When Donald Trump announced last month that he’s actually running for president this time around, his campaign mainly seemed like a lovely going-away present for Jon Stewart. But with Trump placing second in recent polls even as he doubled down on his inflammatory remarks about Mexican immigrants, shedding business partners along the way, the self-proclaimed billionaire has gone from a late-night punch line to … well, a late-night punch line that could seriously tarnish the Republican brand. “He’s already done some damage, and it could be substantial going forward. He could be one of the reasons we lose. It’s that serious,” an anonymous GOP state party chairman told the Washington Post. “There’s nothing we can do about it, and that’s what’s so scary.”
It does seem feasible that Donald Trump could single-handedly undo the GOP’s effort to demonstrate that it’s not the party of nutty, out-of-touch rich guys (though that doesn’t say much for their years-long rebranding effort). However, rather than resigning themselves to a Trump-dominated 2016 race, some in the party are looking for ways to counteract his outsize personality and even use it to their advantage. Here are some possible strategies emerging in the push to keep the election from turning into Celebrity Apprentice: Republican Nomination Edition.
Just Ask Trump to Stop
On Wednesday Trump had a lengthy phone chat with Reince Priebus in which the Republican National Committee chairman respectfully asked that Trump stop calling undocumented Mexicans rapists and murderers, and generally quit saying insane things about immigration. According to the Post the call was made at the behest of angry GOP donors, who were then “briefed on the conversation” — apparently in considerable detail. The paper reports:
Reluctant to engage publicly and having developed a friendship with Trump in recent years, Priebus decided to call the candidate and quietly ask him to soften his pitch, said GOP donors familiar with Priebus’s thinking. Trump had left a voice-mail message for Priebus over the weekend asking if they could catch up, making the call’s context less confrontational, the donors said.
The call lasted about 45 minutes, the donors said, and Priebus was cordial, updating Trump on the party and the primary calendar while also urging him to “tone it down” — a phrase used repeatedly by those with knowledge of the exchange. Priebus told Trump that making inroads with Hispanics is one of his central missions as chairman. He told Trump that tone matters greatly and that Trump’s comments are more powerful than he might imagine with that bloc.
The RNC confirmed in a statement that Priebus spoke privately with Trump, as he often does with all candidates seeking the GOP nomination. “He did have a very respectful conversation with Mr. Trump on Wednesday,” said Sean Spicer, chief strategist for the RNC. “They discussed multiple comments, including comments on illegal immigration.”
Whether Trump will acquiesce is anyone’s guess, but we should find out this weekend, as he’s set to discuss immigration reform at campaign events in Arizona and Nevada.
Use Trump to Make the Other Candidates Look More Reasonable
Trump teed up Jeb Bush on July 4 by remarking in a subsequently deleted tweet that the former Florida governor “has to like the Mexican Illegals because of his wife.” (True to form, Trump dug in during a CNN interview, saying, “Do I regret it? No, I don’t regret it. If he loves his wife and she’s from Mexico, I think it probably has an influence on him.”)
Bush finally took a swing on Wednesday, using the opportunity to highlight his support for a path to legal status (not citizenship), and his love for his wife, Columba. (It’s the quintessential Jeb anecdote, great for both policy discussions and humanizing talk-show appearances.) “You can love the Mexican culture, you can love your Mexican-American wife and also believe that we need to control the border,” Bush said while campaigning in New Hampshire. “This is a bizarre kind of idea that somehow you can have an affection for people in a different country and not think the rule of law should apply. This is ludicrous.”
Bush went on to describe various ways he wants to secure the southern border, including implementing new technology, fixing the E-Verify system, and deploying more “forward-leaning border control agents.”
While Bush is probably the candidate who benefits most from Trump’s entry into the race, lower-tier candidates have been taking jabs at him, too, in an attempt to win media attention. However, the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin warns that the candidates sitting at the bottom of the polls shouldn’t attempt to out-Trump Trump:
As the hard right’s not-Bush candidate du jour, Trump siphons support from both self-marginalizing candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), down to an appalling 3 percent in the CNN national poll, and candidates trying to straddle the mainstream/grassroots divide like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (at 6 percent). The reaction of Cruz, Mike Huckabee (down to 5 percent), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (at 2 percent), and Rick Santorum (4 percent) is to scream louder and be even wackier in their policy stances so as to compete with Trump. But not one beats Trump in the crazy department. If voters are looking for an outlandish loudmouth, they might go for the “real” thing, Trump.
Ban Trump From the Race
Obviously, anyone is free to run for president (if they have a lot of money and know how to attract media attention), but some are trying to find a way to put Trump back on the fringe where they feel he belongs. Top GOP donor John Jordan told the Associated Press this week that Trump should be blocked from the debates, which begin in August. “Someone in the party ought to start some sort of petition saying, ‘If Trump’s going to be on the stage, I’m not going to be on there with him,’” Jordan said. “I’m toying with the idea of it.” He added, “It’s something I feel strongly about as somebody who not only cares about the Republican Party, but also Latinos.”
Rather than having 16 candidates crowd the stage, the GOP has suggested that networks cap the number of debate participants based on certain qualifying factors. The network has the final say, and according to RNC spokesman Sean Spicer, “The RNC by law cannot remove anyone from a debate, nor can it insert anyone into a debate.” Fox News and CNN, which will host the first two debates, have said the number of participants will be capped at ten, based on an average of national polling numbers.
As National Journal notes, it’s possible to shift the qualification guidelines to exclude certain candidates, but probably not with a candidate who’s second in some polls. Plus, from a ratings standpoint, the networks definitely want the bloviating billionaire on the stage. The only exception may be CNBC, which is sponsoring the third debate. NBC Universal recently cut business ties with Trump, and it’s yet to announce its qualification guidelines.
Remind People That Trump Isn’t Only a Republican Problem
As CNN noted in Hillary Clinton’s first televised interview as a 2016 candidate this week, she’s described Trump as a friend and he made several large donations to her Senate campaigns. He also donated between $100,000 and $250,000 to the Clinton Foundation, and the charity signaled on Wednesday that it does not intend to return the money, though Hillary said she was “disappointed” by his remarks about Mexicans. (Recently Trump has downplayed his relationship with the Clintons, too.)
Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol already tried to tie the Trump controversy to the Democrats, arguing in a radio interview this week that Republicans should welcome an “outsider who was saying some things that the establishment doesn’t want to hear, that is resonating with voters.” Kristol said that rather than lambasting Trump, the GOP should focus on the substance of his offensive comments. “The idea that that’s going to be an embarrassment to the Republican Party … when President Obama and his administration have purposefully cut back on the deportations and the tolerated sanctuary cities and so forth — I don’t think Trump hurts the Republican Party in that respect,” he said.
Let Trump Tucker Himself Out
It’s pretty obvious to everyone who isn’t named Trump that the Donald isn’t going to be the nominee, and FiveThirtyEight has some numbers to back up that assumption:
A whopping 57 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view of Trump, according to an average of the three most recent polls … Taking into account name recognition, Trump’s net favorability rating (favorable minus unfavorable) of -32 percentage points stands out for its pure terribleness at this point in the campaign. Like his unfavorable rating, it is by far the worst of the 106 presidential candidates since 1980 who are in our database.
So, at some point, Trump is likely to exit the race on his own, though he’s running low on ways to do that gracefully (and that’s never been his style). Per The Christian Science Monitor:
At one point it seemed obvious that he had a face-saving escape plan via “Celebrity Apprentice” – he’d reach a point where, reluctantly, he’d just have to drop out of the race to re-sign his NBC contract and restart production, or risk losing the show. He’s said that’s a big reason he never jumped into the race in the past.
Now he’s lost the show anyway. NBC has cut ties with him over his immigration remarks. That’s one soft exit, gone.
Of course most candidates just withdraw after losing a few primaries and the money dries up. They say something about respecting the will of the voters. Do you see Trump handling defeat without blame and recrimination? Us neither.
Maybe the Federal Election Commission deadline for more financial disclosures could be an out here. Trump will hit that some time in the fall. He’d say that big investments won’t let him reveal details or something like that, and stop running.
The GOP’s best hope may be waiting for Trump to declare he’s simply too rich and too awesome to waste his time with the losers seeking the 2016 Republican nomination.