No, Gary Johnson didn't really call Donald Trump racist

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson is getting some headlines for appearing to call Donald Trump racist on CNN’s State of the Union. The Washington Post called Johnson’s statement a “ramping up of rhetoric” in their roundup of the interview.

Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson on Sunday went where Hillary Clinton has refused to go, saying Donald Trump is “clearly” racist.

“Based on his statements, clearly,” Johnson said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I mean, if statements are being made, is that not reflective?”…

For Johnson, averaging about 8 percent in national polls, calling Trump racist represents a notable ratcheting up of campaign rhetoric. The mellow former governor of New Mexico said during a CNN town hall on June 22 that he did not plan to “engage in any sort of name-calling” aimed at either of the leading major-party candidates. His running mate, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, called Trump a “huckster” at that event, though.

The issue is Johnson didn’t exactly call Trump racist. In fact, he had to be asked three times by Brianna Keilar on the issue.

This is an important distinction to make (although Johnson definitely tied himself in knots trying not to call Trump a racist). While some people might love it if a presidential candidate comes out and calls Trump “racist,” there’s no guarantee the charge will stick. Trump is obviously playing into the fears Americans have (particularly those on the alt-right), but Johnson is trying to run an “above the fray” campaign and appear as the only adult in the room between the inconsistent, bombastic Trump and the inconsistent and robotic, (and who knows about an indictment) Hillary Clinton. It’s a bit of a risk because attack ads tend to work, but with both Clinton and Trump having high unlikability ratings, Johnson can come off as a guy who won’t engage in personal attacks because he doesn’t care to. That does appeal to some people.

One thing Johnson did do a good job at is pointing out the differences he and Trump have on policies.

Johnson did show some support today for Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying his advisers were suggesting it would help free trade. But his comments are much more nuanced over the issue, and not just the “I would support that document,” quote CNN is using on its round up of the interview. Johnson actually pointed out the issue with massive trade deals, while remaining in favor of free trade (emphasis mine).

“I’m a real skeptic when it comes to these trade agreements, that these trade agreements can be laced with crony capitalism. But based on people that have been advising me that I hold in very high esteem, I’m being told that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would, in fact, advance free trade and so I would support that document. The devil is in the details, though, and for the most part legislation that passes, really promotes crony capitalism. Promotes those that have money, as opposed to a level playing field for everybody. So I am a skeptic, but based on everything that I know, I would sign TPP.”

Johnson is expressing similar concerns I’ve raised about TPP, and shows why conservatives and libertarians tend to be split on the agreement (I’m anti-TPP for the record). The key thing out of all this is Johnson appears to be willing to change his mind on the issue. If he finds a bunch of cronyism in TPP, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him to say, “You know, I was wrong here and this is why I’m not signing it.” It’s not a bad temperament to have and is surely better than saying, “I’ve evolved” on the issue.

There are going to be people who make hay over Johnson’s comment regarding Clinton and her email server.

Johnson probably should have taken a stronger stance on the issue, but if he hasn’t been paying attention to Clintonmail, it makes sense for him not to judge. It could be Johnson is hedging his bets, or it could be he’s just trying to “be nice.” But there could also be a third reason to his Clintonmail answer: Johnson is going for Republicans and Democrats who are very hesitant in voting for Trump or Clinton in the November election. There are Democrats who don’t like Clinton, but are just “sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” There are Republicans who dislike Trump to the nth degree and want an alternative for November (as AP noted last week). The Libertarian Party has a real opportunity in November, but that will only work if Johnson is allowed into the debates. He’s got to hit 15% in the polls, so he can be on stage, and being the grown up may be the only way to do it.

Ed Morrissey Jan 28, 2022 8:31 AM ET