Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton plan to pummel each other all the way to November, but for one day — the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — they’ll both be going dark.
Both campaigns have confirmed they intend to halt television ads for the anniversary, keeping with a tradition of avoiding partisan presidential politics on Sept. 11. Pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA confirmed it will also go off the air.
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The decision follows the precedent set by George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004. In 2008, when the memory of the attack was still raw — and before the Freedom Tower was erected in the hole where the World Trade Center once stood — then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain set aside their campaign schedule for a joint appearance at ground zero in lower Manhattan. In 2012, Obama and Mitt Romney held separate events, but both focused on the memory of those who died in the attacks.
There were reasons to think that it might be different in 2016, a year in which political orthodoxies were continually ignored. For one, the day gained new significance in 2012, when in the heat of Obama’s reelection campaign against Romney, militants attacked a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, and left three security personnel and a U.S. ambassador dead. So sensitive was the Romney campaign about appearing partisan that it issued its Benghazi statement under embargo until midnight — ensuring that the campaign couldn’t be accused of playing politics on 9/11. (Romney got slammed by his rivals anyway.)
“Our advisers were urging us to push back on Obama’s assertion that the video was the cause of the attack, and our campaign released a statement late at night critiquing the administration for what happened,” said Ryan Williams, a GOP operative who was on the Romney campaign at the time.
Since then, though, Clinton’s disputed role in the lead-up to and aftermath of the attack have fed one of Trump’s main arguments against her judgment. Trump has rarely missed an opportunity to invoke that attack, and he featured two survivors, as well as family members of the dead, at last month’s Republican National Convention. In addition, there are shifting views among political veterans about whether voters still care about the bipartisan gesture.
Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who was at President George W. Bush’s side when two planes flew into the Twin Towers, said there’s a certain “phoniness” that accompanies politicians’ rush to appear apolitical on the anniversary.
“It’s just so hard to take anybody who does that seriously when Sept. 10 and Sept. 12 are so chock-full of juicy politics,” he said. “Taking Sept. 11 off feels nothing but contrived.”
Fleischer called the anniversary a “gray zone” in which many people still vividly recall the horror of the attacks, yet they feel more removed from the modern political climate.
The anniversary this year also falls on a Sunday, typically a day when campaigns send their top surrogates onto the weekly news shows to attempt to steer the next week’s focus. And, perhaps even more critically, it coincides with the first Sunday of a new NFL season and the largest captive audience available for ads since the Olympics.
“I’m not sure that pulling the ads or even avoiding politics on 9/11 needs to continue,” said William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard. “What strikes me is how little either campaign has been serious in terms of debating the implications of 9/11 — a debate that was robust in 2004, 2008 and 2012.”
But others argue that the downside of appearing political on 9/11 is still too great to risk.
“Whatever a campaign may think it gains by plowing forward is erased by a story suggesting they are politicizing 9/11,” said Josh Holmes, former chief of staff to Sen. Mitch McConnell and a prominent Republican strategist. “You’ll never lose a vote by taking the time to remember the day, the Americans who were lost, and our continued fight against terrorism.”
Stuart Stevens, a former Romney aide and sharp critic of Trump, said it is difficult to say whether the country is ready to stop treating Sept. 11 as a day to push pause on politics. But he said that Trump seemed at his best during the bitter Republican primary when he was recalling his city’s post-9/11 spirit.
“Probably the best moment Trump had in all those debates is when he defended New York against the ‘New York values’ attack,” Stevens said, referring to Ted Cruz’s criticism of Trump’s principles during a debate in Iowa.
During that January debate, Trump spun the attack around on Cruz, noting that New York’s values were represented by the city’s unity following the attacks and courage of New York’s first responders.
“When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York,” he said at a January Fox Business Channel debate. “And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched, and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers.”
Jay Winuk, whose brother Glenn — a volunteer firefighter — died in the World Trade Center, said it’s more important than ever for presidential candidates to treat Sept. 11 as a day to avoid politics and “negative political discourse.” Winuk cofounded an organization, 9/11 Day, that every four years has requested that presidential candidates refrain from politics on the anniversary of the attacks. He said mainstream candidates have agreed to his request in every cycle since 2001, and he’s still hopeful the Trump campaign agrees as well.
“They have 364 other days during the year for political messaging and the gamesmanship of politics,” Winuk said.
Winuk said his group has asked campaigns — including the third-party bids of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein — to refrain from politics and pull ads down on the anniversary. Johnson’s camp confirmed Monday that it would agree to the request.