Depending on your interpretation, President Trump either endorsed far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen or suggested that her stock was rising because of a pre-election terrorist attack in Paris.
Either way, Sunday’s results were an embarrassment for Trump.
Late results Sunday night showed centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron leading National Front candidate Le Pen by a nearly 2-to-1 margin — a landslide the likes of which we have never seen in an American popular vote. The biggest margin ever recorded here was Warren Harding’s 60 percent to 34 percent win in the 1920 election; Macron led 66 percent to 34 percent.
I argued on this blog that Trump’s comments about Le Pen amounted to an endorsement. He had said that she was the best candidate when it came to the most important issue: the security of her country. And he clearly suggested that her popularity was rising after the terrorist attack, a claim that in retrospect looks haphazard, at best, and foolhardy, at worst.
Trump tweeted the following on April 21, the day after the attack that killed one police officer and wounded two others on the Champs-Elysees:
Another terrorist attack in Paris. The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 21, 2017
Then he added in an interview with the Associated Press: “She’s the strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France. Whoever is the toughest on radical Islamic terrorism, and whoever is the toughest at the borders will do well in the election.”
Asked whether that was an endorsement, Trump said no. He said instead that it was him handicapping the election.
“Everybody is making predictions on who is going to win,” he said. “I’m no different than you.”
But his prediction was wrong — very wrong. Although it’s notable that Le Pen emerged from the first round of voting into the final round between two candidates — a development that former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice says shouldn’t be undersold — it’s clear that she wasn’t close to winning the presidency. The candidate Trump said would “do well in the election” did not. The terrorist attack he said would have a “big effect on the presidential election,” in the end, did not.
Le Pen was already running close to Macron in the first round of voting, polls showed, even weeks before it occurred. A crowded field with four candidates bunched between 24 percent and 19 percent two weeks ago allowed a fringe candidate to sneak into the final round, where she proved she was indeed a fringe candidate.
Le Pen’s loss is also something of a setback for Trump in another way; it suggests the nationalist, anti-Islam rhetoric that populated his campaign isn’t quite so ascendant across the pond.
Trump was apparently pretty confident in his European political prognosticating skills after the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom in early 2016. In that case, Trump actually did have something to crow about. He said before the vote, “I think that Britain will separate from the [European Union],” while clarifying (as with Le Pen) that it wasn’t an endorsement.
But in that case, of course, it wasn’t quite so bold a prediction; although the Brexit vote shocked the political establishment and is remembered as a big upset, polls were actually very close heading into Election Day.
Repeating myself, but the Brexit polls weren’t bad. Showed a toss-up. Question is why so few people believed them. https://t.co/qsqqydh9nX
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) June 24, 2016
In France, Trump really went out on a limb, suggesting momentum for a candidate who was ideologically similar to him — very clearly hoping that his brand of nationalism would get a boost in an allied country.
He may want to stick to predicting races for which the polls are actually tight.