The head of the Republican National Committee is “apoplectic” with Donald Trump. Senior party officials are “frustrated — and confused — by Donald Trump’s erratic behavior.” Even Trump’s ally Newt Gingrich says that he’s being “very self-destructive.”
Republicans have good reason to be upset. Over the past week, their nominee for president has appeared to invite Russia to engage in espionage against his opponent; picked a fight with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a Muslim American soldier who was killed in Iraq; been rumored to have asked a foreign policy adviser multiple times in a single meeting why the US couldn’t use nuclear weapons; and pointedly refused to endorse Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain in their upcoming Republican primaries.
Republicans are used to being put on the defensive after Trump says or does something ridiculous. But it looks like he might have gone too far this week: Rumors are bubbling up that some Republicans are considering a mass defection from Trump, or even trying to get him out of the race entirely.
So what could Republicans panicking over Trump actually do at this point? Here’s the full menu of options left. Spoiler alert: None of them are terribly good.
1) Kick Trump off the ticket and find another candidate
Nope. Can’t happen. It’s way too late for this.
Remember how two weeks ago the Republican Party held a big convention to formally tally up support for candidates? Remember how the party had to stave off an attempt by some delegates to change the rules, so that delegates could vote their consciences instead of being pledged to Trump? Remember how it nearly lost control of the convention floor thanks to #NeverTrump delegates but managed to squash dissent? Remember how they formally nominated Trump and he formally accepted?
If the party wanted to prevent Donald Trump from running on the Republican ticket for president, it had to do it before offering him the nomination. It had chances to do that; it passed those chances up.
According to ABC News, even Republicans who want Trump out of the race ASAP admit they can’t do it themselves. “Officials say there is no mechanism for forcing him to withdraw his nomination,” Jonathan Karl wrote.
2) Convince Trump to drop out (or hope he drops out on his own)
Because GOP officials can’t force Trump out, their best-case scenario is to get Trump to, as Karl writes, “voluntarily exit the race.”
One problem: There’s no evidence whatsoever that Donald Trump wants to voluntarily exit the race.
The idea that Republicans can somehow persuade Trump to drop out, or that Trump will walk away on his own, has its roots in a theory that I’ve seen percolating around the edges of the pundit-sphere for months: that Donald Trump didn’t think he’d get this far, and that he’s lost interest in running.
I understand the appeal of the theory: It makes Donald Trump’s behavior over the past week or so seem not only rational but strategic. Besides, there’s certainly evidence that Trump has no desire to actually be president — or, at least, to do the job of the presidency.
But it simply doesn’t appear to be true. Donald Trump appears to be in this for the attention — remember, he thinks all publicity is good publicity. And the attention isn’t going away.
In fact, it seems likely that if Republicans try to pressure Trump to drop out — or even if they just express their hope that he drops out too candidly to the press — it’ll stiffen his resolve to stay in. Donald Trump decided to run for president in 2016 largely because establishment politicians didn’t take him seriously. If they openly start disrespecting him again, it’ll only remind him why he’s doing this to begin with.
3) Officially disavow Trump
Just because Trump is officially the name on the GOP ticket doesn’t mean that every single individual and group in the ecosystem known as the Republican Party needs to give him its unconditional support. But not every member of that ecosystem is equally independent, or equally free to disavow Trump.
The most radical thing the party could do to distance itself from Trump, for example, would be to have the Republican National Committee openly declare it was no longer devoting resources to his election — it would no longer fundraise with or for him, no longer use its robust state field staff to bolster his anemic get-out-the-vote operation, no longer share voter targeting information with him.
This would be extremely messy, at best: Trump’s campaign and the RNC have been cooperating and sharing responsibilities for a few months. But RNC Chair Reince Priebus is reportedly incensed with Trump for kneecapping Priebus’s fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan, so maybe now is the time.
The problem for Priebus is that, like much of the rest of his party, he needs Trump a lot more than Trump needs the RNC. Presidential nominees play a huge role in fundraising for their parties; Trump’s relatively lackluster fundraising has been bad for Priebus and company. Disowning Trump would damage the RNC’s standing with Trump supporters, while not giving Trump-skeptical donors any reason to trust the judgment of a committee that propped Trump up to begin with.
There’s also concern that without a strong Republican campaign at the top of the ticket, Republicans in congressional and state races will suffer from low enthusiasm and turnout — in other words, the same concern that’s led the RNC to support Trump to begin with.
It would be much more feasible for Priebus, or other Republican leaders, to take the official position that Republicans should “vote your conscience” in November — supporting Trump themselves, but making it clear that others could choose not to.
This would be great for Ted Cruz, who’d be seen as a leader within the party for his “vote your conscience” speech at the convention. Given that Republican establishmentarians hate Ted Cruz so much they were willing to let Donald Trump win the presidential nomination to prevent Cruz from getting it, “good for Ted Cruz” might be a sufficient reason not to do this.
4) Un-endorse Trump
Individual Republican leaders have a lot more freedom to do what they like than Priebus does. There’s nothing, institutionally speaking, stopping Ryan or McCain from withdrawing his endorsement of Trump after he refused to endorse them. And indeed, while few Republicans have endorsed Trump and then withdrawn, an increasing number of Republicans are openly declaring their intention to vote or even fundraise for Hillary Clinton — which is much further than Ryan or McCain would need to go to make an impact.
Obviously, withdrawing an endorsement opens you up to charges of flip-flopping — and of selfishness. (Paul Ryan wasn’t willing to un-endorse Trump when Trump said something Ryan called the “textbook definition of racism,” so how would it look if he withdrew his endorsement because Trump didn’t endorse him?) But if you’re worried about the viability of the Republican Party after 2016, that seems like a small cost to pay.
This strategy will only work, though, if the Republicans who un-endorse Trump are more powerful than Trump himself. Because Donald Trump neither forgives nor forgets, and as he’s told America in plenty of his books, he believes firmly that if someone screws you over, you should do “the same thing to them only ten times worse.”
Both Ryan and McCain are still in primary fights; McCain’s won’t end until the end of August. If Trump decides not only to endorse their opponents but to hold rallies with them, and to bash Ryan and McCain in every interview he does for the next several weeks, how much can they count on their party’s base to choose them over a presidential nominee that many rank-and-file Republican voters absolutely love? (Ryan probably can; McCain may or may not be able to.)
Even if they survive in 2016, Trump is definitely planning to spend millions of dollars in PAC money in future cycles against the people who were insufficiently supportive of him: Cruz, John Kasich, and now (he’s implying) Ryan and McCain. To speak up against Trump now signs you up for $10 million in ad spending against you next cycle. Do Republicans think their party can protect them from that?
5) Quietly shift to down-ballot races
Much of the party’s donor class has already given up on Trump. Charles Koch, for example, has openly refused to fund Trump’s election, and is focusing his efforts on helping retain Republican control of the House and Senate.
But the candidates that Koch is supporting are all still tied to Trump, as is their party. If Republicans are worried that Donald Trump will cause them long-term damage, simply giving more money to down-ballot races isn’t enough — they have to give those down-ballot candidates a certain measure of independence.
They could do what Republicans did with Bob Dole in October 1996, when it was clear weeks in advance that he was going to lose the general election:
Republican campaign operatives are urging their party's Congressional candidates to cut loose from Bob Dole and press voters to maintain a Republican majority and [deny President Clinton] a “blank check.” ...
The advice to candidates to stress the ''blank check'' argument is being offered to Republican candidates who are running below 50 percent in their own polling. They are being assured, the aide said, that the national Republican headquarters will not be angry with them or cut off their campaign funds if they concede that Dole will lose and they tried to save themselves.
But there’s a big difference between doing this in late October and August. The Times article emphasized that back in 1996, congressional Republicans didn’t want to distance themselves before “the last three or four days of the campaign.” Any earlier, strategist Eddie Mahe told the Times, would have “the potential for alienating base Republicans.”
The same is true here. For all the mishegas that Donald Trump has caused, and all the headaches he’s caused the GOP, there isn’t yet evidence that he’s losing support among his fan base. Maybe that is happening as a result of Trump’s feud with a pair of Gold Star parents, or maybe it’ll happen in the future. But until Republicans know for sure that Trump isn’t as adored by their base as he used to be, distancing themselves from him isn’t a risk-free move.
6) Hope Trump will start behaving himself
This has been the strategy so far. It has not worked. But it looks like Republicans are sticking to it.
Priebus, for one, appears to be convinced that Trump will eventually change his stripes to appeal to a broader electorate. After Trump’s dispute with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the New York Times’s Alexander Burns reported, Priebus “acknowledged the dispute with the Khans has harmed Mr. Trump, but he has pleaded with party leaders and donors to give Mr. Trump time to adjust to the general election.”
Trump’s general election campaign essentially started on May 4, after victory in the Indiana primary caused his remaining primary opponents to drop out. That was 91 days ago.
It will end on November 8: Election Day. That is 97 days from now.
Either Donald Trump is struggling mightily to adjust to the general election — so mightily that nearly halfway through the campaign, he has made no discernible progress — or he does not actually care about adjusting at all.
Priebus (along with Trump allies Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich) is apparently planning to meet with Trump Wednesday to urge him to tone it down. Such meetings have happened before, and have usually worked … for a few days or so. Maybe Priebus and company have some sort of plan to make it stick this time. But it sure looks like both the GOP and Trump think Trump holds all the cards.
7) Learn to stop worrying and love the Trump
What if Republicans leaned in? What if they decided to stop spending all their time apologizing for their nominee, and returned to the strategy of waving off his comments as the “blunt talk” of a political “outsider”? What if their response to Trump’s feud with the Khans hadn’t been to defend the Khans but to attack Hillary Clinton and tout Trump’s (fictitious) opposition to the Iraq War?
It’s pretty easy to envision. Because, before this past week, it’s exactly what most of them had done.
If anything, the fact that more Republicans aren’t doing this right now is an indication of just how worried they are about Trump after the past week or so. They might be worried about what he’ll do to their party. They might be worried about what he’d do if elected.
But the campaign season is long. There will be plenty of opportunities for Republicans to bail on Trump — claiming that they’ve had their doubts for a while, but that the latest offense, whatever it is, is simply a bridge too far. But there will be just as many opportunities for Republicans to persuade themselves that the most important thing is to stop Hillary Clinton, and that Donald Trump isn’t quite that bad.