On October 10, Donald Trump and the Republican Party were officially at war.
A day after a rage-filled debate—and three days after the appearance of a lurid tape in which Trump gleefully described groping women—Speaker of the House Paul Ryan all but turned his back on on the Republican nominee; the Trump campaign fired an official for organizing a pro-Trump rally; and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was left to reassure national Republicans that everything was fine and dandy.
The general message of the day: the Republican Party is just going to have to work with what it has got. It’s too late to turn back.
“Members need to understand there are no viable options short of Trump dropping out and that’s just not happening at this time. Additionally, early voting… has started and we’re in the Get Out The Vote, rally the troops mode,” said Saul Anuzis, who formerly ran for RNC chairman and is plugged-in among the committee’s members. “That’s what RNC members should be doing on the ground.”
Speaking to House Republican lawmakers on Monday morning, Ryan (who still endorses Trump), signaled that he would now focus his attention on maintaining Senate and House majorities. He reportedly told members to make their own decisions when it comes to supporting Trump, but, after a great deal of backlash, reasserted that he wasn’t formally rescinding his endorsement of the nominee.
Yet the damage was already done, with everyone from former presidential nominee John McCain to Sen. John Thune, a member of the Republican leadership, to Sen. Kelly Ayotte, in a tightly contested race, either revoking their support or calling on Trump to drop out.
The reaction was predicated both on disgust over Trump and the realization that his campaign was in a downward spiral since the first presidential debate. This was bolstered by a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released as Ryan spoke to members. The poll conducted after the tape was released and before the debate showed Hillary Clinton with a 14 point lead in a two-way matchup and an 11 point lead in a four-way match up, with Trump getting less than 40 percent support in each scenario.
The desperate situation even brought out a Hail Mary pass from Free the Delegates, a small conservative group that was formed before the Republican Party convention in July to urge Republican officials not to nominate Trump. They had not operated since then, but spun up their organization again in the days since the infamous Trump tape was leaked, to inform fellow Republicans that they could theoretically dethrone Trump.
“The reason that we’re speaking out is to continue to say, there is a way to replace him… someone’s got to be the voice of the voters that have known all along that there would be something disastrous that would continue to hurt us,” executive director Regina Thomson told The Daily Beast.
The chairman of the RNC could theoretically call an emergency meeting within five days to replace Trump, Thomson argued, but even she didn’t think the RNC had the “stomach” to follow through on this extreme scenario—no matter how bad Trump’s poll numbers get.
“It’s not happening, the rules don’t permit it, and there’s no political sense that can be made of that,” agreed Bruce Ash, the most recent RNC rules committee chairman and a Trump supporter.
This nascent civil war bears an obvious risk for Trump as he marches towards the election looming one month in the distance. He is doubling down on a strategy that worked in the primary but is likely to fail in the general election, appealing to his base without efforts to reach new voters. And, as the Republican Party fell into disarray, Trump made a special effort to attack Ryan’s decision to back away from his campaign.
Instead of trying to cool the tension, Trump took to Twitter, and ratcheted it up.
“Paul Ryan should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee,” Trump tweeted defiantly ahead of a rally this afternoon.
The Republican National Committee, lending a great deal of resources to a campaign that lacks significant ground operations, had left people hanging about its involvement with the presidential election prior to a phone call with members in the late afternoon. None of the 168 members of the Republican National Committee had been given any talking points about the discussion, said Sandye Kading, the Republican National Committeewoman from South Dakota.
Yet by the time the call came at 5pm Monday evening , RNC chairman Reince Priebus tried to preserve calm, saying that the committee was still assisting Trump despite a great deal of the party running for the hills over the weekend.
“I want to make it clear that the RNC is in full coordination,” Priebus said of the committee’s actions with the Trump campaign.
Senior members of the Trump team reportedly joined in on the call, perhaps amplifying the supposed symmetry of the two operations. Priebus emphasized that, in his mind, Trump adequately apologized for his actions in that disturbing tape during the debate.
Ash concurred, telling The Daily Beast, “It was exactly the kind of call that we needed to have. The members are supporting the nominee and they’re supporting the chairman of the RNC… [During the debate] the nominee was very, very humble and appeared to be contrite and embarrassed by what had occurred”
But if the RNC and the Trump campaign were on the same page, it certainly didn’t seem that way as recently as 24 hours prior. Top Trump campaign officials had brought three women, who had previously alleged that Bill Clinton had sexually assaulted them, to the presidential debate to try and throw Hillary Clinton off her game. RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said that the party had not gotten any heads up about the stunt.
To add to the disarray, the Trump campaign’s own Virginia chair was fired for organizing a pro-Trump protest outside the RNC (he had been asked not to do so). At the event, one person held up a sign reading: “better to grab a pussy than to be one,” referencing a disgusting line from the now infamous Trump tape.
As the battle to regain control brewed behind the scenes, Trump hit the stage in Pennsylvania with a head full of steam, relitigating his talking points from Sunday night’s debate.
“For decades Hillary Clinton has been deeply familiar with her husband’s predatory behavior and instead of trying to stop it, she made it possible for him to take advantage of even more women,” he said, focusing on the most lurid moment of the debate that gave members of the RNC pause.
And after all that drama, Trump seemed to settle right back into his old routine: blame shifting.
“I was getting beaten up for 72 hours on all the networks for inappropriate words 12 years ago, locker room talk, whatever you want to call it,” Trump said. “But I said to myself, wait a minute—I just said very inappropriate words—but Bill Clinton sexually assaulted innocent women and Hillary Clinton attacked those women viciously.”