Conservatives are divided over whether to embrace Donald Trump or expel him from the party, but even among anti-Trump Republicans there’s no consensus on how to get the billionaire mogul to go away.
Every available option seems to make things worse. If party leaders fail to confront him aggressively, then his noxious brand of anti-immigrant rhetoric could poison the GOP brand. Go after him too hard, however, and they risk handing him the kind of made-for-TV mud fight that his campaign thrives on.
There is also real worry among Republicans that Trump could mount an independent presidential run if pushed far enough — it's a possibility Trump himself threatened in 2011 after several Republican presidential hopefuls declined his proposal to moderate a televised candidate forum in Iowa. He’s at least teasing the possibility again this time.
“So many people want me to run as an independent — so many people,” Trump told The Washington Post on Thursday. “I have been asked by — you have no idea, everybody wants me to do it. I think the best chance of defeating the Democrats and to make America great again is to win as a Republican because I don’t want to be splitting up votes.”
The only thing more painful than Trump dominating weeks of news in the primaries might be Trump playing an active spoiler in the general election.
“I don’t know which negative is larger,” one Republican strategist told msnbc. “I think there is definitely a chance that he decides to run as an Independent. The flipside is how do they control him inside the party? What do they even have to threaten him with?”
In the past, Republicans have often decided the best method for defusing Trump is a light touch. Mitt Romney joined Donald Trump at his hotel in Las Vegas in 2012 for an awkward event accepting his endorsement even after Trump launched a public crusade to prove President Obama was not born in the country. The goal, one Romney veteran recalled to msnbc, was to prevent Trump from whipping up anti-establishment voters against Romney in the primaries and then later to keep him relatively quiet in the general election.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus took a crack at the friendly advice approach on Wednesday, calling Trump and slipping in a request to tone down his rhetoric. It doesn’t sound like it worked — by Trump’s account, which he gave to The New York Times, what he heard most was that Priebus thought he was doing a great job.
“It was more of a congratulatory call,” Trump said.
Veteran opposition researcher Roger Stone, a longtime friend and supporter of Trump, told msnbc appeals from party leaders were unlikely to affect the mogul's behavior.
“I don’t think people understand Donald Trump,” Stone said. “He doesn’t backpedal, he’s not politically correct, and he doesn’t apologize.”
Republicans have seen long shot presidential hopefuls rise and fall before. The previous cycle had a host of them, including Trump, then-Rep. Michelle Bachmann, and businessman Herman Cain, all of whom flamed out well before the first primary votes were cast. Trump has a decent base of support, but he also has a low ceiling — 74% of Republicans said in a May NBC/WSJ poll that they would not consider voting for him. As such, he has virtually no chance of winning the nomination. The party's best strategy might therefore be to quietly shield mainstream candidates from Trump's more out-there claims while waiting for gravity to kick in.
This is the approach GOP guru Karl Rove put forward in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Thursday urging candidates to “disagree with Mr. Trump by emphasizing their own views and distance themselves, respectfully, while trying not to use his name.”
But others are worried that the party needs to go further. Republican donors are particularly defensive about attacks on immigration reform, which many support both on economic grounds and as an important step to winning Latino and Asian-American voters who flocked to Democrats in 2012. Hillary Clinton and the DNC are already doing their best to tie Trump to the rest of the field on immigration policy and are no doubt eagerly awaiting Trump's scheduled trip to Arizona on Saturday to discuss the topic further. There's some fear that these attacks could stick if the party doesn't make clear Trump is out of line.
“Now is the time for the party and candidates to go on the offensive every time Trump deviates from the party platform, norms and decency,” Bradley Blakeman, a former political adviser to President George W. Bush, told msnbc. “We should assist in his political demise by speaking up and not sitting back each and every time he goes off the reservation.”
Of particular concern is the first GOP debate, which is scheduled for August 6 and hosted by FOX News. The network will include the top 10 candidates in public polls — a threshold Trump is in good shape to cross — and there’s concern he could turn the showcase into a circus. In the process, he’ll likely bump off one of several multi-term governors lagging in the polls, among them former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, current Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
FOX offered one possible way out on Thursday by announcing they would require candidates to file financial disclosures before the debate — under FEC rules, they can otherwise take two 45-day extensions. Some Trump critics have speculated he’d be unwilling to hold his personal wealth up to that kind of scrutiny, but Trump indicated to The Washington Post on Thursday he planned to comply.
“It’s extremely large,” Trump told the Post, “but I think we’ll file it ahead of schedule."
As long as the Trump story continues — and it’s been several weeks now — the party’s other dark horses lose valuable news space to boost their campaign. Perry, for example, delivered a well-received speech on race this week that was largely overshadowed by Trump. Kasich’s press conference on Tuesday ahead of his presidential launch was dominated by questions about Trump.
RELATED: Fact-checking Donald Trump
As the race goes on, the only option for lower-tier candidates to move up might be to join the Trump reality show. On Wednesday, Perry recorded a striking direct-to-camera rebuttal to Trump challenging his claims about immigration.
"Donald you might want to take a trip down to Texas ... to meet some of the Hispanic-Americans who've helped make our nation great,” Perry said in the video.
Of course, lines like that will likely prompt Trump to respond with even louder insults, which will drive more media coverage, which will fire up Trump's supporters, which will prompt candidates to attack him again, and then the whole thing begins again. How many more weeks before someone finds a way to break the cycle?