What a mess.
Donald Trump's campaign and convention have been a circus of missteps this past week – not a great pitch for a presidential job interview. Beyond energizing the party faithful, the convention serves as an invitation to others to pause and take a look.
The latest controversy erupted Monday night following the speech by the candidate’s wife, Melania Trump. Crafted to provide a more personal glimpse of her well-known celebrity spouse, it contained passages almost identical to those used by first lady Michelle Obama in a speech eight years ago at her own husband’s nominating convention.
On Tuesday, the speech became Topic A, and not in a good way.
But will it, or any of the other gaffes, matter to voters?
They pay attention during these convention weeks, and again during the fall debates. Trump, though, has defied political logic time and again, surviving similar missteps that might have doomed other politicians.
Clearly there’s concern among Republicans watching in Cleveland. “He appears to be a divider, not a uniter,” said Scott Hawkins, a delegate from St. Louis. “This is embarrassing.”
Janet Beihoffer, the Republican national committeewoman from Minnesota who backed other GOP contenders before Trump – she “quit picking choices” after her fourth one faltered – put a more hopeful spin on the convention’s first 24 hours and Trump’s recent rocky road to Cleveland.
“Here’s a personal hope: that Gov. Pence will be able to influence some of that so it’s not constant,” she said, referring to Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, whom Trump chose as his running mate and who she anticipates could bring some order to the campaign.
Trump himself, who often seems to operate on his own internal political gyroscope, independent of his handlers, stepped on one of the more emotional moments of the convention’s opening night. He called into Fox News at the same time that Patricia Smith, the mother of a State Department officer who died in the raid on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, gave an impassioned speech.
Republicans have used the attack, in which four Americans died, to bash Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee and secretary of state at the time.
But the consensus at this convention, which is dominated by delegates loyal to Trump, is that their man has an almost magical ability to survive anything. Texas delegate John Wiley, a 53-year-old software developer from Arlington, said Trump has proved resilient.
“In the beginning, the concept of Trump’s campaign being a joke, being a lark was there,” Wiley said. “The fact that he turned out so many more voters, the fact is their way of doing it, while unconventional, was effective.”
The convention flared Monday afternoon as the NeverTrump movement was gavelled down when its members attempted to derail Trump’s nomination.
Yet hours later, delegates were dutifully in their seats, cheering at speaker after speaker. “They just like the Donald Trump message,” explained State Sen. Debbie Lesko of Peoria, Ariz. “They understand that he shares our values.”
Trump’s disarray is part of his appeal. “What people like about the Trumps overall is they’re saying what they’re thinking,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, at a McClatchy Morning Buzz breakfast briefing.
I don’t want to see a speech written by a dozen spin doctors.
Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, at a McClatchy Morning Buzz breakfast briefing
The stumbling began Thursday. The rollout of a vice presidential nominee is pivotal. It’s the nominee’s first big judgment call and usually features the new pick as the presidential candidate steps aside.
Not Trump. First he postponed the announcement because of the tragedy in Nice, France. Then he went on television that evening and blasted Clinton. The former reality TV star then reportedly had second thoughts about Pence, his eventual pick, who had already flown to New York.
Trump then decided to announce Pence on Friday morning via Twitter. The next day, he formally introduced Pence after 28 minutes of Trump talking mostly about Trump.
That was the warmup act. No firm convention schedule was available until 48 hours before it began.
On the first morning, Campaign Manager Paul Manafort labeled former Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush part of the past and said Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s absence was embarrassing. Then later Monday evening, keynote speaker Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, spoke after Melania Trump, the evening’s big draw, gave her remarks. The hall emptied as Ernst began.
They do not reflect the broad strokes of the Republican Party.
Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, talking about the Bushes
Tuesday, the plagiarism charge about Melania Trump speech dominated the political chatter. And Manafort was defiant.
“You all are focusing on trying to distort that message in some respects,” he said. And as the Trump campaign often does, it tied the incident to Clinton.
“It's just another example as far as we're concerned that when Hillary Clinton is threatened by a female, the first thing she does is try to destroy the person,” he said.
Outside the convention hall Tuesday, Phillip Bell, a railroad industry official and Trump supporter from Vienna, Va., dismissed the controversy, calling the similar words a “narrative we Americans look for. It’s no surprise that Melania Trump said it. It’s no surprise that the first lady said it.”