First Read: Backing away from the GOP loyalty pledge

Updated

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.

Broken promises

Back in September, when Donald Trump signed that loyalty pledge to the Republican Party with great fanfare, how many people really thought the promise would hold? Last night marked the moment when Trump formally dumped the pledge, saying when asked if he still respects his promise to back the GOP nominee: “No, I don’t anymore. No. We’ll see who it is.” John Kasich made moves to back away yesterday too, saying “If the nominee is somebody that I think is really hurting the country, and dividing the country, I can’t stand behind them, but we have a ways to go.” And Ted Cruz continued to go right up to the line again, reiterating the argument he made last week that he’s “not in the habit” of supporting people who attack his family. Look, we’ve already long since been past the point when any of the likely outcomes of the Republican convention result in a party that’s anything but split between the pro- and anti- Trump crowds. But yesterday is yet another date to circle in the history of the GOP’s identity crisis nonetheless.

Trump’s remarkable attempt to turn Lewandowski into an asset

Once again, it was a roller-coaster of a 24-hour news cycle with yesterday’s arrest of Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Here’s one piece of this story that really struck us, though: Not only has Trump stood by – and vehemently defended – an aide now charged with battery, but Trump has essentially tried to turn it into an illustration of why he’d be a good leader. “I don’t discard people,” he said of not firing Lewandowski. “I stay with people, that’s why I stay with this country. That’s why I stay with a lot of people that are treated unfairly. And that’s one of the reasons I’m the front-runner by a lot.” Setting aside the fact that he has in fact ended his relationship with two aides in this campaign already – Roger Stone and Sam Nunberg – AND setting aside the fact that much of his fame is derived from a show featuring the catchphrase “You’re Fired” – it’s really a remarkable way to approach an incident that in any other campaign would be an unquestionable liability.

Clinton takes aim at Trump in ad including footage from violent rally

It was only a matter of time until Hillary Clinton went straight at an argument about the GOP front-runner’s issues with civility and accusations of xenophobia. In a new ad airing in New York, Hillary Clinton goes there, contrasting an uplifting message of inclusion and diversity with the video of a Trump supporter cold-cocking a protester. (She doesn’t mention Trump by name in the narration, although an image of Trump’s logo appears.) “New York. Twenty million people strong. No, we don’t all look the same. We don’t all sound the same, either. But when we pull together, we do the biggest things in the world,” she says in the ad.

Rubio makes moves to hang onto his delegates

NBC’s Ari Melber has the goods on Marco Rubio’s efforts to hang on to the delegates he won in 21 states and territories despite having exited the race earlier this month. It’s up to each state to decide whether or not he can actually do that, but here’s why it matters: Rubio won a total of 172 delegates during his presidential run, a pool of support that would make up about half of the unbound delegates up for grabs between the end of the primaries and the convention in Cleveland. If Trump falls short of 1,237, he’d need to go fishing in that pool to try to make up the difference. A successful effort by Rubio to keep his delegates could reduce the overall pool of 323 unbound delegates down to as few as 151, making it harder for Trump to get to the finish line if he doesn’t have a majority by the end of the second week of June. And that makes a second ballot vote at the convention much more likely.

Anti-Trump forces spend big in Wisconsin

Just how high are the stakes for the anti-Trump crowd next Tuesday? The outside groups hoping to deprive Trump of a win have spent nearly $1.7 million on TV ads in the state, making the combined efforts of Our Principles PAC and the Club for Growth the biggest 2016 spending effort in Wisconsin so far. They’re spending about twice what either the pro-Kasich and pro-Cruz forces have shelled out to date, while Trump’s campaign itself has spent less than $400,000. It’s worth pointing out that big anti-Trump ad spending has ended in (expensive) heartbreak for the effort before - just look at the nearly $8 million shelled out to try to halt Trump’s win in Florida. But you’re also seeing some diversification in where the non-Trump Republican campaigns are spending in the effort to secure congressional district delegates, with Kasich going big in Milwaukee and Madison while Cruz is pumping more resources into the media markets in the northern part of the state. Here are the numbers, from our ad-buying partner SMG Delta.

But a pro-Cruz effort is taking its eye off the ball

We’ve written again and again that the anti-Trump efforts will have to be directed and unified if they’re going to have a shot at stopping him, and a circular firing squad is – well – not that. The pro-Cruz group Trusted Leadership PAC announced that it’s launching an ad in Wisconsin that accuses John Kasich of “holding out for a last-second shot at blocking out the grass roots.” Kasich has some decent institutional support within the state and could perform well in its urban areas and suburbs, places where Cruz has less of a shot of picking up delegates. Split the vote, and those delegates could end up on Team Trump.

And speaking of Cruz and Wisconsin…

Remember 24 hours ago when pundits were weighing how much Scott Walker’s expected backing of Ted Cruz would boost the Texas senator? It was a good morning for a Trump opponent, which – as we’ve learned from this campaign so far – made it almost inevitable that Trump would make something happen within hours to steal Cruz’s thunder. Now, in this case, it was the arrest of Corey Lewandowski that shook up the news cycle rather than an announcement (or just a bombshell tweet) wholly controlled by the Trump campaign. But it’s still another day that showed how limited the oxygen is for non-Trump candidates, even on days when they’d normally be at the center of the day’s narrative.

On the trail

Donald Trump holds campaign rallies in De Pere and Appleton, Wisc. Bernie Sanders is in Kenosha and Madison, Ted Cruz holds an event with female supporters in Madison. Hillary Clinton is in Harlem.

Programming note

Be sure to tune in tonight on MSNBC for a special night of exclusive 2016 events: First, a 7pm ET town hall with John Kasich in Queens, NY, hosted by one of us(!). Then at 8pm ET Chris Matthews moderates a town hall with Donald Trump in Green Bay, WI. And at 9pm ET and 10pm ET, Rachel Maddow sits down for back-to-back interviews with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Don’t miss it! 

Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, RNC and Ted Cruz

First Read: Backing away from the GOP loyalty pledge

Updated