Donald Trump’s awoke Monday to a Republican civil war raging more fiercely than ever — one they spent most of the weekend escalating themselves.
House Republicans prepared to convene amid fears that Trump’s reeling campaign could sink their chances to keep control of Congress. Speaker Paul Ryan has even been considering pulling his support for the GOP nominee. The Republican National Committee, too, intends to hold a call in the afternoon as party insiders grow increasingly alarmed about Trump’s drag on the party’s prospects. Among their considerations is whether to redirect party funding to down-ballot races.
After an erratic start, Trump’s aggressive debate performance seemed to salve some GOP fears. But his unrestrained hostility toward Republicans who have abandoned him — including his own campaign manager’s suggestion that some high-profile detractors are sexual assailants – became part of a threatening undercurrent and an implied warning that lingered Monday: stick with us — or else.
“I certainly hope Speaker Ryan keeps his word and endorsement of Donald Trump,” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said on “CBS This Morning.”
The ferocity of the Trump camp toward fellow Republicans followed an exodus of high-profile party leaders on Saturday, after a leaked “Access Hollywood” tape revealed Trump bragging that he could kiss and grope women with impunity because of his celebrity. Trump apologized for his comments and during the debate, he insisted he had never actually committed the acts he was caught discussing. But he lost the support of Republicans in close Senate races — from New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte to Nevada’s Joe Heck to Arizona’s John McCain. On Sunday morning, as his campaign reeled, Trump delivered a damning indictment.
“So many self-righteous hypocrites. Watch their poll numbers - and elections - go down!” he tweeted.
That was similar to the language Conway used Sunday night when she accused some of Trump’s Republican detractors of committing sexual harassment.
“I would talk to some of the members of Congress out there, when I was younger and prettier, them rubbing up against girls, sticking their tongues down women’s throats who uninvited — who didn’t like it,” she told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, adding that “some of them, by the way, are on the list of people who won’t support Donald Trump because they all ride around on a high horse.”
It wasn’t just Trump’s hostility toward Republicans that threatened to provoke further fallout within the party. It was his decision to ignore pleas of Republican leaders to avoid reigniting the 1990s sex scandals that plagued the Clinton White House. Instead, Trump dialed it up to a 10, holding a pre-debate press conference with four women who have accused the Clinton of victimizing them, some sexually — and he brought them as guests to the debate.
And when the debate moved on to other subjects, Trump ignited further frustration among party heads by threatening to jail Hillary Clinton if elected president — and humiliating his running mate Mike Pence, his primary bridge to the Republican establishment.
Pressed by moderator Martha Raddatz about his position on intervention in Syria, Trump dismissed Pence’s call for military strikes against the Assad regime to help stem the bloodshed in Aleppo.
“He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree,” Trump said.
Pence on Monday rejected chatter that he considered leaving the ticket over the turmoil of recent days and did a round of morning TV appearances praising Trumps’ debate performance. He said there’s no daylight between he and Trump on Syria and pinned the discrepancy on the wording of Raddatz’s question (though Raddatz practically used Pence’s exact words).
“The real story this morning is Donald Trump stepped up and won the debate last night that seemed to be against all odds,” Pence said on “Fox and Friends.” “He stepped up. He showed humility, he showed strength, he expressed genuine contrition for the words that he had used on the video that became public and then he moved directly into the choice of the American people are facing.”
Trump appeared to win credit from many Republicans for his second-half performance in the debate, when he pressed a more fundamental case against Clinton’s trustworthiness and highlighted her remarks in closed-door appearances with Wall Street executives to argue that she’s duplicitous – telling wealthy donors one thing and telling voters another.
Yet his pledge to throw Clinton in jail had even supportive Republicans tearing their hair and describing it as “banana republic” behavior.
“Winning candidates don't threaten to put opponents in jail. Presidents don't threaten prosecution of individuals. Trump is wrong on this,” tweeted Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, who joined Trump’s “Bush Alumni Coalition” two weeks ago.
Perhaps the biggest threat to a GOP cease-fire is the potential release of more devastating tapes, which everyone from Geraldo Rivera to former "The Apprentice" producer Bill Pruitt have hinted at.
Conway was asked on multiple shows Monday morning about whether more damaging tapes will emerge, and offered the same response. “There is no way for me to know that,” she said.