At Time, "Inside Donald Trump’s Meltdown":
Donald Trump's sinking polls, unending attacks and public blunders have the GOP reconsidering its strategy for November.Keep reading.
When Donald Trump mucks things up, the first person to let him know is usually Republican Party boss Reince Priebus. Almost every day, Trump picks up his cell phone to find Priebus on the line, urging him to quash some feud or clarify an incendiary remark.
The Wisconsin lawyer has been a dutiful sherpa to the Manhattan developer, guiding him through the dizzying altitude of the presidential race and lobbying the GOP to unite behind a figure who threatens its future.
But every bond has its breaking point. For this partnership, the moment nearly arrived in early August. Priebus was on vacation when he learned that Trump had declined to endorse Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House and a close friend. The chairman had a frank message for the nominee, according to two Republican officials briefed on the call. Priebus told Trump that internal GOP polling suggested he was on track to lose the election. And if Trump didn’t turn around his campaign over the coming weeks, the Republican National Committee would consider redirecting party resources and machinery to House and Senate races.
Trump denies the exchange ever took place. “Reince Priebus is a terrific guy,” Trump told TIME. “He never said that.” Priebus could not be reached for comment. But whatever the exact words spoken on the phone, there is no doubt that the possibility Republicans will all but abandon Trump now haunts his struggling campaign.
Since his convention in Cleveland, Trump has done almost nothing right by traditional standards. He has picked fights with senior Republicans and Gold Star parents, invited Russian spies to meddle in U.S. democracy, appeared to joke about gun enthusiasts’ prematurely removing a U.S. President from office. He’s shuffled campaign messages like playing cards and left GOP elders fretting that he lacks the judgment to be Commander in Chief. During a dismal two-week stretch, he surrendered a narrow lead over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and now trails by an average of 8 points in recent nationwide polls.
Trump has overcome rough patches before. But with fewer than 90 days until Nov. 8, he now faces a reckoning. There are daunting demographics to surmount. Allies complain of massive staff shortages in battleground states. And voters are skeptical of a billionaire reality star who seems to study the rules of campaigning only so he can break them.
Then there are the challenges entirely of Trump’s own making. More than three months after he effectively clinched the Republican nomination, he has yet to settle on a strategy to match the demands of a broader electorate. In an interview with TIME on Aug. 9, the improvisational candidate sounded torn between conflicting pieces of advice, unsure of how much to hold back and when to let loose. “I am now listening to people that are telling me to be easier, nicer, be softer. And you know, that’s O.K., and I’m doing that,” he says. “Personally, I don’t know if that’s what the country wants.”
Polls show that Trump has failed to grasp one of the essential truths about this extraordinary contest: in a race between the two most unpopular major-party nominees in modern history, it’s in each campaign’s interest to train the spotlight on the other. Clinton wants the race to be about Trump. Which is what the publicity-addled Republican wants too. And why not? It worked for him in the Republican primaries. “I got 14 million votes and won most of the states,” he boasts. “I’m liking the way I ran in the primaries better.”
But the general election will likely be decided by groups of voters who are rarely among the cheering throngs at his rallies. This is a fact that Trump is only now starting to confront. “I don’t know why we’re not leading by a lot,” he admitted to a crowd of thousands in Jacksonville, Fla., on Aug. 3. One reason is that he’s getting crushed by minority voting blocs that Republican strategists have suggested courting, such as blacks, Hispanics and young women.
Ask him about these struggles and the braggadocio fades to fatalism. “All I can do is tell the truth,” he says. “If that does it, that’s great. And if that doesn’t do it, that’s fine too.” Even the best salesman must bow to the realities of the marketplace.
The trouble started before Trump even left Cleveland. Twelve hours after accepting his party’s nomination, he arrived in a half-empty hotel ballroom for a victory lap. It was a chance to thank supporters and bask in the previous night’s afterglow. Free’s “All Right Now” echoed through the speakers. And then, as Priebus’ team watched live from their hotel a few blocks away, everything went wrong.
Two evenings before, Trump had crushed the last vestiges of Republican opposition, orchestrating an outburst of boos as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas delivered the ultimate snub: refusing to endorse his onetime rival. But for Trump, that victory wasn’t enough. Rather than mend fences, he told fans he didn’t want the GOP runner-up’s endorsement and might bankroll a super PAC to kill Cruz’s career. Apropos of nothing, he revived a dormant controversy involving an unflattering picture of the Texan’s wife, boudoir shots of Trump’s and a tiny super PAC that no longer exists. He once again linked Cruz’s father to the Kennedy assassination, a false conspiracy fed by a 50-year-old photo published in a supermarket tabloid. For good measure, Trump fired a parting shot at Ohio Governor John Kasich, another vanquished rival whose political machine could provide a boost in a critical swing state.
The riot of recrimination was a vivid reminder that some of Trump’s worst traits as a candidate–paper-thin skin, an absence of discipline, a bottomless capacity to nurse grudges–are not going away. Republicans waiting for the long-promised presidential pivot seemed like characters in a Beckett play, trapped in Trump’s theater of the absurd.
As Democrats hurled criticism during their convention, Trump tried to compete with press conferences. But his counterprogramming verged on the bizarre. In a striking breach of protocol, he urged Russia on July 27 to hack Clinton’s emails. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said, essentially urging a geopolitical adversary to commit espionage against his opponent. Establishment-minded Republicans phoned one another. Was this really happening?
The next night, a Virginia lawyer named Khizr Khan stepped to the microphone in Philadelphia. The Pakistani émigré turned American citizen spoke of his son Humayun, a U.S. Army captain killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2004. “If it was up to Donald Trump,” he thundered, his son “never would have been in America.” Brandishing a pocket-size copy of the Constitution, he addressed Trump directly: “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
The return volley was predictable. Trump seemed to question whether Khan’s wife Ghazala, who had stood silently alongside her husband, was barred from speaking because of her religion. “It’s Queens,” one Republican operative mused, invoking Trump’s birthplace. “If they hit you, you hit back.” A stirring moment became a multiday feud. And Trump lost. More than 70% of respondents in a Washington Post/ABC News poll said they disapproved of his handling of the dispute, including 59% of Republicans. The emergence of the Muslim parents, blistering Trump’s policies through the scrim of their own patriotism, was more than karmic irony. It was strategic success. A hook had been dangled by the Clinton campaign that he could not help but bite.
Trump goes with his gut, and when his instincts betray him, no one can rein him in. “No one puts words in his mouth, and nobody decides what he says other than him,” says longtime adviser Roger Stone. “Politics is nine-tenths discipline.”
For party officials, the Trump campaign has become like the sign inside factories: X days without an accident, with the tally regularly resetting to zero. “I think what he wants to do and what he does do are two different things,” says another senior GOP official...