Politics

Donald Trump says the shackles are off — and his first target is his fellow Republicans

Paul Ryan and Donald Trump
Donald Trump fired off a string of tweets Tuesday complaining about Republicans, chiefly House Speaker Paul Ryan, left.
(AFP/Getty Images)

Enraged by Republican politicians who’ve abandoned him, Donald Trump lashed out against his own party on Tuesday, airing grievances against conservatives who won’t support him — an unprecedented embrace of intraparty warfare by a presidential nominee.

It was a remarkable turn, just four weeks from the election. Trump signaled throughout the day that pursuing his personal feud with top establishment Republicans such as House Speaker Paul Ryan or Arizona Sen. John McCain, a former presidential nominee, would take priority for him over preserving what unity is left in the Republican Party.

His bitter outbursts, expressed through public tweets and at a closed-door fundraiser in San Antonio, intensified the panic among Republicans that his presence atop the ticket could sink them up and down the ballot come November. Such chatter only irritated Trump further, moving the famously unrestrained candidate to declare he would be embracing an even more caustic and outrageous campaign style.

“Disloyal [Republicans] are far more difficult” than running against Clinton, Trump tweeted. “They come at you from all sides. They don’t know how to win — I will teach them!.”

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During the fundraising event, Trump continued to rant, declaring, “Sometimes it’s harder to beat our own party than it is to beat the person on the other side," according to audio of the event obtained by the Texas Tribune.

Trump accused Ryan of “opened borders and amnesty and bad budgets” as well as disloyalty.

“I wouldn’t want to be in a foxhole with a lot of these people, that I can tell you, including Ryan,” Trump said on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor.” 

To cap it off, Trump used strong language to declare himself free from whatever filters remained: “It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to.”

As if to make good on his promise, Trump then released a jarring campaign advertisement. Feeding into conspiracy theories on the right about Hillary Clinton’s health, the video implies she is an invalid too weakened by illness to protect America.

“This is the Trump that everybody was concerned about,” said Chip Felkel, a longtime Republican operative based in South Carolina. “All of the misgivings, all the people who had doubts that he would make a good nominee … it wasn’t just about protecting their interests in terms of Washington. It was about knowing that he’s unmanageable and that he is about Donald Trump, and that he is not about the GOP.”

The path Trump is pursuing has also intensified concern among Republicans about the enduring legacy of Trumpism, and the prospects for rebuilding the party’s splintering factions after November.

Trump’s rage was touched off by a call Ryan held with House members on Monday in which he distanced himself from Trump and released his caucus from any obligation to support the nominee. Ryan did not withdraw his endorsement, but he said he will not be campaigning for Trump or focusing any effort in the final days of the race toward getting him elected.

Like other Republicans, Ryan had expressed disgust with the recently disclosed recording from a decade ago in which Trump boasted, using vulgar terms, that celebrities like him could grope women at will. The disclosure of the recording last week intensified the ongoing GOP mutiny. Among those who announced they were done supporting Trump was McCain, a Vietnam war hero who loaned his support to the nominee even after Trump mocked him for being a prisoner of war. McCain is campaigning for his own reelection, leading by double digits in polls.

“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!,” Trump tweeted. Trump has wavered between expressing remorse for the lewd comments on the videotape and dismissing them as inconsequential, even as other Republicans express shock and offense.

President Obama piled on at a rally for Clinton in Greensboro, N.C. “You don’t have to be a husband or a father to hear what we heard just a few days ago and say, ‘That’s not right,’” he said. “You just have to be a decent human being to say that’s not right.”

Even loyal Trump supporters are dismayed by the direction the nominee is heading.

“He’s wasting some time precious time,” said Barry Bennett, a former senior campaign advisor to Trump. “Going after the speaker — who most Americans don’t even know who he is — and John McCain, is just a waste of time.”

Bennett said the campaign has been able to rein Trump in at times — with prepared texts and talking points at his rallies. “No one has ever really been able to stop him on Twitter,” he said. “He would argue that it’s what made him successful. I just think he’s mistaken.”

Trump also tweeted, “Our very weak and ineffective leader, Paul Ryan, had a bad conference call where his members went wild at his disloyalty.”

The Trump campaign then made the case that his latest approach is a success, by sending the media an article conservative commentator Pat Buchanan penned on his website titled, “The Donald Lives!”

But the polls tell a more worrisome story for Republicans. Surveys taken after the recording was disclosed show Hillary Clinton opening what many Republicans worry is an insurmountable lead. The data crunchers who forecast elections at the FiveThirtyEight website give Trump a 17% chance of winning, as of Tuesday afternoon.

Many Republicans in Congress are scrambling not to get dragged down with him. But whatever path they choose is fraught with peril. Not standing with Trump brings the risk of a backlash from his supporters that could cost them their seats.

“I don’t like the Republicans who are trying to divide the us,” said Carol Patterson, a 71-year-old retired teacher and Trump supporter from Indian Trail, N.C. “You want them to understand if they leave Trump, they’re giving it to Hillary.”

Michael Steel, who worked as an aide to former House Speaker John Boehner as well as on Ryan’s 2012 vice presidential campaign, said members of Congress would have to weigh the political consequences of their choices at the district level, and consult their own consciences.

“Everybody’s battening down the hatches,” he said. “It’s going to be a hell of a ride.”

Twitter: @evanhalper, @noahbierman

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UPDATES:

5 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Donald Trump and President Obama.

This article was originally published at 2:40 p.m.