
Think about it: Donald Trump was an icon of New York in the 1980s, which was basically covered in cocaine, as I understand it, and not a single person has stepped forward to slow the momentum of his presidential run by saying they did cocaine with him.
Sure, it’s possible that Donald Trump had coke sniffles on Monday. But a lot of things are possible, in the theoretical sense, that aren’t worth speculating aloud because they are likely to be untrue. This is one of those things.
“The other side does it” doesn’t make something okay
Dean almost certainly does not believe Trump actually has a coke problem. He’s probably trying to pull the same sort of crap that conservative conspiracy theorists have pulled on Hillary Clinton all year: taking tiny scraps of evidence to suggest something huge and terrible about Clinton, like that she has a secret brain injury and is therefore unfit to be president.
But the fact that opponents can get away with saying things like this in bad faith about presidential candidates, and they’re guaranteed to get a certain amount of attention from the media and from their own side’s supporters, is exactly why they shouldn’t.
It’s extremely unlikely that anyone is going to cast their vote in the 2016 presidential election based on their belief that Donald Trump has a secret cocaine addiction. That means that Dean’s speculation is just more noise in an election cycle full of it: another way for Clinton supporters to mock Trump supporters online.
Honestly, when there are so many perfectly legitimate reasons to mock Donald Trump — from genuine faults, like his inability to let go of a grudge, to running gags like the size of his hands that are probably unfounded but at this point have gotten a certain legitimacy as jokes — it seems almost greedy to insist on inventing new ones.
More seriously, Dean and company are faced with a candidate who lies all the time — and whose followers are indifferent to his lying, because they assume lying is what politicians do. If the answer to that is to start lying more themselves, then the Trump supporters really are right, and Trump’s lies really shouldn’t matter so much.
Is that really what Howard Dean wants voters to think?