Everyone has a bad day now and then, when nothing seems to work out as intended, and Donald Trump had a bad Sunday, because, for the first time in his campaign to win the Republican nomination, he found it necessary to explain himself. Sneering had lost its effectiveness. He was getting hammered on his failed Trump University – not only was he getting sued by those who had paid thirty-six grand for essentially nothing, Marco Rubio was calling him a “con man” and that meme was spreading fast. It was time for damage control, and that went like this:
Donald Trump said today he may ask the federal judge overseeing an upcoming civil fraud trial involving the now defunct Trump University to recuse himself because he is Hispanic and is therefore biased against him due to his plan to build a wall to keep out immigrants from Mexico.
Trump first raised the idea of filing a motion to recuse U.S. Judge Gonzalo Curiel during a campaign rally on Saturday in which, without mentioning him by name, the Republican candidate said the judge overseeing his case has shown “tremendous hostility” to him. “He’s Hispanic, which is fine,” Trump said.
“Why would you need to ask for a recusal and what does his ethnicity have to do with it?” moderator Chuck Todd asked Trump during an appearance on “Meet the Press” Sunday morning. “Because I think he’s been very, very unfair with us,” Trump replied. “I think the judge has been extremely unfair. This is a case that many, many, many people said should have been thrown out on summary judgment. We have 98 percent approval. We have an A from the Better Business Bureau.”
“And you think it’s because he is Hispanic?” Todd asked. Trump’s reply: “Well because of the wall and because of everything that’s going with Mexico and all of that, I think it’s frankly – look, this is a judge who has treated me very, very unfairly. This is a case that should have been thrown out a long time ago in the opinion of many great lawyers.”
He didn’t name those lawyers, but this judge had allowed the many plaintiffs to consolidate their gripes in class-action suit, and the rule that Trump really ought to reveal how much money he made in this odd venture. Some might see that as reasonable. Trump didn’t – and he didn’t like it much. So, he was the victim here. The damned Hispanics were ganging up on him for telling the truth about all those drug dealers and rapists and murderers pouring in across our border. That might play well with his base, but that’s not how the law works, and that’s not working:
Long before Trump proposed building a wall on the Mexican border, one of Trump’s lawyers raised the idea of seeking a recusal of Curiel after the judge agreed to certify one of the cases as a class action lawsuit on behalf of all former Trump University students. Curiel has also required Trump to answer questions about how much money he made from the school. In a separate action, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has pegged that figure at $5 million.
“Plaintiff argues that a showing that Trump invested millions of dollars in a fraudulent scheme and took millions more in profits from the scheme is relevant to Trump’s motive or intent to defraud,” the judge wrote in a ruling last July.
Trump’s comments about Curiel drew a sharp rebuke from Schneiderman, whose lawsuit over Trump University has been separately filed in New York State Courts. “There is no place in this process for racial demagoguery directed at respected members of the judiciary,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “The State Supreme Court has already ruled that Trump University operated illegally in New York as an unlicensed educational institution, and we look forward to prevailing on the rest of our claims as the legal process moves forward.”
Schneiderman is looking forward to prevailing because he probably will. Trump will pay a fine or something. His only defense to those few voters who might be put off by the whole thing is that those damned Hispanics ganged up on him again – but he’s also been saying that he will win one hundred percent of the Hispanic vote, guaranteed, because they all love him. Can he claim both things at once? He will. His candidacy will become even more absurd, in the sense the surrealists and then the existentialists mean that word. Maybe he’s turning into Salvador Dalí or Camus.
This was a minor matter, as there was a second issue that had him on the defensive:
On the Sunday morning talk shows, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump refused to condemn endorsements from a prominent white supremacist and former KKK leader, and said he retweeted a Mussolini quote because “it’s a very good quote.”
The extended conversation about white supremacists came on CNN’s State of the Union, where Jake Tapper asked if Trump would distance himself from an endorsement by David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke has told his radio audience that voting against Trump would be “treason to your heritage.”
Trump refused to condemn that endorsement or say he didn’t want the support of white supremacists – four times.
“I don’t know anything about David Duke. I don’t know what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacist. I don’t know. I don’t know. Did he endorse me, or what’s going on?” he said.
That led to an odd exchange:
Trump: I don’t know what group you’re talking about. You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. … If you would send me a list of the groups, I will do research on them and certainly I would disavow them if I thought there was something wrong.
Tapper: The Ku Klux Klan?
Trump: You may have groups in there that are totally fine and it would be very unfair. So give me a list of the groups and I’ll let you know.
Tapper: I’m just talking about David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan here.
Trump: Honestly, I don’t know David Duke.
He knows nothing, but he soon remembered that he did:
Not long after, Trump tweeted out a video of him being asked about Duke’s support on Friday, at a news conference where he received the support of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. In the video from Friday, Trump said, “I disavow.”
He knows nothing and he knows it all. Can he claim both things at once? He did, and, like many, Kevin Drum points to February 14, 2000 as Donald Trump ends his “brief and flamboyant” bid to be the presidential nominee of Ross Perot’s Reform Party:
The new interim head of the Reform Party, Pat Choate, described Mr. Trump as a “hustler” last night, and said he had never believed that Mr. Trump had any interest beyond promoting himself and a new book that happened to be published at exactly the time he started his light schedule of campaign travel. …
Mr. Trump painted a fairly dark picture of the Reform Party in his statement, noting the role of Mr. Buchanan, along with the roles of David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and Lenora Fulani, the former standard-bearer of the New Alliance Party and an advocate of Marxist-Leninist politics. “The Reform Party now includes a Klansman, Mr. Duke, a neo-Nazi, Mr. Buchanan, and a communist, Ms. Fulani,” he said in his statement. “This is not company I wish to keep.”
This is from the man who bragged a couple of months ago that “I have the world’s greatest memory. It’s one thing everyone agrees on.” Obviously, then, the only conclusion we can draw is that Trump doesn’t want to denounce the KKK. After all, I’m sure he knows perfectly well where his core base of support lies. Why take the chance of pissing-off the xenophobe vote?
Slate’s Michelle Goldberg sees that too:
What’s interesting here is not that Trump is lying, but why he is lying. For most politicians, rejecting the KKK is not a hard call. Trump, however, seems to suspect that doing so will demoralize his base. Given how much white nationalist support he has, he might be right.
Indeed, Trump’s complete mendacity coexists with a twisted sort of honesty about his own motives. He doesn’t pretend to be anything but a bigot and a bully.
He’s an honest liar? That seems to be the idea, so the other matter was inevitable:
Sunday, a few hours before refusing to condemn white supremacists, he retweeted @ilduce2016, a Twitter-bot created by Gawker’s Ashley Feinberg that posts Mussolini quotes, ascribing them to Trump. (Its avatar is a photo of the Italian fascist sporting Trump’s poufy orange comb-over.) The quote Trump retweeted was, “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep,” followed by the hashtag #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. When Chuck Todd asked Trump about it on Meet the Press, Trump responded, “Mussolini was Mussolini. It’s a very good quote. It’s a very interesting quote. I know who said it, but what difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?”
“You want to be associated with a fascist?” Todd asked. “No, I want to be associated with interesting quotes,” Trump replied.
His associations are certainly interesting. And to paraphrase Marco Rubio, it seems like he knows exactly what he’s doing.
He does – keep ’em guessing – and some like the Klan and Mussolini. Ambiguity and complete contradiction can work wonders with voters. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza says that makes Donald Trump remarkably dangerous to the Republican Party:
While Trump’s hardline immigration policy (send ’em back, build a wall, make Mexico pay for it, etc.) has caused most of the hand-wringing within establishment GOP circles, the real danger for the likes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) is not in that single issue. It’s in Trump’s remarkable unpredictability and seeming willingness to say things for the sake of shock value, and then inexplicably stand behind them – in fiercely unapologetic ways. …
In one Sunday morning, you have the most-likely Republican presidential nominee refusing, repeatedly, to disavow the KKK and saying, “Mussolini was Mussolini.”
Make no mistake: Neither of these comments will adversely affect Trump in the upcoming Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses. For his supporters – and, at this point, that’s a lot of people – his willingness to completely spurn the political-correctness police is the very thing that draws them to him. And, his unwillingness to apologize when scolded by the news media or other Republican politicians for some of his inflammatory remarks make his backers love him all the more: He’s edgy! He’s anti-establishment! He tells it like it is!
That works well for Trump, but only for Trump:
The problem for anyone not named Trump – like the eight or so vulnerable Republican senators up for reelection in swing states – is that his unpredictability and love of controversy makes it almost impossible to deal with him as a factor in those races.
If the extent of Trump’s controversial views was only his stance on immigration that could be relatively easily handled by other down-ballot Republicans. For example, they could say: “I don’t agree with Mr. Trump on every issue – we differ on immigration, for instance – but he understands that people are fed up with politics as usual and want a change after eight destructive years of Barack Obama.” Not bad, right?
But, if you have no idea what Trump is going to tweet, retweet or say from the podium in front of thousands of people and dozens of TV cameras on a daily basis, that’s hugely problematic for any Republican trying to calculate how to deal with him in their own campaign.
Having to respond to your presidential nominee’s unwillingness to condemn the KKK or his seeming praise for the views of a fascist dictator in a single day – and with no idea what might come the next day – is the worst sort of problem for any candidate to deal with.
His nomination will make things difficult:
It’s not that he has controversial views. (He does.) It’s that he is totally unpredictable and undisciplined, careening wildly off message on a minute-by-minute basis. It works – or, at least, has worked to this point – for him. But it’s a total nightmare for any Republican looking at a tough reelection race this fall.
Philip Rucker and Robert Costa report on how this is already tearing the party apart:
Marco Rubio, who has been savaging Trump as a “con man” for three days, responded by saying that Trump’s defiance made him “unelectable.” The senator from Florida said at a rally in Northern Virginia, “We cannot be the party that nominates someone who refuses to condemn white supremacists.”
The fracas comes as the presidential race enters a potentially determinative month of balloting, beginning with primaries and caucuses in 11 states on Tuesday. As the campaign-trail rhetoric grew noxious over the weekend, a sense of fatalism fell over the Republican firmament, from elected officials and figureheads to major donors and strategists.
“This is an existential choice,” said former senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who is backing Rubio. Asked how the party could unite, Coleman said: “It gets harder every day when you hear things like not disavowing the KKK and David Duke. It’s not getting easier; it’s getting more difficult… I’m hopeful the party won’t destroy itself.”
There may be no hope for that:
“For many Republicans, Trump is more than just a political choice,” said Kevin Madden, a veteran operative who advised 2012 nominee Mitt Romney. “It’s a litmus test for character.”
Madden, like some of his peers, said he could never vote for Trump. If he is the nominee, Madden said, “I’m prepared to write somebody in so that I have a clear conscience.”
More splintering came late Sunday when freshman Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who has been a vocal Trump critic, declared on Twitter that if the reality TV star is nominated, he will “look for some 3rd candidate – a conservative option, a Constitutionalist.”
Sure, but they may get nothing:
This is not how Republican officials imagined their party would be entering the spring of 2016. They had wanted to unite around a nominee with an inclusive and broadly appealing message and begin prosecuting the case against Clinton. Instead, they are wondering anew whether mainstream voters could accept Trump as the nominee.
“It’s scary,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has endorsed Rubio, said on ABC’s “This Week.” She added: “I think what he’ll do to the Republican Party is really make us question who we are and what we’re about. And that’s something we don’t want to see happen.”
Then there’s the question of whether Trump’s fiercely loyal base of backers would shift their allegiance to Rubio or one of the other candidates – Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Ohio Gov. John Kasich or retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson – were Trump to lose the nomination.
If Trump loses the nomination they walk, and then there’s this:
Rubio and his aides have been promoting a #NeverTrump campaign on Twitter. Trump said Sunday that the opposition was the latest slight against him from party insiders and a “total violation” of the Republican National Committee pledge each candidate signed vowing to support the party’s eventual nominee.
That’s a threat. Those party insiders are breaking their word. He might just run on his own, and then there’s this:
Some party leaders are openly wondering how Rubio, after labeling Trump a “con man,” could show up at the convention in Cleveland and endorse him.
“I’m not sure that he can – or that he’d be invited, for that matter,” said Trent Lott, a former Senate Republican leader from Mississippi who is backing Kasich. “It won’t be easy to get all the forces back together.”
Donald Trump is a bit problematic for the Republicans in all sorts of ways, and in a long article in the New York Times, Alexander Burns, Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin report on their agony:
In public, there were calls for the party to unite behind a single candidate. In dozens of interviews, elected officials, political strategists and donors described a frantic, last-ditch campaign to block Mr. Trump – and the agonizing reasons that many of them have become convinced it will fail. Behind the scenes, a desperate mission to save the party sputtered and stalled at every turn.
Efforts to unite warring candidates behind one failed spectacularly: An overture from Senator Marco Rubio to Mr. Christie angered and insulted the governor. An unsubtle appeal from Mitt Romney to John Kasich, about the party’s need to consolidate behind one rival to Mr. Trump, fell on deaf ears.
At least two campaigns have drafted plans to overtake Mr. Trump in a brokered convention, and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has laid out a plan that would have lawmakers break with Mr. Trump explicitly in a general election.
All that is documented in detail and it’s not working:
Despite all the forces arrayed against Mr. Trump, the interviews show that the party has been gripped by a nearly incapacitating leadership vacuum and a paralytic sense of indecision and despair, as he has won smashing victories in South Carolina and Nevada. Donors have dreaded the consequences of clashing with Mr. Trump directly. Elected officials have balked at attacking him out of concern that they might unintentionally fuel his populist revolt. And Republicans have lacked someone from outside the presidential race who could help set the terms of debate from afar.
Former Gov. Michael O. Leavitt of Utah, a top adviser to Mr. Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said the party was unable to come up with a united front to quash Mr. Trump’s campaign.
“There is no mechanism,” Mr. Leavitt said. “There is no smoke-filled room. If there is, I’ve never seen it, nor do I know anyone who has. This is going to play out in the way that it will.”
Resistance to Mr. Trump still runs deep. The party’s biggest benefactors remain totally opposed to him. At a recent presentation hosted by the billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch, the country’s most prolific conservative donors, their political advisers characterized Mr. Trump’s record as utterly unacceptable, and highlighted his support for government-funded business subsidies and government-backed health care, according to people who attended. But the Kochs, like Mr. Adelson, have shown no appetite to intervene directly in the primary with decisive force.
The American Future Fund, a conservative group that does not disclose its donors, announced plans on Friday to run ads blasting Mr. Trump for his role in an educational company that is alleged to have defrauded students. But there is only limited time for the commercials to sink in before some of the country’s biggest states award their delegates in early March.
Instead, Mr. Trump’s challengers are staking their hopes on a set of guerrilla tactics and long-shot possibilities, racing to line up mainstream voters and interest groups against his increasingly formidable campaign.
And then there’s the Senate majority leader:
While still hopeful that Mr. Rubio might prevail, Mr. McConnell has begun preparing senators for the prospect of a Trump nomination, assuring them that, if it threatened to harm them in the general election, they could run negative ads about Mr. Trump to create space between him and Republican senators seeking re-election. Mr. McConnell has raised the possibility of treating Mr. Trump’s loss as a given and describing a Republican Senate to voters as a necessary check on a President Hillary Clinton, according to senators at the lunches.
He has reminded colleagues of his own 1996 re-election campaign, when he won comfortably amid President Bill Clinton’s easy re-election. Of Mr. Trump, Mr. McConnell has said, “We’ll drop him like a hot rock,” according to his colleagues.
Already, a handful of senior party leaders have struck a conciliatory tone toward Mr. Trump. Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House majority leader, said on television that he believed he could work with him as president. Many in the party acknowledged a growing mood of resignation. Fred Malek, the finance chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said the party’s mainstream had simply run up against the limits of its influence.
“There’s no single leader and no single institution that can bring a diverse group called the Republican Party together, behind a single candidate,” Mr. Malek said. “It just doesn’t exist.”
There is no party, really. Not now, as all the hate and nonsense have now become a debt now due. That’s what Josh Marshal sees:
This crystallized for me after the last GOP debate when Trump told Chris Cuomo in a post-debate interview that the IRS might be coming after him because he’s a “strong Christian.” Set aside for the moment how this unchurched libertine was able to rebrand himself as a “strong Christian.” What about the preposterous claim that he is being persecuted by the IRS because he is a devout member of the country’s dominant religion? Republicans simply aren’t in any position to criticize this ludicrous claim because they have spent years telling their voters that this sort of thing happens all the time – to Christians, conservatives, everyone the liberals at the IRS hate. And this, of course, is just one example of hate and nonsense debt coming due. Shift gears now and they’re “RINOs.”
Take Trump’s plan to deport 11 million people living in the US illegally or build the planned Trump Taj MaWall. As John Kasich has futilely tried to explain in debate after debate, whatever the rights and wrongs of it, this is simply never going to happen. Such an effort would be more on the order of a post-War World II population transfer than anything remotely like a conventional immigration enforcement action, costing probably hundreds of billions of dollars and perhaps even constituting something approaching a war crime. As for the Wall, of course, in the real world net immigration across the US-Mexico has actually gone into reverse in recent years. More are leaving than coming. But in the Republican/Fox-News world, hordes of feral Mexicans are still streaming across the Southern border – them and a layering of ISIS death squads who fly from Ankara to Belize and then walk to the Arizona border.
And then there’s the reality:
You can either let the status quo go on or you can devise a way to regularize at least the majority of people who are here illegally. There’s no other option. Unless you just want to say ‘No Amnesty’ and pretend the problem will go away with ‘self-deportation’ or some other such nonsense. And that of course is precisely what Republican congressional leaders did. All Trump did was say openly, clearly, more coherently what Republicans were already saying themselves, while saying out of the sides of their mouths that somehow they’d get to the mass deportation later.
The truth is virtually Trump’s entire campaign is built on stuff just like this, whether it’s about mass deportation, race, the persecution of Christians, Obamacare, the coming debt crisis and a million other things. At the last debate, Trump got pressed on his completely ludicrous tax cut plan. He eventually said growth (which if you calculate it would need to be something like 20% on average) would take care of the huge budget shortfall created by his tax plan. But Republicans can’t really dispute this point since all of Republican campaign economics is based on precisely the same argument.
What about Obamacare? Can Marco “Establishment” Rubio really get traction attacking Trump for having no specific plan to replace Obamacare when Republicans have spent the last five years repeatedly voting to repeal Obamacare without ever specifying a plan to replace it with? On each of these fronts, the slow accumulation of nonsense and paranoia – ‘debt’ to use our metaphor – built into a massive trap door under the notional GOP leadership with a lever that a canny huckster like Trump could come in and pull pretty much whenever. This is the downside of building party identity around a package of calculated nonsense and comically unrealizable goals.
They played with fire and got burned:
The deeper causes of the recent trends in the GOP go deep into the society and culture of the American right and American society generally. But Republican elected officials have increasingly coddled, exploited and in some cases – yes – spurred their voters’ penchant for resentment, perceived persecution, apocalyptic thinking and generic nonsense.
Until now GOP elites have managed to maintain a balance or needle-threading sleight of hand wherein the GOP had become the functional equivalent of a European rightist party (UKIP or French National Front) yet masqueraded as a conventional center-right party (UK Conservatives or French Republicans) – all under the go-along leadership of the people the Washington Post editorial page imagines run the GOP. But the setup was already under extreme strain, as evidenced by the 2011 debt default drama, the 2013 Cruz shutdown and the end of the Boehner Speakership in 2015.
Trump is very little different from the average candidate Republicans elected in 2010 and 2014, in terms of radical views and extreme rhetoric. All he’s done is take the actual GOP issue package, turn it up to eleven and put it on a high speed collision course with RNC headquarters smack in the middle of presidential election year.
Other than that there’s no problem at all. Mussolini was Mussolini. It was a good quote. Lindsey Graham really did say this – “My party has gone batshit crazy.” So now he notices?