It was the sort of performance his Republican critics fear.
Hours after delivering a disciplined, for him, if doom-filled speech to accept the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump veered far, far off course on Friday. Using a victory lap with campaign volunteers, he re-litigated his primary battle with Ted Cruz and revived discredited accusations that Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The rehashing of months-old campaign trail grievances came in a rambling, disjointed and boastful speech that Republicans leery of Trump use to illustrate their qualms: He’s undisciplined, thin-skinned and apt to say anything – traits that thrill his ardent fans, but now threaten to overshadow any bounce that Trump might have been expecting from the four-day convention here. Since 1964, almost every major presidential candidate has gotten a bounce in the Gallup Poll after his convention, with the average gain 6 percentage points.
Trump even managed to get in a reference to Penthouse magazine as his vice presidential running mate, Christian-first, conservative-second Indiana Gov. Mike Pence stood quietly next to him on stage.
Trump made it clear that his selection of Pence is a marriage of political convenience, rather than a meeting of the minds.
“I ran as an outsider. I didn’t want anybody. Now, I have guys like Mike Pence. I mean, this isn’t supposed to happen,” Trump said, adding with a laugh: “See, now if I don’t win, I’m going to blame Mike, right? We have to blame Mike.”
Trump boasted of “amazing” unity and “great love” at the convention – despite the fact that major stars of the Republican firmament, including his vanquished rivals, like Ohio Gov. John Kasich, skipped the nominating convention entirely.
“We may be missing just a couple of people,” Trump said.
He had three words for the Republican holdouts: Supreme Court justices.
“No matter how much you like or dislike, no matter what your feelings, whether you’re the governor of Ohio, whether you’re a senator from Texas or any of the other people that I beat so easily and so badly, you have no choice, you’ve got to go for Trump,” Trump said.
If his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton is elected, he said, she’ll get to replace “our beloved” Justice Antonin Scalia.
“No matter what you think of Donald Trump, as a Republican, if that’s what your philosophy is, if you’re a great, great believer in the Constitution, you have no choice,” he said “Whether you’re a hater or a lover.”
He also offered up as a reason for supporting him his four children, who delivered some of the best-received testimonials on behalf of their father.
“If people really dislike me, and I don’t think they do anymore after the four days, look, if I have kids that like me like that, how bad can I be?” he said. “They love their daddy. I was a good father. I have smart children and good children. And I’m getting a lot of credit.”
Trump predicted that Cruz – who snubbed him from the convention stage on Wednesday by failing to endorse him – would eventually come around, but said he doesn’t want, and in fact would reject, his endorsement.
“If he gives it, I will not accept,” Trump said of a Cruz endorsement. He said the snub from the stage “may have ruined” Cruz’s political career, adding that Cruz might have been in better shape to challenge him for president in 2020 had he fallen in line.
“Ted, stay home. Relax, enjoy yourself,” Trump said, later threatening that if Cruz were to entertain a run against him four years from now he’d set up a political action committee to counter him.
“Are you allowed to set up a super-PAC, Mike, if you are the president, to fight somebody?” Trump asked his running mate.
More than any of the fumbles that marked the four-day convention – the Cruz snub, no-shows by prominent Republicans, charges of plagiarism – the Friday fusillade at a hotel in downtown Cleveland served to illustrate how difficult it may be for Trump to appeal beyond his base.
Indeed, Trump did little to court anyone beyond his volunteers. His campaign scrapped a rally planned for Friday in nearby Akron, breaking with the tradition of holding a post-convention rally in a battleground state.
Four years ago, then-Republican nominee Mitt Romney held a rally with supporters outside of the convention city in Florida and made a surprise visit to storm-battered Louisiana.
But little in Trump’s campaign has been conventional and he basked in it Friday, calling staffers on stage to brag that his bare-bones operation had succeeded where 17 other candidates with impressive government resumes and money had failed.
He boasted that he had held “one of the most love-filled conventions in the history of conventions” – despite deep fissures within the party that showed little sign of healing. He called up his social media director to provide a breakdown of Trump-inpsired Twitter, Instagram and Facebook traffic.
“Almost half a million new followers on Facebook. Mr. Trump hit 10 million followers on Twitter,” Dan Scavino said.
“Ten million,” Trump trumpeted. He boasted that the convention TV ratings were “through the roof.” However, the Hollywood Reporter said the numbers were on par with Mitt Romney’s 2012 address, but under John McCain’s 2008 speech.
But mostly he relished in an elaborate, detailed takedown of Cruz, from his convention speech to squabbles on the campaign trail.
He said that he had seen a copy of Cruz’s convention speech and that his aides had described it as a “boring” speech.
Cruz’s call to convention-goers to “vote your conscience” was unscripted and a “nasty thing,” Trump said.
“You’re bound by the speech, just like you’re bound by the pledge, right?” Trump said, referring to the pledge to support the nominee that some Republican rivals have said they will not honor. Cruz’s off the script remarks, he said were “dishonorable” and “not a nice thing to do.”
Cruz said Thursday that he wouldn’t be a “servile puppy dog” and endorse a man who had attacked his wife and father: The Trump campaign retweeted an unflattering photo of his Cruz’s wife with Trump seemingly comparing Heidi Cruz to Trump’s wife, ex-model Melania Trump.
Later, Trump said Cruz’s Cuban-born father, Rafael Cruz, was with Lee Harvey Oswald, President Kennedy’s assassin, prior to the slaying in November 1963.
On Friday, Trump accused Cruz of “lies” and said it was Cruz or his supporters who started the feud, by sending out a racy picture of Melania Trump to voters in Utah.
Trump said the picture was from the cover of GQ, “not exactly Penthouse.” But he said Utah was not “where you want to necessarily send a risque picture.”
So, Trump said, he responded by retweeting a photo of Melania Trump and Heidi Cruz, “who I think, by the way, is a very nice woman and a very beautiful woman.”
“I have to tell you, I think Heidi Cruz is a great person. I think it’s the best thing he’s got going, and his kids, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said of Cruz, adding that Cruz is smart “but he doesn’t know how to use it. And he was a good debater, but he didn’t do well in the debates against me, according to every poll. I mean, every poll. You know, he’s this great debater, except he lost in every single poll and every single debate.”
Trump also insisted that he hadn’t accused Cruz’s father, but only pointed out a National Enquirer that showed Cruz’s father, Raphael “and crazy Lee Harvey Oswald having breakfast.”
The photo on the May 2, 2016, cover is taken from a video in New Orleans of Oswald and a small group handing out pro-Cuba pamphlets. But there is no evidence that the man in the picture is Rafael Cruz, other than some forensics experts saying there were facial similarities between the unidentified man and Cruz’s father. The Warren Commission never identified the man.
Trump said the supermarket tabloid – which endorsed his presidential bid – “should be very respected,” and deserved a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of O.J. Simpson’s murder case and former Sen. John Edwards’s affair. Trump is friends with David Pecker, chairman and CEO of American Media, which publishes the Enquirer.
“There was a picture on the front page of the National Inquirer, which does have credibility, and they’re not going to do pictures like that because they get sued for a lot of money if things are wrong,” Trump said, as he looked to distance himself from the issue: “I’m not saying anything. This had nothing to do with me, except I might have pointed it out.”
Cruz has denied the man is his father, but Trump insisted he had not.
“They’re not saying, ‘Oh, that wasn’t really my father.’ It’s a little hard to do, because it looks like him,” Trump said.
He blamed the press for suggesting he was the one accusing Rafael Cruz.
“The press takes that, and they say, ‘Donald Trump and his conspiracy theories; he went out and said his father was with Lee Harvey Oswald, and he assassinated the president.’ ” Trump said. “What did I do?”
Maria Recio of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.