Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE’s rise in the polls isn’t just giving his rival candidates heartburn; it’s also posing a major challenge for Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus.
Priebus must decide how to handle Trump, whom many GOP strategists see as a rhetorical bomb-thrower doing damage to the party’s image.
But any efforts by Priebus or others in the party hierarchy to rein in Trump — potentially including finding a pretext to exclude him from the first televised debate, which is less than a month away — are virtually guaranteed to provoke a volcanic reaction from the real-estate mogul.
They could also alienate the supporters who are propelling Trump toward the top of the polls. A new survey released Wednesday by YouGov and The Economist found Trump leading the race for the Republican nomination.
The difficult bind for Priebus was underlined Thursday, when GOP insiders who spoke to The Hill were divided over the wisdom of a phone call he made to Trump the previous day. The RNC chairman reportedly suggested the candidate should tone down his language, particularly on immigration.
“Ultimately a candidate is going to do what a candidate is going to do, and no candidate is going to react well to an RNC chairman telling him to shut up,” said GOP strategist John Feehery, who is also a columnist for The Hill.
While Feehery emphasized he was not privy to what had been said on the call, he added, “I don’t think there’s a precedent for an RNC chairman to wade into the comments of a candidate.”
Another Republican strategist, Matt Mackowiak, took a different view, emphasizing Priebus’s responsibility to do what he can to avoid self-inflicted wounds to the GOP.
“It’s entirely appropriate for an RNC chairman to have an open line of communication with our presidential candidates on all kinds of matters,” he said. “The biggest danger to the primary remaining a positive contest is Donald Trump.”
Any dim possibility that Priebus’s overtures to Trump would go unanswered was quickly dashed. The businessman hit back, in more than one interview, at any suggestion that he had been reprimanded.
Trump told The New York Times that Priebus “knows better than to lecture me,” adding, “We’re not dealing with a five-star Army general.”
To The Washington Post, Trump asserted that the conversation was “meant, in my opinion, to be a congratulatory call. … It wasn’t a lecturing-type call. He's going to lecture me? Give me a break.”
In the Post interview, Trump also suggested that Priebus was trying to portray the conversation as tougher than it was.
“He’s got Bush calling him. And believe me, Bush is watching. ... It’s their worst nightmare,” he said, referring to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, one of the leading contenders in the GOP race.
A spokeswoman for the RNC declined to comment.
But the flap over the phone call, accompanied by the typical Trump braggadocio — “it was the biggest story all over the freaking world,” he said — meant that the magnate commanded most of the media coverage in the presidential race for yet another day.
Trump’s capacity to consume media attention is especially frustrating to GOP candidates who are on the cusp of being excluded from the televised debates, the first two of which are limited to the top 10 candidates in polling.
“He eats up so much oxygen that it is going to be real hard for candidates who have low name ID to get their message across,” said another Republican consultant, Ford O’Connell.
What to do about the debates, and Trump’s likely role in them, is one of the hottest topics of conversation in Republican circles.
Trump would make the cut with room to spare if major recent polls were the only criteria. He was in seventh place in the RealClearPolitics national average even before the YouGov/Economist poll was factored in.
Those who want to exclude him must therefore find some other plausible reason for doing so.
The debate rules call for all participants to have filed relevant paperwork with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Trump has so far not filed the personal financial disclosure that is required, and skeptics suggest he might be reluctant to do so if it were to show his net worth as smaller than he has claimed.
But Trump insists he will file the disclosure as soon as next week. It is also possible to ask the FEC for an extension to the filing deadline, as other candidates — including Bush — have reportedly done.
Others have suggested that Trump be excluded on the basis of his past financial contributions to Democrats or his refusal to rule out a third-party run. Such efforts would generate controversy, but some say it would be worth it to keep Trump out.
“At this point, I almost don’t care if it’s fair, I don’t care if it’s a technicality,” said Mackowiak, who went on to compare Trump with a “wild animal” wreaking havoc on the party. “You don’t treat a wild animal like you treat a domestic animal.”
Several others, however, said an ostentatious action to exclude Trump from the debates would backfire. Their hope, instead, is that he underperforms.
“If there is a way to keep him off-stage, I think Republicans would be overjoyed by that,” said strategist Ron Bonjean, a former aide to GOP leaders on Capitol Hill. “However, having him on-stage may actually embarrass him because his performance will likely be a circus act.”
Referencing a 1992 instance when then-candidate Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team Perdue proposes election police force in Georgia To boost economy and midterm outlook, Democrats must pass clean energy bill MORE criticized a hip-hop artist during a speech to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, Feehery said, “It gives a chance for more serious candidates like Jeb Bush to have a kinda Sister Souljah moment with Trump.”
Even so, he added, “The danger is that he completely hijacks the whole debate and it’s hard to get another word in edge-wise.”