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Donald Trump reminds Republicans he can sink their party even if he loses the nomination

Donald Trump commands a first-place lead in the polls and may have the clearest path to the Republican nomination of any candidate in the presidential race.

But his allegiance to the Republican Party remains as brittle as ever, and Trump proved it again on Monday when he resurfaced the idea that he would launch a third-party bid in retaliation to what he regards as unfair treatment by the GOP leadership.

In September 2015, Trump signed a pledge not to launch an independent bid for president if he lost the GOP primary. There was a catch: He added an exception to the pledge that made it invalid if the Republicans mistreated him — "a loophole so enormous it could mean anything Trump wants," as New York magazine's Jonathan Chait pointed out.

Trump affirmed his willingness to exploit that crater-size exception during a town hall in South Carolina on Monday, in which he criticized the GOP for allegedly packing the last Republican debate audience with Trump opponents.

"The RNC better get its act together because, you know, I signed a pledge. The pledge isn’t being honored by the RNC," Trump said, according to ABC News. "I signed a pledge, but it’s a double-edged pledge. As far as I’m concerned, they’re in default on their pledge."

It was the second time on Monday alone Trump had said he was unbound by his vow. Trump also said in a statement that the RNC would be "in default" of its pledge if it didn't stop the attack ads being aired against him by rival candidate Sen. Ted Cruz.

The Republican establishment is penned in here

It'll be no surprise that Trump's grandstanding here is, as a matter of substance, mostly nonsense.

The Republicans did have more party loyalists in the debate crowd than usual, and those party loyalists are more likely to dislike Trump. But here's the New York Times detailing the actual dispersion of tickets for the debate:

Of the approximately 1,600 people who attended, 300 tickets were given to Republican "grass-roots" activists and elected officials, 600 were divided evenly among the six candidates, and only 10 went to R.N.C. donors.

The remaining tickets … went to the South Carolina Republican Party and to CBS, which hosted the debate.

That hardly amounts to what the right-leaning news outlet Breitbart called a "stacked deck" against Trump. And Trump's call for the RNC to intervene over Cruz's attack ads is even less persuasive, as negative campaigning is pretty par for the course at this stage of the race.

Instead, these episodes really just serve as pretexts for Trump to remind the Republican Party that he is holding all of the cards at this point in the nomination fight.

If the GOP continues to let Trump plow ahead atop the polls, he'll win the nomination. If it uses every mechanism at its disposal to stop him — like breaking out obscure rules governing the party's convention — Trump can run as an independent. It's like a trick coin — heads, Trump wins; tails, the Republican Party loses.

Trump has the establishment penned in here. By firing a warning shot over so slight a transgression, he's reminding them of that fact.