When congressional Republicans left Washington on July 14, there was still time for Donald Trump to settle down and emerge with a real nuts and bolts campaign and a presidential temperament. After months of ducking questions in the hall about their wild man candidate, Republicans left Washington two months ago with a faint hope that they’d return to find a more favorable presidential news cycle.
There were a few small reasons to believe things could be moving in their direction. FBI Director James Comey’s rebuke of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s handling of private email had given Trump a narrow lead over Clinton in an LA Times poll. And while an NBC poll had Clinton winning in six out of seven key battlegrounds, a Quinnipiac poll out that same week showed Trump surging ahead in the must-win states of Pennsylvania and Florida.
Despite a rocky Capitol Hill meeting earlier in the month in which Trump blasted his critics and faced off against Republican Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), there was optimism among party elites that Trump was showing signs of improvement. Surely, a strong convention showing could distract from his detractors and put Trump on a positive path toward the general election.
“The prepared comments I’m a big fan of, and I like the dropping of talking about the other candidates in the primary,” Priebus said during a July 9 interview right before he left for Cleveland. “So I think things are in a much better place in terms of that focus and the presidential trajectory, in my view.”
Instead, what has transpired over the last seven weeks has been the Trump campaign lurching from one controversy to another, briefly interrupted only by a campaign shakeup, an impromptu trip to Mexico, and the illusion that Trump might actually be coming to terms with his impending demise and willing to soften his position on his signature issue, immigration. The campaign shakeup, however, brought aboard unpredictable, Breitbart-media chairman, campaign gorilla Steve Bannon. The impromptu trip to Mexico had the unintended consequence of revealing once and for all that Mexico wasn’t going to write a check for Trump’s border wall. And the illusion that Trump would soften on immigration was one big ruse.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, right, speaks during a joint statement with Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto
Since skipping town in July, Republican lawmakers who steered clear of the convention haven’t had to comment on how their nominee’s wife plagiarized First Lady Michelle Obama’s convention speech. They’ve missed “lock her up” chats and Trump casting doubt on a decades-old NATO alliance, something that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) did weigh in on as a “rookie mistake.”
Even when Democrats gathered in Philadelphia a week later, and their party’s chairman was forced to step down amid controversy, Trump couldn’t allow Clinton to be in the spotlight.
In response to reports that Russian intel services had hacked the Democratic National Committee, Trump asked the Russians to find and release Clinton’s own emails.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said in a comment that was interpreted by some to be a major party nominee calling on a foreign country to engage in espionage.
After a Muslim Gold Star father, 66-year-old Khizr Khan, pulled a pocket Constitution from his jacket pocket, held it into the air at the Democratic convention and pointedly told Trump in primetime, “you have sacrificed nothing and no one,” Trump couldn’t stop himself from hurling insults.
Muslim Americans Khizr Khan and his wife, whose son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan was killed in Iraq, address the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
“I’d like to hear his wife say something,” Trump told the New York Times.
What followed was a long week of back and forth with Trump saying he’d actually “made a lot of sacrifices” by creating businesses and hiring people and some of his supporters casting doubt about the Khan family’s background. The incident was so jarring that a handful of Republican lawmakers spoke out from their recess cocoons to admonish Trump.
“I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump’s statement,” McCain said. “While our party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan said the comments were “beyond the pale.”
In subsequent weeks was the slow drip of Republicans declaring they wouldn’t vote for Trump. Jeb Bush’s top adviser, Sally Bradshaw, said she wouldn’t vote for Trump and if the race in Florida was close, she’d actually cast her ballot for Clinton. On Aug. 8, 50 national security advisers who spanned Republican administrations from Reagan to Bush wrote “none of us will vote for Donald Trump.”
Then, just more than a week later on Aug. 16, 123 Republicans signed a letter to the RNC begging the party to stop spending money on a loose cannon of a candidate and instead divert resources to down ballot races.
“We believe that Donald Trump’s divisiveness, recklessness, incompetence, and record-breaking unpopularity risk turning this election into a Democratic landslide, and only the immediate shift of all available RNC resources to vulnerable Senate and House races will prevent the GOP from drowning with a Trump-emblazoned anchor around its neck,” the letter read.
Somewhere in between the backlash Trump received from his own party, Trump asked if the “Second Amendment people” could do something about Clinton if she were elected and able to pick Supreme Court justices. He continued to refuse to release his tax returns. He wouldn’t endorse Ryan or McCain in their primaries.
“I’m not quite there yet,” Trump said borrowing phrasing the speaker had used himself when weighting his endorsement of Trump.
The last seven weeks have only made returning to Washington that much harder for Trump’s party. As they seek to fund government and find funding for a Zika crisis, there is little doubt that the next month will bring with it more distracting questions about the Republican Party’s unorthodox nominee.
Before the convention, Republicans were running from reporters on Capitol Hill. This week ought to be a whole bunch of fun for them.