A normal presidential candidate, or congressional candidate, or person running for dogcatcher would treat the arrest of a top campaign official for battering a female reporter as a headline from which to run. But Donald Trump is not a normal anything, and he’s not backing down from his defense of his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who was charged on Tuesday with simple battery. This refusal to ever say he was wrong about anything horrible he or his team have done is a big part of Trump’s appeal among his core group of supporters. It will also, eventually, be his electoral end.
Let’s consider how Trump could get out of this particular latest horrible incident in a way that helped his campaign in the long run and demonstrated a baseline level of ethical maturity, were he so inclined, which he isn’t.
On Tuesday morning, Lewandowski, was charged in Jupiter, Florida over the March 8 incident when he grabbed (now former) Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields hard enough to bruise her. Newly released security-camera footage provides the latest unambiguous evidence that Lewandowski was lying when he said he didn’t touch her.
One thing that Trump could do, and any conventional campaign would have done a while ago, is fire Lewandowski. (Actually, were this a conventional campaign, Lewandowski would have immediately offered his resignation in recognition of the need to protect the candidate.) Trump could do this in a way that doesn’t completely throw Lewandowski into the jaws of the law, too. He could say that while he doesn’t think the incident in question amounts to a crime—or he believes that Lewandowski was just trying to protect him from the very dangerous Michelle Fields—the offense was that he lied about it.
This is what a presidential candidate who (a) possessed an iota of decency and (b) hoped to be elected president might do. It would work for him in several ways. The media at large is salivating over the opportunity to launch a “Trump is acting presidential” narrative and has been sending smoke signals that it will set a very low bar for acceptable entries. A story such as “Trump Fires Campaign Manager Charged With Battering Reporter” would be such an entry. Firing a campaign manager charged specifically with battering a female reporter might also mark an opportunity to begin making repairs with the 70 percent of women who hate him, which is not to discount the many men who also find Lewandowski’s behavior deplorable. And, of course, firing Lewandowski might be seen as a way for Trump to demonstrate his supposedly excellent leadership ability. An excellent leader or “business manager,” or what have you, would likely feel compelled to fire a subordinate who lied to him about battering a female reporter and thus embarrassed the entire enterprise. Trump could even go on camera and employ that popular television catchphrase of his, the one in which he tersely severs a contract of at-will employment.
Judging by Trump’s initial response to the charges, though—along with everything we know about him—it seems very much as though he will not pursue this strategy. For now, Trump is standing by Lewandowski and was still, somehow, calling into question Fields’ credibility on Twitter on Tuesday.
Like most of the words from Trump and his campaign, neither of these tweets make any sense. Yet—despite spewing this type of nonsensical fact-denying obfuscation as a matter of course—he stills retains a plurality of support from Republican primary voters and is the only candidate realistically capable of securing a majority of delegates. The path of his campaign is so strewn with incidents that would have buried a mere mortal, but with which he’s gotten away, that his ability to get away with things has itself become a meta source of support. It implies dominance over his rivals—on the campaign trail, in the media, and in the world at large—and a certain segment of the Republican voter base appears to crave that above all in its presidential candidate. The nefarious phantasm against whom Trump is constantly pushing back —“this politically correct crap,” as he might call it—tried to finish off Trump following his supposed “gaffes” regarding John McCain and Megyn Kelly last summer. But Trump didn’t apologize—and continued to prosper. It’s been the same pattern ever since, and it just encourages Trump to continue acting similarly.
And it’s the pattern that’s going to be his ultimate undoing—if not at a contested convention, then almost certainly in a general-election matchup. Trump has backed himself into a corner. He has mastered the means of securing a plurality in a Republican primary by bullying and bluster, followed by refusal to back down and portraying that refusal as much-needed strength. But taking steps to ease concerns among Republican voters who aren’t his base, much less with the general electorate, would require running a different campaign—one that might begin with, say, the firing of a campaign manager who lied about battering a female reporter and now faces criminal charges over the incident. Running a different campaign might have meant that he would have never gotten this far in the first place, but it’s what he needs to do if he wants to become president. It would probably require being a different person, perhaps one with a barely sound moral compass. We’ve seen enough to rule out the possibility of that.