Donald Trump always got away with everything.
The most unorthodox candidate and president in history has exhibited a near-mystical capacity to evade the price of blunders that would have felled conventional politicians.
If that is ever going to change, the moment may be now.
The President’s careening news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower on Tuesday left him deep in a race controversy of his own making, pushing him closer to the white nationalist fringe of American politics.
His insistence that there was “blame on both sides” for violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend again drew an equivalence between torch-wielding neo-Nazis and protestors who condemned their bigotry.
His comments did more than obliterate the scripted cleanup effort he mounted at the White House Monday — after bowing to extreme political pressure that built all weekend for him to call out white supremacist groups.
They overshadowed his insistence that he had repeatedly denounced the Ku Klux Klan, its former leader David Duke and neo-Nazis, and appeared to represent an authentic window into his innermost thoughts and feelings.
In Washington, among Trump critics, establishment Republicans and media commentators, there was a dumfounded reaction. And the debate about the content of his remarks won’t end anytime soon.
But the more enduring question concerns the political damage wrought by the wild events of the last few days.
It seems certain that Trump’s performance Tuesday will do little to salvage his approval ratings, which are already breaking record lows for any president at the equivalent stage of an administration.
Here are the less certain but overarching questions: Will anger and dismay about his behavior among congressional Republicans drive wedges between them and their President when they come back to Washington to work on key issues like tax reform?
Will Trump’s tirade and refusal to admit any wrongdoing make him unacceptably toxic to some Republicans who do not rely on his base voters for their own jobs?
And what about that base? Trump’s loyal voters have always stood by their man when he has been written off by media commentators. They supported him after he insulted Sen. John McCain’s service in Vietnam and when an “Access Hollywood” tape emerged of Trump making lewd comments about women. Did his staggering display Tuesday loosen that loyalty?
Will Trump’s defense of far right-wing groups that are deemed an unacceptable presence in American political life cause some voters to look again at him — despite their deep disdain for the way the media covers their President?
And how will his conduct sit with evangelical voters, who are crucial to the coalition that Trump rode to the White House?
New test for Republicans
One factor that could limit the damage to Trump among his base voters is that many of them are disposed to view any criticism of the President as the product of media coverage they see as biased. While the sight of a President bitterly bickering with reporters might alarm many Americans, it could be seen as a badge of honor by others and overshadow the substance of his comments. A brief survey of outlets preferred by conservatives Wednesday showed limited coverage of Trump’s appearance. Many of those websites, radio shows and television stations that did cover the fallout of the press conference voiced defenses of the President and attacks on the media.
Many reports in conservative media also echoed Trump’s warning that attempts by progressives to take down statues commemorating prominent Civil War figures could soon be extended to national heroes like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who were slave owners.
Republican leaders’ patience with Trump has been stretched to the limit, but they have tried to learn to live with a man who plowed up the party’s most promising and high-powered presidential field in a generation.
And there were signs that the already tenuous relationship between GOP leaders and Trump — marked in recent days by Trump’s assault on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — is getting quickly worse.
“I think his ability to effectively govern is dwindling by the hour,” a GOP leadership source told CNN’s Jim Acosta Tuesday.
If the events of Tuesday make it even more difficult for Trump to advance his agenda, especially in the Senate, there could be a knock-on effect among his base voters, who sent him to Washington to make big changes, and have yet to see a dividend, at least in the form of major legislation.
Some of the President’s GOP critics were familiar, and they addressed him directly by name, perhaps reflecting concern that the long-term image of their party will be targeted with association with Trump’s views.
“There’s no moral equivalency between racists & Americans standing up to defy hate& bigotry. The President of the United States should say so,” Arizona Sen. John McCain said in a statement.
Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran said on Twitter: “white supremacy, bigotry & racism have absolutely no place in our society & no one – especially POTUS – should ever tolerate it.”
Colorado’s Sen. Cory Gardner, who as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee has the responsibility of preserving the GOP’s majority, also criticized Trump by name at a town hall event in Lakewood, Colorado.
“What he did today again goes back on what he said yesterday. And that’s unacceptable. The President was wrong to do that. And I’ve said that loud and clear,” Gardner said.
But in a sign that not all Republicans have made the calculation to separate from Trump, many prominent members of the GOP implicitly hit Trump, but not by name, with some taking advantage of the summer recess to avoid television interviews.
“We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement. “There can be no moral ambiguity.”
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis said that “when it comes to white supremacists & neo-nazis, there can be no equivocating: they’re propagators of hate and bigotry. Period.”
The mixed reaction among Republicans to Trump’s comments suggests that the party’s conventional wisdom is yet to fully congeal.
After all, Trump has triggered controversy and discord many times before, but the upper echelons of his party have not cut him loose, hoping to preserve their dream of a conservative legacy for the GOP’s monopoly on power.
“I’ll believe that Republican leaders are taking this seriously when they not only condemn the President by name and tell him he is wrong,” said Republican consultant and Trump critic Rick Wilson, who called for the removal of members of the President’s inner circle who are seen as having ties to the far right.
“I will also believe they are serious about this when they go to the President and say ‘we are members of a co-equal branch of government and unless and until you dismiss Stephen Bannon, Stephen Miller, Seb Gorka and this other cat-and-ego cast of Pepe the Frog team of alt-right sympathizers inside the administration, we are going to stop the presses, we are going to stop it,” Wilson told CNN’s Don Lemon.
Flight of the CEOs
There are already signs Trump’s image was becoming toxic outside Washington.
Six executives have now left the White House Manufacturing Council since Saturday to protest his reaction to the Charlottesville violence.
Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, who is on the President’s economic advisory council, issued an extraordinary rebuke to Trump in a note to employees on Monday, though has said he will remain engaged with the White House.
“As we watched the events and the response from President Trump over the weekend, we too felt that he missed a critical opportunity to help bring our country together by unequivocally rejecting the appalling actions of white supremacists,” McMillon said.
Trump reacted furiously to those CEOs who jumped ship.
“For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place. Grandstanders should not have gone on. JOBS!” he tweeted earlier Tuesday.
But the personal criticisms by fellow business titans represent a personal blow for Trump, from a sector of the electorate — wealthy, go-getter corporate chiefs — that he admires most.
After all, the departures implicitly amount to a judgment by the CEOs that the best interests of their brands are not helped by association with the prestige and power of the White House and the President of the United States.