Days of round-the-clock cable-news coverage of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s incendiary claims about Mexican rapists and criminals coming across the border forced the GOP party chairman to ask him to dial down his rhetoric.
WASHINGTON — The Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman, Reince Priebus, faced with growing pressure from inside the party to quiet Donald Trump, called the developer-turned-presidential candidate Wednesday and asked him to speak in more measured tones.
Days of round-the-clock cable-news coverage of Trump’s incendiary claims about Mexican rapists and criminals coming across the border forced Priebus to show alarmed Republicans that he was taking action.
“The chairman had a private conversation with Mr. Trump, as he does with all of our candidates pursuing the nomination,” said Sean Spicer, a senior RNC aide who said Priebus was returning Trump’s call from last week. “It spanned several areas, including his recent comments about illegal immigration. The call lasted no longer than 20 minutes.”
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The Associated Press
But the call, first reported by The Washington Post, also highlighted the limits of what could be done to rein in Trump.
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That issue has become a dominant topic at insider dinners, on phone calls between RNC members and in the offices of the cable-news networks planning to air candidate debates.
“Trump is just dominating the race right now, he’s sucking the air out of this thing,” said Thomas Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia. “Our candidates are all being forced to react to his comments.”
Trump, in an interview Thursday, characterized the call as “congratulatory” over his rise in recent polls, saying that Priebus at one point told him: ‘If you could tone it down — I know that’s tough — but if you could tone it down, that wouldn’t be bad.’“
With Trump rising in opinion polls and appealing to Republican activists hungry for a pugilist, officially neutral officials such as Priebus are reluctant to publicly criticize him, let alone call for him to be barred from the party’s initial debate in Cleveland next month.
It seems increasingly certain that Trump will be on the stage for that first faceoff.
Fox News, which is hosting the Aug. 6 Republican debate, has set criteria for participation primarily on the candidates’ standing in national polls. Thanks in part to an avalanche of news coverage in recent weeks, Trump is comfortably ensconced in the top 10.
Some Republicans, according to three people briefed on the debate planning, have nudged Fox to clarify its broad requirement that candidates file “all necessary paperwork.” They are said to be seeking a specific reference to the personal financial disclosure that presidential candidates must submit to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) within 30 days of beginning their candidacies, the theory being that Trump would be unwilling to disclose his full worth.
But several candidates, including Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida, have asked for an extension before they file their financial disclosures, meaning enforcing such a standard would eliminate other hopefuls, not just Trump, who insists he will file the disclosure and will not ask for an extension.
“Fox News has never wavered from the initial debate criteria we set forth,” said Michael Clemente, executive vice president at the network, who is overseeing the debates. “As we have said from the beginning, part of that criteria involves filing ‘all necessary paperwork with the FEC.’ The FEC, as is well-known, requires that presidential candidates file a financial-disclosure statement as part of that paperwork.”
That is what worries some Republicans involved in the debate process.
Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, is uneasy about the specter of offering Trump a podium for his views while denying one to the candidate who is the governor of the state where the forum is being held, John Kasich, who is expected to announce his candidacy this month.
“It’s hard to be terribly excited about what he’s had to say so far,” Borges, a Kasich supporter, said of Trump. “But if he qualifies and he’s there; I guess it will be up to other folks onstage to offer a different point of view.”
Priebus is said to be sympathetic to complaints, but party officials say he is unwilling to step in publicly to confront Trump. Even if he were, it is unclear what he could to do persuade Fox to keep Trump off the air. It is the networks, not the RNC, that determine which candidates appear in debates.
Aides to Trump are confident he will participate.
“He’s 100 percent going to do the debates,” Michael Cohen, a Trump adviser, said in an interview before the phone call with Priebus. “I believe he’s either leading or tied for first place in the polls, and certainly qualifies to have a seat on the stage.”
Cohen said Trump was aware party bosses were concerned about his presence in the field. “They fear him because he’s not part of the establishment,” Cohen said. “He’s not beholden to special interests and large donors.”
Borges and Steve Duprey, an RNC member from New Hampshire and the head of its panel handling the debates, are pushing the networks to offer more clarity on the standards to determine who is in the forums.
“There’s a strong sense, certainly at the RNC, that it’s important for Fox to quickly get out information about what polls they’ll use, how they’ll address a virtual tie, what filings they are requiring,” Duprey said.
Some campaigns, especially those counting on their candidates to break out with strong debate performances, are unhappy about having to compete with Trump for access, attention or both. But they are reluctant to attack Trump or the networks.
Davis, the former congressman, said the threat of Trump running as an independent was reason enough for the party not to declare war on Trump.
“You’ve got to keep him in the tent,” Davis said. “He’s Ross Perot as an independent. He just wreaks havoc, and every vote he takes comes out of our hide.”