House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) publicly condemned Donald Trump’s extremism yesterday, telling reporters that the Republican presidential hopeful’s anti-Muslim agenda “is not what this party stands for and, more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for.” But at the same press conferences, the Speaker fielded a different kind of question.
“In your role as Speaker, you preside over the party’s convention this summer,” a reporter reminded Ryan. “If Trump is the nominee, can you back…” The GOP congressional leader interrupted, saying, “I’m going to support whoever the Republican nominee is.”
And therein lies the problem. All kinds of Republicans, including much of the party’s presidential field, have been willing to criticize Trump’s bigotry, but when push comes to shove, are they willing to walk away if Trump is their party’s nominee? So far, not one current GOP official or presidential candidate has stepped up and said, “No.” (Sen. Susan Collins of Maine came close. After condemning Trump’s extremism, she was asked what she’d do if he won the nomination. “I’ve got to go now,” Collins replied.)
It’s led the White House, which has generally steered clear of the primary process, to issue a challenge of sorts to the Republican Party.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest sharply denounced Donald Trump on Tuesday, saying that his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States is “disqualifying” and calling on all other Republicans to renounce any support for the real estate mogul even if he becomes the GOP nominee.“What he said is disqualifying,” Earnest said of Trump. “And any Republican who’s too fearful of the Republican base to admit it has no business serving as president either.”
But GOP officials, at least for now, have no intention of admitting any such thing. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, pressed for some kind of response to Trump’s latest garbage, would only say yesterday, “I don’t agree” with the proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Pressed further, Priebus added, “That’s as far as I’m going to go.”
What’s driving the cowardice?
Part of the dynamic is the realization among party officials and candidates that Trump is popular in right-wing circles, and Republicans are reluctant to go too far in alienating allies. Another part is very likely the RNC’s “pledge” – every Republican presidential candidate has already committed to supporting the party’s eventual nominee, and there is no “except if it’s Trump” provision in the document.
But there’s also the under-appreciated fact that Trump may yet abandon the Republican primary process and run as an independent if he believes he’s being treated, to use his word, “unfairly.” And that’s a nightmare scenario many in the party consider scarier than Trump as their nominee.
Yesterday, for example, the latest USA Today/Suffolk poll shows the New York developer with 27% support nationally, well ahead of his next closest rival, Ted Cruz with 17%. Perhaps more important, however, was the poll’s finding that 68% of Trump’s supporters “say they would vote for the blustery billionaire businessman if he ran as an independent rather than a Republican; just 18% say they wouldn’t.”
Trump eagerly touted the findings through social media, as if to remind Republicans not to make him angry.
The GOP frontrunner has, with varying degrees of subtlety, been making related threats for several months, refusing to rule out the one option his rivals wouldn’t consider: abandoning the party’s nominating process and running on a third-party ticket.
Which is why White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest’s challenge will likely go unmet. If Republican presidential hopefuls and party leaders vow to oppose Trump, he’ll leave the party. If the RNC intervenes in the primary race to undermine him, he’ll leave the party. And if Republicans do nothing, Trump will stay in the party, but do irreparable harm along the way.
Remember when Reince Priebus carefully crafted a plan to prevent the 2016 nominating process from becoming an out-of-control circus?