Donald Trump yanked the Republican Party toward a contested convention over the last 24 hours as he let rip an extraordinary series of statements on abortion, the Geneva Conventions, violence against women, and his own commitment to supporting the GOP presidential nominee that seemed to obliterate the notion that the party will unite behind him anytime soon.
The fallout for Trump has been swift, as Republican rivals denounced the real estate mogul’s escalating attacks on a reporter who accused Trump’s campaign manager of battery and his suggestion that women should be punished for seeking abortions if the procedure is outlawed – a statement Trump quickly tried to walk back.
He also freshly rankled leading Republicans around the country for tearing up his previous pledge to support the eventual nominee, saying Tuesday night that “we’ll see who it is.”
The series of events gave mainstream Republicans new hope that they could prevent him him from winning the nomination outright through pledged delegates. But they’re also more worried than ever about a fractured party heading into the fall.
“Trump is an embarrassment for the party. He’s not a conservative, he’s not a Republican, he’s someone who’s simply for himself,” said Ryan Williams, a GOP consultant and veteran of Mitt Romney’s campaigns. “He’s set a new standard and is going to give a number of Republicans pause about supporting him if he’s the nominee. That’s Donald Trump’s fault and Donald Trump’s fault alone.”
Trump created yet another firestorm on Wednesday afternoon, when he lamented the existence of the Geneva Conventions. “The problem is we have the Geneva Conventions, all sorts of rules and regulations, so the soldiers are afraid to fight,” Trump said at an afternoon town hall.
But it was his comments regarding women — both his suggestion about criminalizing abortion and his escalating attacks on Breitbart journalist Michelle Fields — that set off the loudest alarm bells.
In a sign of how damaging his comments on abortion were, Trump swiftly reversed himself. The controversy started when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews pressed Trump on his statement that abortion “is a very serious problem, and it’s a problem we have to decide on. Are you going to send them to jail?”
After Matthews tried to draw him out on what should happen if abortions are outlawed, Trump responded, “There has to be some form of punishment.”
Bipartisan criticism was immediate, with Hillary Clinton calling the comment “horrific and telling” and Republican rival John Kasich strongly disputing Trump’s assertion: “Absolutely not.”
The Trump campaign went into damage control mode, emailing out a clarifying statement. “If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman,” Trump said in the statement. “The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb. My position has not changed — like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions.”
The statement on abortion compounded his inflammatory comments about Fields, the former reporter who accused Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski of roughly yanking her arm as she tried to ask Trump a question earlier this month. Lewandowski was charged with misdemeanor battery on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Trump stoked the controversy by accusing Fields of provoking Lewandowski in the incident and brandishing a pen as she tried to talk to him.
“Fox and Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade challenged Trump on his account of the incident Wednesday morning, saying that campaign managers like Lewandowski “should not be putting their hands on reporters.” He added, “Karl Rove didn’t do it. David Plouffe didn’t do it, David Axelrod didn’t do it. That’s why you have Secret Service and that’s why you have your own security.”
Trump shot back, speculating that perhaps they had. “OK and you don’t know that they didn’t do it because I guarantee you they did, probably did stuff that was more physical than this,” he said. “More physical, because this is not even physical. And frankly, she shouldn’t have her hands on me. Nobody says that. But she shouldn’t have her hands on me.”
While Trump has become a master at firing off controversial comments and earning kudos from his core supporters for his disregard for political correctness, the real estate mogul is making little headway in his recently stated goal of convincing the Republican Party to unify behind him as the frontrunner.
Trump has a large lead over rival Ted Cruz in the delegate race, 736 to the Texas senator’s 463, but it’s not clear if he’ll be able to secure the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination before the July convention.
Poll numbers out Wednesday for Wisconsin’s primary next week were not encouraging for the real estate mogul. The survey from Marquette Law School, the state’s most reliable pollster, showed Cruz with a 10-point lead over Trump.
And the frontrunner is winning few converts among centrist Republicans. At one point earlier this year, some on Capitol Hill and among the lobbyist crowd on K Street had entertained the idea that Trump would be preferable to Cruz.
They had considered Trump someone with whom they could cut deals, and questioned whether he really believed the fiery rhetoric he employed on the stump. But his repudiation on Tuesday night of his promise to support the eventual GOP nominee — on top of a string of other controversial statements he’s made over the past few weeks — made many Republicans deeply uncomfortable, making unity an even more unlikely prospect.
“As head of the party, it is disturbing for anybody — not necessarily Trump — saying that they may or may not support our nominee,” said Diana Waterman, chairwoman of the Maryland GOP. “At the end of it, we’re supposed to all come together. That includes the people who were not successful in getting there.”
Another party chairman from a state with an upcoming primary, who requested anonymity to share reservations about Trump, said his theatrics take the party’s focus off their shared rejection of Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
“Unfortunately it seems that whenever Mr. Trump is worried he may not become the Republican nominee, he makes these sorts of comments,” the chairman said. “My concern about his latest comments is that it will only make it harder for him to convince longtime loyal grassroots Republicans of his sincerity and to persuade them to rally behind his candidacy. All of the Republican candidates must always first consider the best interest of this country and not hurt feelings.”
But there is also risk to Republican leaders in being openly hostile to Trump. In a contested convention scenario, there is no guarantee that Trump supporters would get in line behind another candidate should the real estate mogul fall short, particularly if they feel that he has been treated unfairly by the party—and Trump has already claimed mistreatment.
“How things are conducted going forward matters, and I’m really personally counting on our party leadership to set an example and come together,” said Steve Munisteri, the former chairman of the Republican Party of Texas.
Munisteri said that if Trump ultimately wins the nomination, he would expect supporters of Cruz and Kasich to put aside their differences and back him, regardless of what the candidates themselves do. But, he acknowledged, Trump backers are less predictable, and could set the stage for a deeply damaging moment for the Republican Party.
There is also always the threat of a third-party bid, either from Trump himself if he doesn’t clinch the GOP nomination, or from another candidate brought in as an alternative to Trump, though Republicans well-versed in party rules note that there is limited time, and ballot access constraints could keep that headache in check.
But as the convention nears with Trump still leading the pack, despite his fiery statements, the Republican Party’s soul-searching will become even more dire.
“I don’t envy my friends at the [Republican National Committee] right now,” said Williams, the Romney veteran. “It’s going to be a difficult task for the RNC to try to bring the party together.”
Nolan D. McCaskill, Ben Schreckinger, and Eliza Collins contributed to this report.
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