Trump’s Attacks on GOP Leaders Ignite Civil War Inside Party

Updated on
  • GOP nominee escalates feud with party’s most visible figures
  • National poll shows Trump trailing Clinton by nine points

Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and a Divided Republican Party

With less than a month to go before Election Day, Republicans erupted into open warfare Tuesday as Donald Trump pledged to campaign unshackled from party leaders and vowed to punish “disloyal” members, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee.

"Disloyal R’s are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary. They come at you from all sides. They don’t know how to win - I will teach them!" Trump tweeted.

Trump has long expressed disdain for the Washington establishment, but he took it to a new level Tuesday by signaling he may go after Republican Party leaders directly as he tries to salvage his embattled campaign.

"It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to," Trump said in another tweet. In an interview later with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, Trump described the shackles as "some of the establishment people that are weak and ineffective people within the Republican party."

Trump saved particular vitriol for Ryan -- a man many in the party view as a likely presidential contender himself one day -- after the speaker said he’d no longer defend or campaign with Trump. Ryan’s focus instead is on preserving the wide GOP majority in the House as well as Republican control of the Senate, now seriously endangered by the Trump meltdown.

The fast-moving events also increased the likelihood that voters could head to the polls on Nov. 8 with decidedly mixed signals from the Republican party, as the messages from Trump and those of many Senate and House candidates are directly at odds. Democrats, meanwhile, closed ranks behind nominee Hillary Clinton, with everyone from President Barack Obama to former Vice President Al Gore to Clinton’s defeated primary rival Bernie Sanders campaigning for her.

Trump acknowledged the competitive disadvantage, tweeting, "Dems have always proven to be far more loyal to each other than the Republicans!"

Crucially, Trump continued to have the backing of Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, and their top fundraisers. As long as he’s receiving campaign cash from the RNC, he can continue to pay for television ads and get-out-the-vote operations.

A new poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, taken after a 2005 audiotape surfaced of Trump bragging about groping women, showed Clinton leading Trump by nine percentage points in a four-way race.

‘Weak and Ineffective’

In training his sights on Republican party chiefs as well as Clinton, Trump again upended the rules of conventional politics.

“Our very weak and ineffective leader, Paul Ryan, had a bad conference call where his members went wild at his disloyalty,” Trump tweeted, referring to a Monday conference call where some House conservatives challenged the speaker.

Trump said in the Fox interview that he may be "better off" without support from Republican leaders. Trump said of Ryan, “I don’t want his support, I don’t care about his support,” according to transcript provided by Fox.

“I wouldn’t want to be in a foxhole with a lot of these people,” Trump said, “especially Ryan.”

Trump also lashed out at McCain after the Arizona senator pulled his support from Trump on Saturday.

“The very foul mouthed Sen. John McCain begged for my support during his primary (I gave, he won), then dropped me over locker room remarks!” he tweeted Tuesday afternoon.

By late Tuesday morning, Trump’s campaign released one of its most aggressive campaign ads so far against Clinton. Painting a dire picture of terrorists on the rise, the narrator says she does not have "the stamina to lead" over video of her coughing and stumbling at an event in September. Trump decided against turning the health scare into a campaign issue at first, but approved the message as his poll numbers sank.

Many House Republicans, meanwhile, worry that Trump is damaging their party’s prospects to retain control of the Senate and to keep their sizable majority in the House.

"It will be very difficult for Trump to win," said Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a leader of House Republican centrists. He told his colleagues on the Monday conference call that it was time to distance the party from Trump.

‘Soul of the Party’

In the long run, said Dent, "there is a battle going on for the soul of the party."

"There will be a reckoning after the election," he added.

Some House Republicans appear torn over how to proceed. Representative Dennis Ross of Florida, a senior deputy majority whip, says he understands that Ryan is doing this because the speaker believes it is the best way to protect the House majority.

"But we need to defeat Hillary," said Ross, citing the future direction of the Supreme Court and other important issues tied to the White House race.

And conservative Republican Steve King of Iowa said Tuesday that Ryan has only increased the chances that Clinton will win the presidency. 

"If we let him sink, we’ll all sink with him," King said in a radio interview, adding that the party might be forced to rebuild after this election, and that the establishment wing "could simply be amputated out."

Ryan is staying in Wisconsin this week, his aides say, with a speech planned in Madison on Friday. “Paul Ryan is focusing the next month on defeating Democrats, and all Republicans running for office should probably do the same," said AshLee Strong, a Ryan a spokeswoman.

‘Authoritarian Power’

At least a few Republicans openly cheered on Trump’s new approach.

"Sometimes I wonder that our Constitution is not only broken," Maine Governor Paul LePage told a Maine radio station, according to NBC News, "but we need a Donald Trump to show some authoritarian power in our country and bring back the rule of law because we’ve had eight years of a president -- he’s an autocrat, he just does it on his own, he ignores Congress and every single day, we’re slipping into anarchy."

Other prominent Republicans made clear that they’re still backing Trump, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who lost to Trump in the GOP presidential primary.

"I wish we had better choices for president," he said Tuesday in a statement. "But I do not want Hillary Clinton to be our next president. And therefore my position has not changed."

Bruce Ash, an RNC member from Arizona, insisted that RNC members were fully behind Trump and that Ryan made a mistake by giving up on Trump, adding that the speaker reacted "with his stomach and heart, rather than with his mind."

‘Head Down’

By contrast, Ash said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has approached this "very politically astutely," because he "put his head down, waited for the bullets to fly and the circus to pass by."

McConnell on Monday simply declined to address the presidential race at all during a public appearance in Kentucky.

Either way, the split leaves Senate Republicans running for re-election in a very complicated spot. Vulnerable candidates have split in their approach to Trump, with nearly a third of the chamber’s Republicans now saying they won’t vote for him.

Role Models

Even those who remained in Trump’s corner, like Richard Burr of North Carolina, made sure not to repeat New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte’s gaffe last week that Trump was “absolutely” a role model for children.

“Both candidates proved they are not role models for the next generation, but we don’t get to pick now any additional folks to run, so we have to pick who we best think meets the way forward in the future,” Burr told reporters in North Carolina Monday.

Roy Blunt of Missouri remained one of the most pro-Trump of the vulnerable senators, quickly praising him for apologizing for his remarks on the 11-year-old tape, even as a number of his colleagues -- Ayotte, McCain, Rob Portman of Ohio and others took the opportunity to leap off the Trump train.

Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who is being challenged by Democrat Katie McGinty, faulted both Trump and Clinton and hasn’t said which candidate he’ll support.

Unclear Odds

Whether candidates can distance themselves from Trump and still prevail is unclear.

"As Trump’s numbers crater many House and Senate Republicans will find themselves on the wrong side of polling trends," said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. "They can only distance themselves so much."

Nationally, Clinton has about a 5-point edge on Trump in a race that includes third-party candidates, according to the RealClearPolitics poll average. The forecaster FiveThirtyEight on Monday gave Clinton an 82.9 percent change of winning in its polls-only model, approaching her high of 89.2 percent in mid-August. FiveThirtyEight gave Democrats a 52.6 percent change of winning back the U.S. Senate.