Trump has forced candidates and other Republicans to respond to his quotes and actions, dominating the tenor of the campaign
His proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States appears to have sparked a level of backlash that could be a tipping point for the willingness of fellow Republicans to criticize him directly
Donald Trump has done it again.
Less than 24 hours after President Barack Obama aimed to set the tone for the country on a response to the threat of terrorism with an Oval Office address, Trump only needed a press release to cause an uproar with his call for an outright ban on Muslims entering the United States.
The billionaire businessman stood defiantly by his statement on Tuesday morning, when he warned that failing to follow his plans would lead to another September 11-style terror attack on U.S. soil.
“You’re going to have many more World Trade Centers if you don’t solve it – many, many more and probably beyond the World Trade Center,” Trump told CNN’s Chris Cuomo in a contentious interview on “New Day.”
The episode is a microcosm of how the 2016 campaign has played out. Trump has consistently forced candidates, state party chairs, senators and conservative pundits to respond to his actions and quotes, however outlandish and improbable. And in turn, they have all struggled with the question of how to deal with the bombastic real estate tycoon who has dominated state and national polls since the summer.
Trump’s enduring ability to frame the terms of the debate for the GOP continues to have party leaders fretting he will drive voters to Hillary Clinton, help down-ballot Democrats and cause long-term damage to the Republican brand.
Yet, unlike with past provocative statements, Trump appears to have sparked a level of backlash from GOP party leaders and his opponents that could be a tipping point for the willingness of fellow Republicans to criticize him directly and openly. Jeb Bush called Trump “unhinged.” Ted Cruz said it wasn’t his policy. And Dick Cheney, who previously said he would back the Republican nominee even it was Trump, said that Monday’s proposal “goes against everything we stand for and believe in.”
At a press conference on Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan also slammed Trump.
“This is not conservatism,” he said. “What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for.”
But Trump has been here before – his blustery statements only seem to have deepened his appeal to a subset of Republican voters, leading to a frustrated party establishment. Predictions of his demise have all proved to be premature.
Still, in an unprecedented move, the state party chairs of the three early presidential contests all waded into the fray, criticizing Trump’s idea, suggesting at the very least that Trump has crossed a line they feel could damage the Republican brand.
“After Obama’s terrible speech, GOP should be focused on Obama/Clinton foreign policy failures,” Jeff Kaufmann, Iowa’s GOP chairman, tweeted. “Instead I’m here to reiterate that our founding principles are stronger than political cynicism,” he added.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus on Tuesday also criticized Trump. “I don’t agree,” Priebus told the Washington Examiner. “We need to aggressively take on radical Islamic terrorism but not at the expense of our American values.”
According to a CNN/ORC poll released Monday, Trump leads his GOP opponents by double digits in Iowa, garnering support from 33% of likely Republican caucus-goers, with Ted Cruz in second at 20%.
“As a conservative who truly cares about religious liberty, Donald Trump’s bad idea and rhetoric send a shiver down my spine,” South Carolina GOP chairman Matt Moore tweeted. “American exceptionalism means always defending our inalienable rights, not attacking them when it’s politically convenient.”
Moore did not answer a follow-up question about whether he thinks Trump’s comments are disqualifying and whether he would back him if he wins the nomination.
Trump’s proposal, the latest in a string of provocative comments coming in the wake of the terrorist shooting that left 14 dead and 17 wounded in San Bernardino, California, drew cheers and applause from a crowd Monday in Charleston, South Carolina.
“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on,” said Trump reading from a statement his campaign sent out shortly before the rally. “We have no choice. We have no choice.”
Reggie Johnson, 38, who attended Trump’s Charleston rally, agreed with the GOP frontrunner.
“I think it should be shut down for now until you find something, a better program in place,” he said. “I mean this is a free country for what’s that’s worth but I think it does need to be shut down until they get a cap on things.”
Republicans spent Sunday night condemning Obama’s speech and his approach to combating terrorism. And they spent Monday night talking about Trump, who called for a religious test for who is admitted to the country right after Obama said it was “our responsibility to reject” such a test.
Commanding the spotlight
Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise, will begin running an ad called “Desk” in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, that calls Trump “impulsive and reckless.” While the ad doesn’t specifically mention Trump’s proposal, Bush supporters think he is best positioned to benefit from the shift to national security issues.
“Twenty-seven generals and admirals support Jeb Bush,” the ad states. “Because Jeb has the experience and knowledge to protect your family.”
Doug Heye, a veteran GOP strategist and former adviser to the Iowa Republican Party, said Trump’s latest proposal would do more damage than some of his previous controversial comments.
“There are going to be newspapers throughout the world that are going to read ‘Republican front-runner doesn’t want Muslims to visit America,” said Heye. “It will make it easier for Democrats to portray the GOP as hostile to any minority. Ultimately, I think Donald Trump is the best asset Hillary Clinton has.”
Clinton tweeted that Trump’s proposal was “reprehensible, prejudiced and divisive.” Huma Abedin, Clinton’s campaign vice-chairwoman, sent out an e-mail to Clinton supporters with the subject matter – “I’m a proud Muslim.”
“Unfortunately, Trump is leaning into the kind of fear of progress that very well could help him win the nomination,” Abedin wrote. “We have to be ready to stop him.”
Heye encouraged GOP contenders to condemn Trump’s remarks, suggesting they take a dismissive tone like Bush did on Twitter. He warned that Trump’s comments would be used to weaken the Republican nominee — even if it’s not Trump – and will create challenges for Republicans in down-ballot races.
“Everything about Donald Trump’s campaign has hurt the Party,” Heye said. “It hurts the party on a presidential level. It certainly hurts the party on a Senate level as well.”
Senators grapple with Trump phenomenon
Heye’s remarks run counter to a strategy revealed in a leaked National Republican Senatorial Committee that suggested one way to run with Trump at the top of the ticket is to adopt his issues, if not his tone and rhetoric.
Senators were all over the map Monday as they were asked about Trump’s proposal. Some were happy to blast the GOP front-runner, others, like Iowa’s Joni Ernst, wanted nothing to do with the question.
Ernst, who occupies an influential spot among Iowa Republicans walked away from repeated questions about whether she supported Trump’s call.
“Oh, I’m not going to comment on that,” she said when asked by CNN about his comments. Asked again, she replied: “I am not commenting on him.”
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, a first-term s