When the 2016 elections are finally over, regardless of who wins, someone should sit down and write a play about about the moral struggle the chairman of the Republican National Committee found himself engaged in during the waning days of the GOP primary race — call it Priebus Agonistes.
As he is increasingly called upon to do, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus made the rounds of the Sunday shows this weekend, acting as an apologist for his party’s presumptive nominee, Donald Trump.
And there was a lot to explain away. The New York Times had published a lengthy investigation into Trump’s history of abusive, boorish and frequently creepy treatment of women over whom he has held power or influence. The Washington Post revealed that Trump, in the 1990s, frequently called journalists posing as his own publicist, sometimes to brag about his liaisons with specific women. And, Trump flipped his position on releasing his tax returns so many times — including an exchange in which he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that his effective tax rate is none of the media’s business — that nobody’s sure any longer what he’ll do with them.
This is plainly no fun for Priebus. As head of the RNC, it’s clear that Priebus is a cagey political operator with few illusions about politics. At the same time, he strikes one as a fundamentally decent man who finds himself struggling to defend behavior from his candidate that he would denounce from the rooftops if it occurred on the Democratic side.
Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Priebus sat with his lips pressed into a thin line as host Chris Wallace listed some of the behavior raised in the Times piece, including allegations bordering on workplace sexual harassment. “Does that bother you?” Wallace asked.
From the get-go, it was obvious that Priebus’ heart was not really in it. “Well, you know, a lot of things bother me, Chris. Obviously I’m the wrong person to be asking that particular question.”
Wallace immediately interrupted. “Why are you the wrong person? You’re the chairman of the party. This is your nominee. And they’re saying that he has mistreated women over the years,” he said.
Wearily, Priebus answered, “We’ve been working on this primary for over a year, Chris, and I’ve got to tell you that all these stories that come out, and they come out every couple weeks, people just don’t care.”
It was a refrain he would return to, both speaking with Wallace and in appearances on other networks Sunday morning. The real issue, Priebus said, is the decision before voters: “They look at Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and say, Who’s going to bring an earthquake to Washington, D.C.?... I don’t think Donald Trump and his personal life is something that people are looking at and saying ‘I’m surprised that he’s had girlfriends in the past.’”
Wallace was having none of it. “Whoa, whoa. Forgive me. It’s not whether or not he had girlfriends, it’s whether or not he mistreated women, whether he made unwanted advances, whether he humiliated women in the workplace. I don’t understand why you say that people don’t care about that, and are you going to look into the allegations?”
“Look, I’m not saying people don’t care about it,” Priebus backtracked. “I’m just saying I think the reason he’s where he’s at is that he represents something much different than the traditional analysis of individual candidates. And yes, everything bothers me, Chris. But I don’t know the truth of these things. I don’t know other than reading an article, whether or not these things are true. I think it’s something that Donald Trump is going to have to answer questions in regard to. All I’m saying, though, is that after a year of different stories, nothing applies.”
Wallace moved on to the story about Trump pretending to be fictitious PR men named John Barron and John Miller, and trying to deceive reporters. There are records indicating that Trump himself admitted the ruse to a People Magazine reporter in the ‘90s, and in a sworn statement connected to a lawsuit, he admitted that he had identified himself to people using the “pen-name” John Miller.
“Each individual person out there should evaluate our potential nominee based on the answers that he gives to these questions, but also look at what’s at stake in this country and whether or not Hillary Clinton represents someone who is going to bring the needed change that we have here in Washington,” Priebus said.
Then, as Trump’s convention manager Paul Manafort was doing almost simultaneously on CNN, Priebus suggested that despite the admission and the court document, Trump’s denial that it was his voice on the tapes was credible.
“Look, a story of 30 years ago and whether Donald Trump impersonated someone — which he denies — is really not the most important thing for us to talk about.”
Again, he went back to the refrain that, whether it happened or not, nobody cares.
“Look, I get that this stuff is interesting, but we’ve been through this, and it has not moved the dial one notch.”
When Wallace turned to the tax returns, Priebus admitted that 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney had badly damaged his chances in the election by controversially delaying the release of his returns. But on Trump, he sounded like a man who has given up.
“You know, I’m not sure whether Americans actually care or not, whether Donald Trump releases his taxes, and that’s a question for Donald Trump and he’s either going to benefit or suffer from the decisions he makes on that particular issue,” he said. “Again, not to be repetitive, but whether this issue is going to apply to Donald Trump in a negative way...I’m not sure of.”
On second thought, maybe there’s a better title for that play about the embattled RNC chair: Priebus Shrugged.