It was clear on Tuesday that Donald Trump had gotten the message: He needed to go inside his box.
After realising he had alarmed establishment Republicans with his persistent and racist attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over fraud cases involving Trump University, Trump did the unthinkable: He stayed off Twitter for a full 20 hours.
He issued a statement saying, “I do not feel that one’s heritage makes them incapable of being impartial,” and, “I do not intend to comment on this matter any further.”
He even gave a canned speech from a teleprompter (despite previously saying teleprompters should be banned) that provided a window into how Trump would behave if he were a normal politician: He would be boring. Unlike on many election nights, he took no press questions after the speech.
The point of all this self-repression was to reassure Republican elites and donors that he would stop running his mouth in damaging ways.
They would be foolish to believe it.
The best metaphor for why they shouldn’t believe it came from one of my followers on Twitter, who pointed out that putting Trump in his box is like closing the lid of a jack-in-the-box. He might go away for a bit, but you never know when he’s going to spring back out, punch you in the face, and shout, “Mexican!”
Indeed, Trump’s stated intention to not comment on the Trump University matter any further lasted all of about five hours. He discussed it on “Hannity” on Fox News later Tuesday night and again on Cal Thomas’ radio show Wednesday morning.
Trump’s unsatisfactory answers about the matter — he hasn’t apologised, instead telling Republicans to “get over it” — won’t be enough to get interviewers to stop asking him about it. Plus, he has a near-irrepressible impulse to whine at length when he feels he has been wronged, as he clearly feels about this litigation. He’s already back on Twitter, sniping at my MSNBC colleague Joe Scarborough for his coverage of it.
So, the judge story won’t go away.
Even worse for Republicans are the unknown unknowns: What else might Trump say to hurt his electoral prospects and damage the Republican Party at the same time? What new, unforced scandals might he create?
There are two reasons Trump can’t credibly promise to stop running his mouth in ways that are likely to damage himself and the Republican Party.
One is that running his mouth is central to his campaign strategy. Trump is likely to be outspent by hundreds of millions of dollars. His stated strategy is to do what he did in the primary: overcome his financial disadvantage by earning tons of free media, especially on television.
This will require being constantly off script.
Trump will need to submit to near-constant press interviews, in which he may be asked questions like which kinds of ethnic and religious minorities are suitable to judge cases involving him. He will also, if he wishes to retain attention for his stump speeches, need to return to his usual practice of making novel and sometimes controversial comments, instead of reading consultant-approved remarks from a teleprompter.
The other reason is that running his mouth is central to his personality. Trump has been a crass, irrepressible boor for decades. Republicans officials have been naive about this so far, but perhaps this incident has taught them not to expect Trump to get a personality transplant as he approaches age 70.
Trump’s not going to stay in that box. So if you’re watching him in one of his calm phases, you should just hum “Pop Goes the Weasel” in your head, and brace yourself for the moment when he bursts out.
This is an editorial. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.
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