There was a point last summer when Donald Trump flirted with the possibility of running an independent presidential campaign, prompting widespread consternation in Republican circles. But by early September, Trump announced that he'd signed the RNC's "loyalty pledge," committing him to the party's nominating process -- and its nominee.
As we've discussed before, however, the New York Republican left himself some wiggle room. Trump said, repeatedly, that he would honor the agreement so long as Republicans treated him "fairly." He never specified exactly what "fairly" meant -- apparently, he knows it when he sees it -- but the candidate's rhetoric suggested he always saw a way out of his promise.
All of which led up to last night, when things changed.
When pushed again by moderator Anderson Cooper about whether he'd respect the so-called "Loyalty Pledge" ... Trump was more direct: "No, I don't anymore. No. We'll see who it is. And he was essentially saying the same thing."
In this case, "he" referred to Trump's principal rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, who also suggested he no longer feels bound by the party's pledge.
"I'm not in the habit of supporting someone who attacks my wife and attacks my family," Cruz said last night. Pressed to explain the implications of his position, the Texas Republican would only say, "I gave you my answer."
For good measure, even John Kasich hedged on whether he'll honor the RNC pledge, saying he would have to wait to "see what happens" in the Republican race before deciding whether to keep his commitment.
Keep in mind, at a Republican debate held earlier this month, these candidates were asked whether they'd support their party's presidential nominee, no matter who prevailed. Cruz said, "Yes, because I gave my word that I would." Kasich responded, "[If Trump] ends up as the nominee -- sometimes, he makes it a little bit hard -- but, you know, I will support whoever is the Republican nominee for president."
A lot has happened in the four weeks since, and as of last night, the RNC's "pledge" appears to be no more.
The next question, of course, is whether or not anyone should care about its demise. As a practical matter, if Trump eventually secures the Republican nomination, it won't make too much of a difference if Cruz and/or Kasich balk at an endorsement. It won't look good that they abandoned their promise, but the real-world consequences are limited.
If, however, Trump doesn't win his party's nomination, and he's decided the pledge is null and void, he may yet pursue a third-party candidacy -- the one scenario the RNC thought it had prevented when Trump signed on the dotted line.
It's difficult to know for certain just how serious to take these developments. The simple truth is, these Republican candidates have been battling it out for nearly a year; they're in the middle of a long slog that won't end for months; a contested convention appears likely; and by all appearances, the members of this trio don't much care for one another. Asking them about their willingness to support a rival right now is like asking siblings to talk about their love for one another in the middle of an ugly family argument -- it may be true, but it's not foremost on their minds at the moment.
Regardless, if each of the remaining Republican presidential contenders have given up on the pledge they signed, the intensity of intra-party heartburn is only going to get worse. The document was supposed to bind these candidates to a process and a set of rules, and if it's been shredded by the people who signed it, the political world can expect increased chaos.