Donald Trump, whose willingness to test the boundaries of politics has propelled him to the top of a crowded race for the Republican presidential nomination, chose on Tuesday to test a whole new boundary: defending his campaign manager charged with simple battery.
If convicted of forcefully grabbing a female reporter at a campaign event earlier this month, Corey Lewandowski faces up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine, according to the Associated Press.
Even before Trump's decision to stand by Lewandowski, the billionaire faced a tough week of gathering enough support to win the hotly contested Wisconsin primary on April 5. Perhaps harder still, he has less than four months to turn his leading campaign into one that can unify the party at its convention in July, and then win the White House in November.
“Wow, Corey Lewandowski, my campaign manager and a very decent man, was just charged with assaulting a reporter. Look at tapes-nothing there!” Trump wrote to his 7.3 million Twitter followers.
Trump's audacious response was par for the course of his defiant campaign against the establishment. It also came at a crucial moment for Trump, who is far ahead of Senator Ted Cruz in the race to win delegates but faces an uphill climb in terms of convincing the party to unite behind him in the fight for the White House.
“It matters because as these antics add up, people are going to realize that he's going to lose to Hillary Clinton, that this is how we're going to lose the White House,” said Rob Jesmer, GOP strategist and former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “It won't peel his core away, but it's going to prevent him from consolidate supporters.”
The Republican establishment has been coalescing around Cruz, who urged Trump to fire Lewandowski on Tuesday. The John Kasich campaign said the aide would be fired if he worked for them.
Republicans trying to stop Trump from winning the nomination have spent weeks trying to paint him as a demagogue whose refusal to aggressively speak out against violence at his own rallies makes him unfit for office.
While Trump remains the front-runner for his party's nomination, recent polling suggests his behavior may be catching up to him. A Bloomberg Politics national poll this month showed that 68 percent of Americans now have an unfavorable view of him, up 25 points from a year ago. Republicans, by almost a two-to-one margin, said Cruz has the better temperament to be president and almost two of every three said the Texas senator better embodies their moral values.
The only primary contest for the next three weeks is in Wisconsin, a Midwestern state where Trump's emotionally charged speeches—he's called for banning Muslim immigration, equated Mexican immigrants to rapists and repeated intense criticisms of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly—have not landed with the same success as elsewhere.
On Monday, Trump was greeted by an influential conservative radio host, Charlie Sykes, who told the former reality TV show host that “here in Wisconsin, we value things like civility, decency and actual conservative principles.”
Polls shows Cruz and Trump in a neck-and-neck race in the state, which will award its 42 delegates mostly by results in each of its eight congressional districts. Trump has won 736 delegates, compared to 463 for Cruz. The eventual nominee needs to capture 1,237. There are 943 delegates still up for grabs.
However, it remains unclear how this could influence the Wisconsin vote with less than a week to go before polls open.
“Donald Trump continues to do everything differently than any other candidate for office would. I don't think it's going to catch up with him as long as the field is divided and it's not a one-on-one race,” said Christian Ferry, who managed Lindsey Graham's presidential campaign. “If he's able to pull it off in Wisconsin, everybody needs to come to grips with the fact that Donald Trump is going to be the nominee. He's definitely in the driver's seat.”
After the March 8 incident with the journalist, Michelle Fields, a former Breitbart reporter who was covering the Republican contender at his beachfront Mar-A-Lago resort in Florida, Trump vehemently defended Lewandowski. He told reporters in the spin room after a debate in Miami that the allegation was “made up.” “Everybody said nothing happened. Perhaps she made the story up. I think that's what happened,” Trump told reporters as he walked the rope line with his wife, Melania, and youngest son Barron, 10, as well as with Lewandowski.
The campaign defended Lewandowski again several days later in Tucson, when Lewandowski assisted in breaking up a scuffle in a particularly rowdy crowd. Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks told Bloomberg Politics at the time that the campaign “will be dedicating additional security resources to larger events in the future to prevent staff from having to intervene.”