By Rebecca Berg
Donald Trump’s suggestion that “Second Amendment people” could prevent Hillary Clinton from nominating judges, should she be elected, set off a new firestorm in the presidential race — but a familiar one, too, for Trump’s response.
Rather than correct his comments — which to some suggested a threat of gun violence — or express culpability for any misunderstanding, the celebrity businessman has instead dug in, insisting “dishonest media” misconstrued his meaning.
“I mean, give me a break,” Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Tuesday. “What it is, is there’s a tremendous power behind the Second Amendment. It’s a political power, and there are few things so powerful, I have to say, in terms of politics.”
Trump has not explicitly clarified that he did not intend to encourage violent acts, but such a clarification would also be highly unusual: In Donald Trump’s crisis playbook, there is no page on second-guessing, no instructions on walking back. As he has established and grown a lengthy roster of controversial remarks in this election cycle, he has in each instance dodged apology and instead blamed the media, rival campaigns or others.
“Any clear-eyed, sane candidate would walk back 90 percent of the comments Trump has made,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist. “There’s some sort of psychological unwillingness on his part to admit that he’s wrong.”
The pattern dates to Trump’s first campaign appearance, when he announced his candidacy for president and labeled some illegal immigrants from Mexico “rapists.” Facing harsh backlash from both parties, Trump told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly the assessment was “totally accurate.” More than a year later, Trump’s tone still has not softened; in testimony last month involving a lawsuit stemming from those remarks, he said: “All I’m doing is bringing up a situation which is very real, about illegal immigration. And I think, you know, most people think I’m right.”
Since then, Trump has falsely accused Ted Cruz’s father of conspiring to assassinate President John F. Kennedy; questioned the impartiality of a judge due to his “Mexican heritage”; and publicly tussled with the pope. In none of these instances did Trump express regret for his statements or their phrasing.
Trump’s blunt style has been a key factor in his appeal. But, while this quality was an asset in the GOP primary race, it increasingly appears to have become a liability as the general election moves forward.
In a Bloomberg Politics poll released this week, 83 percent of people said they were bothered, most of them “a lot,” by Trump appearing to mock a disabled reporter at a rally last year. Trump has insisted the incident, during which he flailed his arms and altered his voice, was mischaracterized.
“I would never say anything bad about a person that has a disability,” Trump told the Washington Post in May. “I swear to you it’s true, 100 percent true.”
In the same poll, another 75 percent of respondents were bothered by Trump’s recent remarks attacking the parents of Humayun Khan — a Muslim American soldier who was killed serving in Iraq and posthumously awarded a purple heart and gold star — who rebuked Trump during a speech at the Democratic National Convention.
But, Trump told WJLA in the aftermath, “I don’t regret anything.”
Trump’s tendency to stubbornly defend even his most controversial remarks is not only unusual: It could be without precedent in modern presidential elections.
In September 2012, when a video famously showed Mitt Romney saying, “My job is not to worry about” the “47 percent of people … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims,” the backlash was immediate. But Romney publicly owned up to his mistake.
“Clearly in a campaign with hundreds if not thousands of speeches and question-and-answer sessions, now and then you are going to say something that doesn’t come out right,” Romney told Fox News afterward. “In this case, I said something that’s just completely wrong.”
By contrast, Trump’s recalcitrance has alienated many Republicans, some of whom have announced they will not support him. “I have become increasingly dismayed by his constant stream of cruel comments and his inability to admit error or apologize,” Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, wrote in an op-ed this week.
The Republican nominee’s rhetoric is resonating in a similar fashion among some of the undecided voters who will swing the outcome of the race for president. In focus groups this week moderated by Republican pollster Neil Newhouse and Democratic pollster Margie Omero, which included women from Columbus, Ohio, and Phoenix, participants expressed unease with Trump’s tone.
“He seems oblivious to the impact of what he is saying,” said one woman in the Columbus group.
Trump has indeed seemed taken aback at times by the backlash to his remarks. When he last month urged Russia to “find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” referring to Clinton’s private server, the statement was widely interpreted as an invitation for the rival power to interfere in the U.S. election. But in an interview later with Fox News, Trump dismissed the comment.
“Of course I’m being sarcastic,” he scoffed.
In these instances, however, Trump’s meaning has often not been obvious. Even his allies have occasionally been hard-pressed to translate or explain.
“He misspeaks a lot, because he doesn’t speak for a living,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday in light of Trump’s “Second Amendment people” controversy.
Secret Service officials took the remarks seriously, raising the issue with Trump’s campaign in multiple conversations, CNN reported Wednesday. The candidate, however, denied such a conversation took place.
Meanwhile, Trump’s remarks were a political gift for Clinton, dominating another news cycle and affording her an opportunity to reinforce a key attack on Trump as unfit for the presidency. Trump’s remarks, she said at an event in Iowa on Wednesday, amounted to “casual inciting of violence.”
“Words matter, my friends,” Clinton said. “Words can have tremendous consequences.”