Donald Trump has backtracked on his much ballyhooed pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee as he deals with swirling controversy after his campaign manager was charged with assaulting a reporter.
In a television town hall in Milwaukee with CNN on Tuesday night, Trump insisted he had been “treated very unfairly” by the Republican National Committee and the establishment and revoked the commitment he signed in September. Although the Republican frontrunner previously hinted that he might do so, saying the RNC was “in default”, he had never explicitly revoked his commitment until Tuesday.
The statement came as Trump stood by Corey Lewandowski, his embattled campaign manager, who was captured on tape forcibly grabbing a reporter for the right-wing website Breitbart after a press conference. Trump suggested that the reporter, who had been screened by the secret service in order to be allowed in the candidate’s vicinity, may have been carrying a bomb.
Lewandowski’s arrest dominated the CNN town hall, which featured anchor Anderson Cooper questioning all three Republican candidates. Texas senator Ted Cruz, when asked if he would fire his campaign manager for the same behavior, replied “of course”. John Kasich said: “I haven’t seen the video but they tell me the video is real and of course I would.”
Trump struggled with policy questions. While calling Nato “obsolete,” Trump bemoaned the fact that the international alliance doesn’t deal with terrorism. Nato has taken a lead role in the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban. He also said nuclear proliferation “is going to happen anyway” and seemed comfortable with Japan developing nuclear weapons.
On domestic policy, Trump challenged conservative orthodoxy by stating education and healthcare were two of the three key functions of the federal government along with security. Both are controversial as many Republicans call for the abolition of the Department of Education as well as repealing Obamacare and severely limiting the federal role in healthcare. The Republican frontrunner was also chastised for his tone by Cooper, who compared Trump’s argument to that of a five-year-old, when he defended his jibes towards Ted Cruz’s wife.
Trump was not the only candidate to leave the door open to not backing the GOP nominee in November. Ted Cruz who pledged in March to support the party’s nominee regardless, said of Trump: “I am not in the habit of supporting someone who attacks my wife and my family and I think our wife and kids should be off limits.”
This repeated previous statements that Cruz has made in recent days after Trump’s threat to “spill the beans” on his wife and accused the frontrunner of spreading lies about him in a supermarket tabloid. This was echoed by Kasich, appearing after Trump, who said: “I gotta see what happens. If the nominee’s somebody who’s hurting the country I can’t stand behind them.” The Ohio governor had also previously pledged to support the party’s eventual nominee.
Both Kasich and Cruz were asked if they had paths to victory. Cruz insisted that he could pick up the nearly 800 delegates he needed to win on the first ballot by noting “most of the races are winner-take-all or winner take most”. The Texas senator said Trump had a ceiling and faced “a difficult time reaching over 50% of the vote” and dismissed Kasich as having “no path to winning”. Kasich, who insisted that the nomination would be decided by a contested convention, referenced the history of the Republican party. He noted that often the party’s nominee did not arrive at the convention with a plurality of delegates.
Kasich took a firm stance criticizing Cruz and Trump for their policies towards Muslims in the United States. The Ohio governor sneered at Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, “raise your hand if you’re a Muslim, that doesn’t work”, he said, while also criticizing Cruz’s proposals to increase police presence in Muslim neighborhoods. Kasich quoted New York police commissioner Bill Bratton who described Cruz’s plan as “ridiculous”. He also was the only candidate to reference the Easter Sunday terrorist attack in Lahore when he said “when people in Pakistan die, we all die a little bit”.
The candidates also were asked personal questions which they answered to varying degrees of effectiveness. When Trump was asked about the last time he apologized, his response was “oh wow” and he was left briefly speechless before recalling apologizing to his mother for using foul language and his wife for not behaving in a “presidential” manner. Cruz said his biggest weakness is that “I am a pretty driven guy” while criticizing other politicians for “running around behaving like they are holier than thou”.