Friday morning brought the news of Paul Manafort’s resignation from the Trump campaign. That was the latest development in a week in Trumpland that provided reasons for despair among Republicans but grist for those with an interest in political pathology. On Monday, the Trump campaign had tried to bring some order out of chaos by yet another reset. (For a chronology of Trump resets, see NBC News, “Will Donald Trump’s Latest ‘Reset’ Stick? Here Are 7 Times It Didn’t.”)
The latest reset, like others in the past, involved chaining the candidate to a teleprompter (perhaps to be marketed as a Trumprompter). This, Trump’s team thought, might avoid the kind of spontaneous outbursts that delight his most ardent supporters but dismay practically everyone else. Trump, however, could not be contained. While he stuck largely to the script—an uninspiring melange of falsehoods, exaggerations and vague promises—the one comment that drew headlines was not even in his prepared text but added extemporaneously. That was, of course, his promise of “extreme vetting,” repeated twice, a little louder each time, for anyone who wasn’t paying attention.
While Trump’s text did not use the term extreme vetting, it did explain what Trump apparently has in mind:
In the Cold War, we had an ideological screening test. The time is overdue to develop a new screening test for the threats we face today.
In addition to screening out all members or sympathizers of terrorist groups, we must also screen out any who have hostile attitudes towards our country or its principles – or who believe that Sharia law should supplant American law.
Those who do not believe in our Constitution, or who support bigotry and hatred, will not be admitted for immigration into the country.
Only those who we expect to flourish in our country – and to embrace a tolerant American society – should be issued visas.
Some questioned whether many Trump supporters, or even Trump himself, could pass a test that required a showing of freedom from bigotry and hatred. Passing that question, however, is the matter of how the government would try to ferret out “hostile attitudes” and, for that matter, from whom exactly.
The National Review, which supported the Trump approach, did so on the explicit assumption that it would apply only to individuals seeking permanent residence, and not tourists or businessmen on short term. On the other hand, Dara Lind, writing in Vox, pointed out that Trump had not made it clear and that the difference is important: “But in delivering the speech, Trump [referred to] ‘visas’ — which, since there are 10 million nonimmigrant visas issued every year and only 1 million immigrant visas, casually expands the population who’d be tested by about a factor of 10.” The Trump campaign has made no effort to clarify.
As also pointed out in Vox and elsewhere, ideological screening of immigrants is already in place but, as in Cold War screening, it concentrates on what an immigrant has done or said publicly, rather than what he or she thinks. How one plumbs the latter depth is not only unclear, but a bit scary. In a televised interview, we observed a senior Trump adviser, Walid Phares offer a vigorous defense of what sounded like “extreme wetting.” We assumed that Phares’s pronunciation simply reflected his (colorful and controversial) Lebanese background. But recalling Trump’s expressed enthusiasm for waterboarding, we then wondered if that particular form of extreme wetting might indeed be what he has in mind for prospective immigrants in various suspect categories. Unquestionably, it would greatly reduce their numbers.
When Trump spoke on Monday, Republicans across the country had been hoping that Trump would “pivot” toward moderates and independents, and Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was said to have urged such a course correction. Trump, however, would quickly make it clear that no reset of that sort was in prospect. On Tuesday, he told an interviewer in Wisconsin: “I am who I am. It’s me. I don’t want to change. Everyone talks about, ‘Oh, well you’re going to pivot.’ I don’t want to pivot. I mean, you have to be you. If you start pivoting, you’re not being honest with people.”
One day later, Trump demonstrated that, this time at least, he really meant what he said. In what could only be described as a pivot away from moderates and independents, Trump announced the appointment of Stephen Bannon as campaign chief executive. Bannon is often described as a “firebrand” and he heads the provocative, hard-right outlet, Breitbart News. According to the announcement, Kellyanne Conway, an experienced political operative, was named campaign manager while Paul Manafort retained the title of chairman and chief strategist, but had clearly been demoted.
It seemed immediately obvious that things would be, at best, a bit crowded and awkward at the top of the Trump campaign. But more was soon to come. Manafort had become something of an embarrassment as increasing attention was being given to not only his long record of employment by unsavory dictators but, most recently, reports of multi-million dollar fees from the corrupt pro-Russian party in Ukraine. Recalling that Vladimir Putin had recently fired his long-time chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, we wondered if this was an opportunity for Trump’s celebrated deal-making prowess: Could he trade Manafort to his friend Putin for, as they say, “cash consideration and a player to be named later”? Before we could share that insight with our readers, however, we were preempted by Manafort’s decision to opt for free agency.
Meanwhile, still groping for that reset button, Trump on Thursday night had read from a teleprompter to make a vague apology for any offensive remarks—conspicuously unspecified—that had caused “personal pain” to anyone. Then on Friday Trump flew to Louisiana for a photo-op inspecting flood damage. We doubt that many hearts or minds were captured by either maneuver.
Given the ongoing turmoil in the Trump campaign, it is hardly surprising that Trump’s standing in the polls has declined significantly. As of Friday, the Real Clear Politics average of polls showed Clinton with a lead of 6% and a lead of 9.2% in battleground states. Similarly unsurprising was a front page story in the New York Times on Friday, “Trump Decline Is Seen As Threat To G.O.P. Control.” As the article summarized a lengthy analysis:
Donald J. Trump’s struggling candidacy has now become a direct threat to Republican control of Congress, significantly increasing the likelihood that Democrats will take control of the Senate and cut substantially into the House Republican majority next year.
Mr. Trump’s string of inflammatory statements in the weeks since his nominating convention last month has sent him tumbling in nearly every state with a contested Senate race, raising Republican fears that their own demoralized voters will not show up to vote, independents will abandon the entire Republican ticket and energized Democrats will flock to the polls.
The article also reported increasing pressure on the Republican National Committee to divert its resources from Trump to aid down-ballot Republicans. Needless to say, we would strongly support such a re-allocation, but we don’t expect it to happen any time very soon. The unfortunate Reince Priebus threw in his lot with Trump and, if he remains loyal, and if Trump is elected, Priebus can hope to keep his job or even get a better one. But if Trump is defeated, Priebus will quite deservedly be toast, no matter what he does now.