At a meeting of the Republican National Committee in Florida Thursday night Paul Manafort, the lawyer recently brought in to take charge of the Donald Trump presidential campaign, assured the GOP loyalists in attendance that the billionaire’s intemperate, outrageous behavior on the campaign trail -- including repeated attacks on the integrity of the very people Manafort was addressing -- is really an act that he can switch off any time he wants.
And Trump does want to, Manafort insisted. He promised the RNC that Trump is, even now, transitioning into a more traditional campaign, and is ready to grasp hands with the Republican establishment in the joint effort to retake the White House in November.
The problem for Manafort was that while he was promising that Trump would turn into a disciplined and focused candidate, Trump himself was out in public demonstrating exactly why nobody should count on that actually happening.
Thursday morning, during an appearance on the Today Show, Trump had taken a question about the controversial “bathroom law” in North Carolina that bars transgendered people from using public bathrooms for the gender they identify as.
The state and its governor, Pat McCrory, came under intense criticism for the move, and Trump was openly critical of the new law.
“North Carolina did something that was very strong, and they're paying a big price, and there's a lot of problems,” he said. “One of the best answers I heard was from a commentator yesterday, saying, 'Leave it the way it is right now.' There have been very few problems. Leave it the way it is. North Carolina, what they're going through with all of the business that's leaving, all of the strife — and it's on both sides — you leave it the way it is. There have been very few complaints the way it is. People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate. There has been so little trouble. And the problem with North Carolina has been the strife and the economic punishment that they're taking.”
While that’s a position held by many people across the country, it’s not one that’s particularly popular among the more conservative Republicans that tend to vote in presidential primaries or, indeed, among Republicans in general. And Trump’s chief adversary, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, immediately pounced.
“Have we gone stark raving nuts?” he asked the crowd at a Maryland campaign rally. “I’m the father of two little girls. Here is basic common sense: Grown adult men, strangers, should not be alone in a bathroom with little girls.”
His campaign promptly produced a web advertisement, complete with ominous music, and black and white images of the interior of public bathrooms. “Should a grown man, pretending to be a woman, be allowed to use the women’s restroom?” it asked. Then, cutting to an image of a woman holding the hand of a little girl with blond pigtails, it continued, “The same restroom used by your daughter? Your wife? Donald Trump thinks so.”
By Thursday evening, Trump was in damage control mode -- if a complete flip-flop can be called damage control.
He went to the friendly environs of Fox News host Sean Hannity’s program and, with a little coaching from Hannity, completely reversed himself.
“I love North Carolina, and they have a law, and it's a law that, you know, unfortunately is causing them some problems. I fully understand that they want to go through, but they are losing business, and they are having people come out against. I think that local communities and states should make the decision, and I feel very strongly about that. The federal government should not be involved.”
“In other words, let the state decide,” Hannity offered helpfully. “Kind of like your positions on education. Give it back to the states.”
"Yeah,” Trump said. “Let them decide. Absolutely.”
Manafort, meanwhile, was telling RNC members that the Trump they’ve seen on the stump isn’t the same guy they would be nominating for president.
“When he’s sitting in a room and he’s talking business and he’s talking politics and it’s a private room, it’s a different persona,” he said in a recording of the meeting leaked to multiple news outlets. “When he’s out on stage, when he’s talking about the kinds of things he’s talking about on the stump, he’s projecting an image that’s for that purpose. The two, you’ll start to see come together in the course of the next several months.”
He continued, “He’s made it very clear to me that I’m to make it clear to you that he envisions preparing a campaign operation that will be what you all are historically used to. We’re going to pull together all that’s needed. He is prepared to work with the RNC and the committees necessary to raise the money necessary so that we will be well funded.”
The trouble is that what the members of the RNC are “historically used to” is a candidate who shares their belief system and their basic principles. In ways big and small, like getting wrong-footed on the North Carolina question and having to backtrack, Trump repeatedly shows that he doesn’t.
Manafort may say that Trump is ready to show his traditional conservative side, but the truth is that the billionaire is learning a set of principles on the fly, and that is what’s always going to show.