Donald Trump’s rivals and Fox News' debate moderators laid out a clear and factual case on Thursday that Trump’s policies were unworkable; that he regularly shifted his positions; and that he had engaged in business practices he routinely denounces on the campaign trail.
Trump, in turn, bragged about the size of his penis and promised to force Americans to commit war crimes. He remains the odds on favorite to win the Republican nomination.
There’s not much more anyone can do but wait for the voters to weigh in on Trump, who has so far thrived while being caught telling blatant lies and making bigoted and misogynist statements that would instantly destroy a different candidate.
Maybe the attacks will reach critical mass before March 15, when wins in Ohio and Florida would likely secure him the nomination, or maybe his fans will see his bullying and obscene retorts as an appealing sign of strength like they have to this point.
But the substance is important, regardless of how Republicans make their decision in upcoming contests, and Trump had a slew of exchanges that objectively had disturbing implications about his honesty, consistency, and competence.
The moderators, trying to block Trump from his usual technique of denying taking positions he demonstrably had taken before, used videos and slides to confront him with contradictory comments.
One pair of clips showed him saying America “made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place” when asked about Afghanistan, then later saying “I've never said we made a mistake” and denying he ever said otherwise. Another pair of clips showed him saying “you have to” take in Syrian refugees one day, then reversing the stance shortly afterwards because “we have our own problems." Yet another pair of clips showed Trump saying Bush “lied” about Iraq’s WMD program in a debate, then saying shortly afterwards “I don’t know if he lied or not.”
Trump slipped his way through the obstacle course of obvious flip-flops with a combination of fantastic claims that he either misheard the questions – something he trotted out this week to explain his refusal to disavow the KKK during an interview with CNN – or blithe admissions that he simply changed his mind with the wind.
Confronted by moderator Chris Wallace with a slide showing that his suggestions for cutting the budget fell far short of closing a $554 billion deficit, Trump said it didn’t account for his plan to save ”hundreds of billions of dollars a year in waste” from “pharmaceutical companies” by negotiating lower drug prices through Medicare.
When Wallace, pointed out that Medicare only spends $78 billion total on drugs per year, making Trump's suggestion ludicrous, the front-runner responded that “I’m not only talking about drugs, I'm talking about other things.”
At another point, he was asked by moderator Megyn Kelly why he praised H1B visas for high skilled workers in a CNBC debate when the immigration plan on his own website said the same visas "decimate" American workers.
“I'm changing. I'm changing,” he said. “We need highly skilled people in this country, and if we can't do it, we'll get them in.”
To be clear, this is Trump’s signature issue. He has argued from the first days of his campaign that immigrants are stealing jobs and driving down wages. He put out an entire white paper on the topic. But on Thursday he indicated without any apparent shame that he would go back on a campaign promise as soon as he felt like it.
Or so it seemed. After the debate he released a statement clarifying that he interpreted Kelly’s question about “highly-skilled immigration” to mean something else and that he still would crack down on H1B visas. Like many of Trump’s positions, there are so many confusing statements and walk backs that the “true” position can hardly be said to exist at all.
Trump was just as malleable on another signature issue: Trade.
Rubio pressed him on his use of foreign manufacturers to make his clothing products. Trump routinely attacks other companies by name in his speeches for moving manufacturing overseas, and promises that he will punish them for doing so as president. But when it came to his own brand, he happily admitted that of course he made his products abroad to keep costs down, while vaguely suggesting he might change his ways.
“They devalue their currencies, and they make it impossible for clothing-makers in this country to do clothing in this country,” Trump said.
It went on and on. Regarding foreign policy, Trump interrupted Rubio, saying “wrong” over and over as the Florida senator accurately pointed out that Trump had “expressed admiration” for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.
“Putin said very nice things about me and I said very nicely, wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along with Russia,” Trump said.
For the candidates struggling to pin Trump down, it continues to be a frustrating slog.
Cruz summed the dynamic up afterwards in an interview with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly when he was pressed to answer whether Trump lied. Cruz refused to call him dishonest, but it wasn’t exactly a compliment – instead he essentially portrayed Trump as a sociopath.
“I think he can say two opposite things in the course of a minute and believe both of them,” Cruz said.
One question Trump had no doubt on: whether he would commit brutal and illegal acts of terror against civilians as president.
Trump was asked about his call to murder terrorist’s families and institute torture techniques. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden recently warned that soldiers would disobey such orders as they were unlawful and would expose them to prosecution.
“If I say do it, they're going to do it,” Trump said. “That's what leadership is all about.”
If voters don’t see Trump’s political behavior as outside the bounds of normal, though, they aren’t getting many signals to the contrary from his opponents. Every single person onstage Thursday told the audience they would support him should he win the nomination.