You didn’t watch the last Republican debate before the Florida primary, where Marco Rubio’s political career will end. You know you didn’t. No one is watching these things anymore. They’re all the same, all insults and sneering and the same policy points made the same way by the same candidates, if they get around to policy points. In the last debate, Donald Trump assured America he had a really big dick, in spite of what Marco Rubio had been implying. His folks cheered wildly. Everyone else decided he was a big dick – but Rubio took a hit too. He admitted he shouldn’t have gone there. He had embarrassed his own kids. He’d behave himself this time, and Donald Trump decided he would behave himself too. He was winning most of the primaries and was clearly going to be the party’s nominee, unless the sixty percent of the party that is deeply embarrassed by him comes up with something to take that away from him – unlikely and next to impossible now – so it was time to look presidential. He wasn’t going to point to his crotch and grin. He’ll save that for when he negotiates with Putin.
So this was going to be a civil debate, and as David Fahrenthold reports in the Washington Post, it sort of was:
They had tried criticizing him, interrupting him, insulting his tan and mocking his fingers. On Thursday night – after nothing else worked – the rivals of Donald Trump seemed to try another tactic: They would try… nothing at all.
The result was a low-key, civil debate, where the Republican front-runner was often given free rein to muse. In some cases, that meant contradicting himself – Trump excoriated high-skilled visas, but said he used them. He lamented that Democrats wouldn’t change Social Security, and then said he, too, wouldn’t change it. He attacked the current system of big-money campaign finance, but then said he’d used it as a donor – and might soon use it again, by possibly soliciting big donations as a general-election candidate. He said he wanted to be neutral in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Except he would be really pro-Israeli. Except he’d say he was neutral, so the Palestinians would trust him.
At one point, Trump hinted that he would change his mind far more often as president, hinting that he would be “flexible” on a variety of topics after a campaign built on hardline, taboo-breaking proposals. Flexible about what? A moderator asked: “It depends on what comes up,” Trump said.
And he got away with it:
His rivals rarely pointed out when Trump had contradicted himself. The moderators often let him off without follow-ups, in contrast to the probing questions Trump got from Fox News last week. Even Trump himself seemed surprised. “So far, I cannot believe how civil it’s been up here,” he said at one point.
But it wasn’t all sweetness and light:
Trump gave an unusually wide-ranging denunciation of Islam and Muslims in Thursday’s GOP debate, saying that “a lot of them” hate America.
“I will tell you, there’s something going on that maybe you don’t know about, maybe a lot of other people don’t know about, but there’s tremendous hatred,” Trump said, after he was asked about a comment he made earlier this week that “Islam hates us.”
Rubio criticized Trump in his most forceful attack of the night, saying that Trump’s comments would hurt America’s interests by alienating Muslims overseas. Trump stood by it, and expanded with his own criticism of Islam’s treatment of women.
“You can be politically correct if you want. I don’t want to be so politically correct. I like to solve problems,” Trump said. “Islam. Large portions want to use very, very harsh means. Let me go a step further. Women are treated horribly. You know that, you do know that.”
That brought a rebuttal from Cruz, who had mocked Trump several times in the debate with caveman-like over-simplifications of policy arguments.
Islamic terrorism was a huge threat, Cruz said, and he blamed President Obama for under-playing and under-estimating the threat. “That is maddening,” Cruz said. “But the answer is not simply to yell, ‘China bad! Muslims bad!'”
Trump seemed surprised by that. It isn’t? But that wasn’t all:
Then Cruz turned to an argument that, in essence, Trump’s harsh rhetoric belied his actual policy positions on the Middle East, which Cruz believed were not hardline enough. For instance, Cruz believed that Trump was not sufficiently pro-Israel, and would give away too much by seeking to be neutral broker in future talks between Israel and Palestinians.
Trump was getting hammered, and then there was this:
Trump outlined a policy that he said was bad – and then explained how he himself embraced it. On the question of immigration, for instance, Trump said that the system of “H-1B” visas, meant for highly skilled foreigners, was a bad thing for U.S. workers. But he still uses it at his businesses.
“It’s something that I frankly use. And I shouldn’t be allowed to use. And we shouldn’t have it,” Trump said of the high-skilled visa program. “It’s sitting there waiting for you. But it’s very bad… for our workers. And it’s very unfair for our workers.”
Does he get points for self-awareness? He’s a businessman, and sometimes businessmen do awful things that hurt the country, and he did those things, and someone should stop him, and in fact, he’d stop him, but he’s a businessman, and wonderful at it, so you should respect him for how rich all this made him… or something. Donald Trump isn’t very good at being civil and nice. His mind wanders, but everyone knows he’s not a nice man. He was asked about that:
Asked about a man who was arrested for assault after allegedly sucker-punching a black protester at a North Carolina campaign rally, Donald Trump replied that some of his supporters have “anger that’s unbelievable.”
“They love this country,” the candidate said during Thursday’s Republican presidential debate. “They don’t like seeing bad trade deals, higher taxes; they don’t like seeing a loss of their jobs where our jobs have just been devastated. And I know – I mean, I see it. There is some anger. There’s also great love for the country. It’s a beautiful thing in many respects. But I certainly do not condone that at all.”
He wants it both ways, but this was an easy call:
John McGraw, 78, was charged with assault and battery Thursday for allegedly punching Rakeem Jones in the head at a Fayetteville rally. In a video interview conducted during the rally, McGraw told Inside Edition he “might have to kill” Jones if he sees him again.
CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper pressed Trump to reckon with his role in facilitating a hostile environment for demonstrators at his events. As Tapper noted, the GOP candidate previously expressed a desire to punch a protester in the face and promised to “pay the legal fees” for supporters who roughed up dissenters.
“We have some protesters who are bad dudes, they have done bad things,” Trump said. “They are swinging, they are really dangerous and they get in there and start hitting people. We had a couple big, strong, powerful guys doing serious damage.”
No one has ever seen that from the protesters, but never mind:
He then pivoted to the “phenomenal job” police do in controlling the crowds at his rallies and said they deserve respect.
Trump didn’t want to talk about this, but Ted Cruz did:
In an exchange over whether candidates should be concerned about violence at Donald Trump rallies, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) put the onus on ’emperor’ President Obama.
Cruz was asked if he was “concerned at all that these kinds of scenes potentially hurt the Republican Party for the general election.”
“Listen, I think for every one of us, we need to show respect to the people,” Cruz said. “We need to remember who it is we’re working for. You know, we’ve seen for seven years a president who believes he’s above the law, who behaves as an emperor, and he forgot he’s working for the American people. “
Then, in a theatrical shift, Cruz asked CNN to “turn the cameras around here.”
“How many of y’all feel disrespected by Washington?” Cruz asked. “Washington isn’t listening to the people. That’s the frustration that is boiling over. And we need to nominate and elect a president who remembers he works for the people.”
Okay, the old white guy sucker-punched the young black man because Obama has signed executive orders on actually enforcing existing emission standards for coal-fired power plants, and others on how to enforce current immigration law. That’s what led to this:
“You bet I liked it,” a man Inside Edition identified as John McGraw, 78, told the tabloid TV show when asked about the incident. “Knocking the hell out of that big mouth.”
When asked by Inside Edition why he did it, McGraw said, “We don’t know who he is, but we know he’s not acting like an American. Yes, he deserved it. The next time we see him, we might have to kill him. We don’t know who he is. He might be with a terrorist organization.”
Ted Cruz draws odd inferences, but the Washington Post’s Philip Bump looks into what’s really at play here:
At a rally on the day of the Iowa caucuses this year, Donald Trump told the audience that he’d been warned about protesters with tomatoes in the audience.
So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ’em, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell – I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise.”
Later the month, as a protester was being led out of another rally, Trump lamented that he wasn’t closer. “I’d like to punch him in the face, I tell ya,” he said.
On Wednesday, as you’ve likely heard, someone at a Trump rally decided to act in Trump’s stead. Trump had again complained about the protesters, saying that “in the good old days this didn’t used to happen, because they used to treat them very rough,” according to the Atlantic’s David Graham. So, John McGraw, 78, slipped up a row of seats to the aisle where some protesters were being led out. Without warning, he apparently threw a punch.
McGraw was arrested for assault and battery. Which raises two questions: First, will Trump honor his pledge to pay legal fees? And second, can he, legally?
Those are good questions, so Bump looked for answers:
We sent an email to the Trump campaign to ask whether or not the campaign would pay McGraw’s fees. We have not yet received a response and, frankly, aren’t really expecting one. But it may actually not matter.
Jim Sutton, an election law attorney in California who’s been practicing for 25 years, described the scenario as “the outer bounds of campaign law” – but not necessarily something for which there isn’t guidance.
Sutton notes that there’s precedent for a campaign being liable for an injury suffered by a protester at a campaign event. At an inauguration event for former California governor Pete Wilson (R), a protester sued after being injured by event attendees. The cost of those injuries ended up in the lap of the campaign committee – the legal entity that holds a campaign’s money – and its insurer.
What’s more, Sutton expects Rakeem Jones, the victim of the attack, to sue. “Look, they’re not going to just sue the person who hit them,” Sutton said. “They’re obviously going to sue the Trump campaign. If for no other reason, that’s where they assume the money is and because they’re mad at the candidate and might want to embarrass him.”
Then they’re trapped:
“Because there’s potential legal liability for the campaign, for the campaign to say, ‘I’m also going to pay the legal fees for this individual’ – I would say that probably does pass legal muster,” Sutton said, “because it’s part-and-parcel of the committee’s liability.” The campaign would pay if it were an employee that was sued, for example. Or, for that matter, an independent contractor. Or, for that matter a volunteer.
“This is the next step out,” Sutton said, “an attendee. That is pushing the boundaries… but I think it’s possible that it passes legal muster to the extent that the committee also faces legal liability for the actions of that rally supporter.”
Then there’s the other question:
Interestingly, if Trump himself wanted to pay the legal fees, he’d likely have to report that as a contribution to his campaign since those fees are “an expense for the purposes of promoting the campaign,” in Sutton’s estimation. He analogized to the money given to John Edwards during the 2008 election cycle to pay off Edwards’s mistress. Edwards was indicted for violating campaign finance law for not reporting the money as a contribution. This is a very different side of that very weird coin.
But all of this is simply Sutton’s best guess. “This is into the arcane corridors of campaign laws and how terms are defined,” Sutton said. The law “certainly didn’t envision this type of thing.”
No one envisioned a small army of Trump Thugs that aren’t really his thugs but say they are, out there beating the crap out of uppity black folks and Muslims and Hispanics, thinking maybe they ought to kill a few of them, for hating America – for hating “us” of course. Trump did explicitly exclude Muslims from “us” the evening before and then again in the debate. It seems lots of us aren’t “us” these days.
But there’s more:
Donald Trump’s campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks responded Thursday to allegations from a Breitbart reporter that Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski forcibly yanked her by the arm after a press conference in Florida.
“The accusation, which has only been made in the media and never addressed directly with the campaign, is entirely false,” Hicks said in a statement to ABC News.
“As one of dozens of individuals present as Mr. Trump exited the press conference I did not witness any encounter. In addition to our staff, which had no knowledge of said situation, not a single camera or reporter of more than 100 in attendance, captured the alleged incident,” Hicks said in the statement.
Hicks’ statement conflicts with a report from The Washington Post’s Ben Terris, who initially identified Lewandowski to Michelle Fields, the Breitbart News reporter involved.
Terris reported this:
When Donald Trump descended into the crowd after speaking Tuesday night, the instinct to defend kicked in.
As security parted the masses to give him passage out of the chandelier-lit ballroom, Michelle Fields, a young reporter for Trump-friendly Breitbart News, pressed forward to ask the GOP front-runner a question. I watched as a man with short-cropped hair and a suit grabbed her arm and yanked her out of the way. He was Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s 41-year-old campaign manager.
Fields stumbled. Finger-shaped bruises formed on her arm.
“I’m just a little spooked,” she said, a tear streaming down her face. “No one has grabbed me like that before.”
She took my arm and squeezed it hard. “I don’t even want to do it as hard as he did,” she said, “because it would hurt.”
Trump’s old ally is not happy:
Breitbart News CEO Larry Solov said in a statement Wednesday that Lewandowski owed Fields “an immediate apology” if it was indeed Lewandowski who grabbed her.
“What Michelle has told us directly is that someone ‘grabbed her arm’ and while she did not see who it was, Ben Terris of the Washington Post told her that it was Corey Lewandowski,” he said in the statement.
Trump’s staff thugs deny it all:
Hicks also said in the statement that “this individual” making the allegation – she did not name Fields – never met Lewandowski. She added staffers “would never do anything to harm another individual.”
Hicks said the individual should have addressed her concerns with the campaign “first and not via twitter (sic).”
“This person claims she does not want to part of the news, and only report it, however if that was the case, any concerns, however unfounded they may be, should have been voiced directly first and not via Twitter, especially since no other outlet or reporter witnessed or questioned anything that transpired that evening,” she said in the statement to ABC.
“We leave to others whether this part of a larger pattern of exaggerating incidents, but on multiple occasions she has become part of the news story as opposed to reporting it. Recall she also claimed to have been beaten by a New York City Police officer with a baton,” the statement read.
After the statement was circulated, Fields tweeted a photo of the bruise she says she sustained in the run-in with Lewandowski.
Yeah, but she’s a reporter. They’re all awful people. There’s a pattern here, and others have noticed:
The White House Correspondents Association on Thursday urged 2016 candidates to tone down their rhetoric aimed at reporters covering the presidential race, but would not comment directly on an alleged assault by Donald Trump’s campaign manager on a Breitbart reporter.
“We have been increasingly concerned with some of the rhetoric aimed at reporters covering the presidential race and urge all candidates seeking the White House to conduct their campaigns in a manner that respects the robust back-and-forth between politicians and the press that is critical to a thriving democracy,” the WHCA said. …
“Broadly speaking, the WHCA unequivocally condemns any act of violence or intimidation against any journalist covering the 2016 campaign, whether perpetrated by a candidate’s supporters, staff or security officers,” the WHCA said. “We expect that all contenders for the nation’s highest office agree that this would be unacceptable.”
To get a sense of what was going on, understand that at the Trump rallies, the press is confined to a “pen” – fenced off from the crowd but in the middle of things – and Trump repeatedly points at them during the event and calls them liars and awful people – and the crowd screams at them and sometimes throws things. Covering a Trump rally is a bit unpleasant. Now it’s physically dangerous, and the new problem is Trump’s senior staff.
Still, Donald Trump was well-behaved in the debate itself, which led Josh Marshall to say this:
The big takeaway from tonight’s debate – perhaps ‘confirmation’ is a better word for it – is that Donald Trump can turn the bully boy shtick on and off like a spigot. Watching this debate was like being transported back to the pre-2016 GOP debate world where one candidate ranting “Little Marco” ten times or another putting up his hands to show how big they were was essentially unimaginable. The tone of this gathering made it seem almost unthinkable again.
As everyone has noted, Trump is now trying not only to pivot to the general election but reassure GOP party stakeholders with his restraint and smother his competitors with talk of unity.
Good luck with that:
Despite the advent of civil and dignified Trump, he held nothing back on his animus and exclusion of Muslims here and abroad. If anything he extended it beyond much of what he said before. Rubio and Kasich pushed back on this; Cruz did to a lesser extent. But they did not in ways that would remotely hurt Trump with his supporters.
Much the same was the case on the topic of crowd beatings at Trump’s rallies. Yes, he said the punching incident was unfortunate. But he noted again that there are so many people at his rallies and barely anyone gets beaten up. And more pointedly, no one should be violent. But people are angry about bad trade deals and losing. His supporters have “anger that’s unbelievable,” which seems accurate enough. And sometimes, well, that anger gets the best of them. God bless ’em.
The general message was: they’re my people. They’re angry. They love America. And with that much anger and love, stuff happens. And besides, those protesters, he seemed to say, are some bad mofos who probably have it coming. …
So Trump didn’t “condone” the incident that got John McGraw charged with assault. But the general message was: the trade deals are bad and the protesters are worse. So stuff’s going to happen. …
On the driving themes of his campaign though, economic nationalism, xenophobia and revanchist anger at losers, freeloaders and protesters, there was no shift at all.
You didn’t watch the last Republican debate before the Florida primary for good reason. We all know where this is headed.