Donald Trump has clipped through choppy political waters in 2015, charting his own course for the White House, stoking outrage from the establishment of the Republican Party and the media, crushing his opponents in the polls (and making frequent note of it) and delighting in the downfalls of those who deigned strike at him.
Since his June 16 announcement, political prognosticators, pundits and yes, even journalists have speculated that Trump would not last. And each time they did, the blustery Manhattan mogul continued to pick up steam, in spite of, and perhaps because of that speculation.
With the onset of winter, Trump’s campaign has now weathered all seasons, girding for battle not only in Iowa and New Hampshire but also with a media and a coastal chattering class that has predicted that this — no, this — no, this — would finally be the episode to sink his ship. But unlike the Titanic, the icebergs that would sink a conventional campaign have left nary a dent. In fact, he closes out the year with a daunting double-digit lead over his closest rival, Ted Cruz.
From June 16 to the present, these are the big moments that caused people to prematurely predict Trump’s demise:
1. Is he really running?
When Trump, accompanied by his wife, Melania, descended the Trump Tower escalator to the tune of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In the Free World,” he signaled a campaign that few longtime political observers and journalists took seriously.
“Donald Trump was God’s gift to the Internet on Tuesday,” POLITICO reported in its June 16 write-up of the campaign announcement, which lit up Twitter with mocking messages.
The Democratic National Committee couldn’t help itself, firing off a snarky statement: “Today, Donald Trump became the second major Republican candidate to announce for president in two days,” said spokeswoman Holly Shulman, referencing Jeb Bush’s announcement the prior day. “He adds some much-needed seriousness that has previously been lacking from the GOP field, and we look forward to hearing more about his ideas for the nation.”
And Bush couldn’t help but chuckle when asked by FOX News Channel’s Sean Hannity about his word association for Trump that day. (The answer: “rich guy”)
But Trump followed through, later filing the paperwork to make his candidacy official, and then giving the public a peek at his vast financial statement.
For his part, Trump appeared to delight in the haters, telling variants of the same story in interviews and at campaign stops. “Everybody said, ‘he’s not going to run.’ You remember that, right? Never gonna run,” he said at an August appearance in New Hampshire. “Then they said, ‘eh, but he’s never going to file his papers. Not the financial papers.’ I had to sign my life away with one page. You know, it says you’re signing your life away. They said, ‘he’ll never sign that.’ Then I signed that. He announced he’s running, we had the event, now he signed the paper. Then they’re gonna say — then they did say, ‘he’s never going to file his financial documents. Because he’s probably not as rich as people think, right?’ So then I filed 90 — I think it’s 98 or 102 pages of financials. And it was much, much bigger than anybody anticipated. Actually, I wanted to file the financials. Because, you know, I’m sort of a bragger.”
2. ‘They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists …’
Trump immediately got into hot water, venting during his presidential announcement that the U.S. has become a dumping ground, including for “rapists” and drug peddlers from Mexico.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people,” he said.
The backlash simmered and then boiled, leading to an end to several business deals, including from Univision and NBC, which both dropped his Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants; and Macy’s, which cited his immigration comments as a factor.
At the time, there were rumors that the hemorrhaging of deals was getting to the business mogul. One person in Trump’s inner circle told CNN that Trump was stung by NBC’s decision to sever ties, adding that after the campaign, Trump had always expected to return to being host of “The Apprentice.”
3. Not a war hero
Appearing at an event in Ames, Iowa, Trump laced into Arizona Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War for 5½ years, for being a war hero only “because he was captured.” The comment caused a firestorm, with many predicting Trump would not be able to recover.
“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said during the discussion in which he also criticized what he perceived as McCain’s failure to take care of military veterans. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” Trump’s remarks followed McCain’s criticism earlier in the week that he was riling up the “crazies” in Arizona at a rally.
Republicans and the political establishment largely condemned Trump’s remarks, with The New York Times reporting that the episode gave them “their best opening yet to marginalize Mr. Trump.”
Lindsey Graham reacted angrily, saying that Trump had finally “crossed a line today that will offend most everyone that I know.” He predicted voters would tell Trump, “You’re fired.”
4. ‘blood coming out of her … wherever’
Trump made headlines during the first GOP debate with his declaration that he would not rule out an independent bid for the presidency, but it was in a CNN interview later in the week that set the political world ablaze once more. Speaking to Don Lemon, Trump complained of his treatment during the Fox News debate, particularly from moderator Megyn Kelly.
“She gets out and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions,” Trump said. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her — wherever. In my opinion, she was off base.” Trump later clarified that he meant to finish the thought with “her nose” and “her ears.”
Following the remark, there was more talk that this was really the time Trump went too far. RedState founder Erick Erickson revoked Trump’s invitation to the annual RedState Gathering in Atlanta, writing, “there are even lines blunt talkers and unprofessional politicians should not cross.”
5. Polls won’t last?
Trump’s gargantuan standing in most state and national polls began to take shape about a month into his candidacy, with an ABC News/Washington Post poll in which he received 24 percent to Jeb Bush’s 12 percent. With outsize campaign rallies in airport hangars, arenas and stadiums, Trump kept chugging along, despite proclamations to the contrary.
In the days after he disinvited Trump from his event, Erickson wrote that his “high polling will linger on awhile, but if another story does not come along to push stories about Trump personally off the front pages and lead stories of the television news, he will just be another in the long list of political stories that flare up and fade in the August doldrums of American politics.”
While Trump’s numbers did stagnate for a time in the early fall (see below), by mid-December he had cracked into the 40s in at least one national poll, even as challengers like retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz remained hot on his tail.
6. The establishment digs in
As the summer wore on, establishment types in the Republican Party increasingly acknowledged Trump’s appeal as a means to express dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, but they refused to entertain the idea that Trump could clinch the nomination.
“There’s a lot of frustration and anger in the country about the federal government, and about politicians in both parties. And Donald has become a vehicle for that kind of frustration,” Charlie Black, a senior adviser to McCain’s 2008 campaign, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Aug. 23, in a story carrying the headline: “GOP campaign strategists: Trump will not be the nominee.”
Alex Castellanos, a veteran Republican strategist, said Trump won’t get past 40 percent support, and that “I don’t think he’s going to be the nominee in that sense.”
7. The media start to freak out
The media obsession with Trump seemed to find no bounds, with writers increasingly marveling at Trump, while dismissing him as a serious candidate.
“Trump has certainly crafted an appeal to voters who like impractical ideas,” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote Aug. 26. “But his true threat lies in the fact that Trump himself is crazy — not just ideologically, though he is certainly that as well, but in the sense that he lacks any rational connection between his actions and his goals, to the extent that his goals are discernible at all. That is also his downfall.”
By the next week, Trump had already broken into the 30s in the latest ABC News/Washington Post national poll.
8. A death warrant?
After Trump signed on to the Republican National Committee’s pledge to support the party’s eventual nominee and to forgo an independent bid, Bloomberg’s Joshua Green wrote that the candidate had just signed his “political death warrant.”
In making his case, Green wrote that it “shatters the independent image that is the key to Trump’s appeal.”
“Finally, Trump seems not to understand the dynamics of the Republican primary process. The fact that he’s leading in the polls, while plainly gratifying to his ego, doesn’t mean very much. Anti-Trump sentiment among GOP voters is actually quite strong,” Green wrote.
In fact, while Trump continued to gain and maintain strong leads in the polls, he has continued his open flirtation with a third-party run.
9. The beginning of the end?
“Is the summer of Donald Trump over?” the top of POLITICO’s wrap-up of the second GOP debate in Simi Valley, California, asked, following a marathon three-hour debate on a hot stage in which the billionaire businessman faded and Carly Fiorina shone. Just a week earlier, Trump had insulted Fiorina’s appearance in an interview with Rolling Stone, something that Trump denied during the debate, calling Fiorina a “beautiful woman” with a “beautiful face.”
“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina said in response to Trump’s initial comments.
Trump later called the room “extremely hot” in an interview with “Fox and Friends,” before mocking Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for his profuse sweating, later sending him a case of Trump Ice bottled water.
In detailing why she thought Trump was on his way out, Sara Fagen, a former political director for President George W. Bush, wrote for CNBC that his “petty insults about people’s appearances and intelligence levels are getting old.” She also questioned his command of policy as well as his ground game in the early primary states.
“Right now, it’s unclear what Mr. Trump’s second act is beyond more rude comments. He lacks the substance to be president and he lacks the political organization to win a long primary contest,” she wrote.
10. ‘if I tank … ‘
Renewed speculation about Trump’s decline came from an unexpected source: Trump himself.
In an interview with CNBC’s John Harwood published Oct. 1, Trump was asked if he would get out of the race if he was no longer “leading every poll.”
“Well, I’m not a masochist,” Trump remarked. “If I fell behind badly, I would certainly get out. I’m in this for the long haul,” he concluded. “That doesn’t mean someday I don’t wake up and I say, ‘Wow, I’m really tanking.’ Well, if I tank, sure, I go back to the business. Why wouldn’t I?”
Trump amplified the speculation in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” aired Oct. 4, when Chuck Todd pressed him on the comments.
“I believe in polls. How many elections do you see where the polls were wrong? Not that many,” Trump said. “OK. You see ’em, but not that many. If I were doing poorly, if I saw myself going down, if you would stop calling me ’cause you no longer have any interest in Trump because ‘he has no chance,’ I’d go back to my business. I have no problem with that.”
11. ‘How stupid are the people of Iowa?’
During a nine-minute rant at the end of an hour-and-a-half campaign rally in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on Nov. 12, Trump tore into a key component of Ben Carson’s story of personal redemption, in which the retired neurosurgeon claimed he had tried to stab a classmate only to have the knife’s blade break on the belt buckle.
He then moved away from his lectern, demonstrating to those in attendance how his belt would move upward or downward if a knife struck it, asking members of the audience to come on stage and try it.
“It moves this way, it moves that way!” Trump said. “How stupid are the people of Iowa? How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?”
Other Republicans in the state took offense. “Not good to insult Iowa voters,” Doug Gross, the former chief of staff to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, told POLITICO the next day. Still, others seemed skeptical that such an outburst would endanger Trump’s chances.
Matt Strawn, the former head of the state GOP, recalled when Trump made his remark about McCain being a war hero when he was captured, also in Iowa.
“I heard audible gasps from those I was sitting by, yet that had no effect in his standing in the caucuses. And I’m not trying to dodge or be cute, but we don’t know. We don’t know what impact this will have,” Strawn said.
12. After Paris terrorist attacks
Following the Nov. 13 ISIL terrorist attacks in Paris and a northern suburb that killed 130, POLITICO interviewed a collection of former and current GOP state chairs, veteran operatives, lobbyists and strategists, all of whom held firm to their belief that the two front-running candidates at the time, Trump and Carson, would not last in the face of the new security environment.
While Carson has tanked in the polls after admitting his own foreign policy shortcomings, Trump has blasted on full speed ahead.
“The [Paris] attacks proved that a month is an infinite amount of political time, and that the shape of a campaign can flip dramatically in an instant,” Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a veteran of the George W. Bush White House told POLITICO. “And for that reason I believe it’s a fair reading of the evidence to say that people don’t get serious until, if, and when they vote. And so I want to see what the polls in New Hampshire look like a week, three days, the day before the actual primaries are held … If Donald is at 42 percent in New Hampshire a day before the primary, you may see the establishment freak out. But I don’t think today.”
13. Calling for a Muslim ban
A day after President Barack Obama delivered a prime-time address to the nation in the wake of the San Bernardino attack on Dec. 2, the deadliest terrorist incident on U.S. soil in 14 years, Trump sought to up the stakes with a move that marked his sharpest escalation of rhetoric to date.
In a statement released through his campaign, Trump called upon the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
Bush called Trump “unhinged,” while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has attempted to cast himself as the most serious and tough on terror candidate in the race, said the Manhattan businessman “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
But as the polls began to roll out in the week after Trump unveiled his proposal, one thing was clear: this, too, would not sink him. In an ABC News/Washington Post survey released Dec. 14, nearly 6 in 10 Republican voters said they agreed with him. And then he cracked the 40 percent support mark in national polls.
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