At the least, he’s put the RNC chairman on shaky ground.
Priebus, the top official in the Republican Party, has a conundrum. His party’s presumptive nominee is making it extremely hard for him to attack Hillary Clinton, as Priebus’s most recent Sunday morning TV tour made excruciatingly clear. For years, the Republican Party has been developing talking points and strategic attacks to use against Clinton.
And one by one, Trump seems to be rendering them useless.
Priebus’s walk of Sunday shame came in the wake of a brutal few days for Trump. The Washington Post produced audio of Trump allegedly pretending to be his own PR flack, The New York Times released a scorching report about Trump’s creepy and predatory treatment of pageant contestants and female employees. On top of that, Trump spent the week arguing that he doesn’t have a responsibility to release his tax returns and that nobody wants to look at them anyway.
The tax returns—which Trump has said he will probably release at some point—are a uniquely thorny issue. When Face the Nation host John Dickerson asked Priebus whether Trump should release his tax returns, the chairman replied that voters don’t really care either way.
“This sort of traditional review and analysis of individual candidates has not applied to Donald Trump,” Priebus said—without saying why Trump should be immune to that scrutiny.
“Now, whether or not his taxes are disclosed or not is something I don’t think is going to move the electorate,” he added.
People aren’t that interested, Priebus argued.
But when it comes to transparency from Democrats, Priebus is a purist. He released a statement after the April 26 Democratic primaries needling Hillary Clinton for her refusal to release transcripts of speeches she made at Goldman Sachs.
“Whether it’s her secret email server that jeopardized national security, stonewalling on releasing the transcripts of her paid speeches to Wall Street banks, or deliberately misleading voters on nearly every issue, America cannot afford to have Hillary Clinton’s long track record of dishonesty and reckless judgment in the White House,” he said.
Americans are extremely curious about Clinton’s Wall Street speechifying—but tax returns, which would show how much money Trump earns and how he got it? Boring!
Priebus spent the rest of the interview—arguing that any effort to get a third-party candidate would be a “suicide mission” and that Paul Ryan will get along with Trump because they both oppose abortion. He was able to sneak in a reference to “the Benghazi,” but besides that the Democratic frontrunner went unmentioned. This isn’t a one-time thing. Some of the RNC’s favorite attack lines against Clinton could ring hollow, given the similarities between their guy and her.
Almost exactly two years ago, Priebus said Clinton’s health and age were “fair game” for her critics. He made the comment after Karl Rove reportedly suggested Clinton suffered from brain damage, as Newsweek reported.
“I think that health and age is fair game,” Priebus said on Meet the Press on May 18, 2014. “It was fair game for Ronald Reagan. It was fair game for John McCain.”
But it’s not a particularly fun game for Republicans, given that Clinton is one year younger than Trump. He’s 69, and she’s 68. Trump, in fact, was the only competitive Republican presidential candidate older than Clinton. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich are, respectively, 63, 44, 45, and 64 years old. So much for the age card.
In fact, Trump embodies many elements of the Clinton persona that Priebus used to love to rip. On June 10, 2015, for instance, he told Sean Hannity on Fox News that Clinton was “unrelatable” to typical Americans, dinging her for her wealthy lifestyle.
“She doesn’t live a life that’s even remotely close to any actual average families that are out there in Ohio that are going to be voting,” he said confidently. “And that’s going to be her Achilles’ heel.”
It’s certainly true that Clinton’s lifestyle doesn’t have much overlap with your typical soccer mom from the Toledo suburbs. The former secretary of state raked in millions by giving private speeches, and headed a foundation that kept her connected to global elites.
“The Clinton’s lifestyle has and always will be a liability because they play by their own set of rules,” said RNC spokesperson Lindsay Walters when reached for further comment. “They have enriched themselves and even their friends through any means necessary, whether it be raking in speaking fees from foreign governments or using the State Department and their family foundation for their own personal gain. If Clinton is going to claim to be a crusader against Wall Street on the campaign stump, people deserve to know what she got paid to tell them in private.”
Speaking of planes, don’t expect to hear Priebus criticize Bill Clinton for being a frequent passenger on a plane owned by sex-offending billionaire Jeffrey Epstein (nicknamed the Lolita Express). Epstein faces lawsuits from upwards of a dozen alleged victims, according to Vice. And in 2002—as Vice highlighted—Trump told New York magazine that he was a big fan of Epstein’s.
“I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy,” he said at the time. “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it—Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”
It’s excruciating. And, by Priebus’s standards, it’s fair game. On Feb. 24, 2015, the RNC released a memo complaining that “there was hardly a single headline over Bill Clinton’s travels with Jeffrey Epstein.”
A few weeks later, Priebus told Bloomberg Politics that he had serious concerns about Clinton’s relationship with Epstein.
“I’d like to know what he was doing with Jeffrey Epstein, how many trips did he take, where was he going, what did he do when he was with this guy?” Priebus said. “When you hang out with a guy who has a reputation like Jeffrey Epstein, multiple times, on private jets, on weekends, on trips, on places at least where it’s been reported not very good things happen, it would be good to know what our former president was doing, especially because it appears he’s going to be part of a campaign ticket on the other side of the aisle.”
Vice noted that Epstein’s brother, Mark, testified that Trump took at least one flight on the Lolita Express. Awkward.
The more we learn about Trump, the less Priebus can say about Clinton—and the more uncomfortable his Sunday show swings will likely become. Thanks to Trump, Priebus is permanently on defense.