Have you heard the old fable about the pundits who cried “peak Trump?” If you haven’t, here’s the Cliff Notes: Once upon the 2016 campaign cycle, political commentators would cry out after nearly every GOP debate that Donald Trump had finally done himself in. And so, when the Republican front-runner finally had a truly damaging debate performance in Detroit on March 3, no one believed the columns that said so.
Okay. That’s not a fable, just one scenario for how the aftermath of Thursday night’s debate might play out. Donald Trump has had some rough moments on these stages, but never before has the mogul taken so much fire from so many directions. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Fox News’ moderators all raided the Donald’s closet and came out bearing skeletons. Trump was presented with video documentation of his copious flip-flops, with detailed accounts of hardworking people who say they were cheated by his enterprises, and irrefutable data about his company’s affinity for hiring guest workers over Americans.
The billionaire appeared most rattled during an extended exchange on the lawsuit against Trump University. Rubio said that he had spoken earlier in the day with one of the case’s plaintiffs.
“You know what they got in these courses? Stuff you can pull off of Zillow,” the Florida senator said. “When they finally realized what a scam it was, they asked for their money back and you wouldn’t give it to them.”
“We will see who is right at the end of a few years,” Trump replied, apparently suggesting that voters should just elect him now and wait until his second-term to find out if he is, in fact, a con artist. “But almost all of the people … many, many people signed a report card at the end and almost all of them said it was terrific.”
In previous debates, this was always the moment when the moderators would move on. But Megyn Kelly dug in, noting that one-third of the plaintiffs had demanded a refund. Kelly also pointed out that the school’s last public rating from the Better Business Bureau was a D-minus, not an A, as Trump had previously claimed.
“He’s trying to do to the American voter what he did to the people who signed up for this course,” Rubio interjected. “He’s making promises that he has no intention of keeping. And it won’t just be $36,000 that they’ll lose, it’s the future of our country.”
Then, Cruz decided now would be a good time to make his pitch to Rubio’s minions.
“Let me just ask the voters at home: Is this the debate you want playing out in the general election? If we nominate Donald we’re going to spend the spring, the fall, and the summer with the Republican facing a fraud trial,” the Texas senator said.
“Oh stop it. It’s a minor civil case,” Trump interrupted. He proceeded to repeat the phrase, “it’s a minor civil case” at least three more times.
“Donald learn not to interrupt. It’s not complicated. Count to ten, Donald. Count to ten,” Cruz counseled, before turning to the camera. “If you are one of the 65 to 70 percent of Republicans who recognize nominating Donald would be a disaster … then I ask you to stand with us, as a broad coalition of people who believe in the Constitution and who believe in freedom.”
There is no basis for the claim that 65 percent of Republicans believe that nominating Trump would be a disaster. The Donald has polled as high as 49 percent in national polls, and he is the second choice of many Republicans who do not support him. Here was an instance in which Trump had actually been attacked unfairly. And, for what might be the first time this cycle, Trump’s rebuttal was a winner on the merits but a loser on style.
“CNN says he gets 15 [percent], that means 85 percent of the people, based on what you’re saying, don’t dig you! CNN … the poll just came out. I’m at 49, he’s at 15. He tells me about 65 percent of the people. If you go by that — 85 percent of the people!” Trump stammered, nonsensically. “And then he goes, well we got five. I won ten states … So how does he take five and say it’s better than ten?”
The strongman, for a moment, seemed nervous. Weak. And then, Cruz beat him at his own game — the recitation of flattering poll numbers.
“That CNN poll showed that, head-to-head, Donald Trump loses to Hillary Clinton by eight points,” Cruz said. “That same poll shows me beating Hillary Clinton.”