The weirdest thing about this clip, once you get past the baseline weirdness of the presumptive GOP nominee punting on condemning David Duke, is that he’s had this question before and issued the requisite condemnation when asked. Trump knows exactly who Duke is. In another political lifetime, he quit the Reform Party because of him:
Trump clearly knew who David Duke was in 2000. Seems to have forgotten since. pic.twitter.com/Vz5L16GLyP
— Gideon Resnick (@GideonResnick) February 28, 2016
His opinion of Buchanan, at least, has since “evolved.” Trump was asked last August, when Duke first started chirping about how awesome he was, if he’d disavow Duke’s support. Sure, said Trump. I don’t want his endorsement. Duke was undeterred, though, and cranked it up this past week, telling his audience that voting for anyone but Trump is “treason to your heritage” and saying, cryptically, “I hope he does everything we hope he will do.” Trump was asked about that at his press conference on Friday rolling out Chris Christie’s endorsement. Irritated at having the subject broached when he wanted the press to focus on Christie, he said curtly, “I disavow, okay?” and moved on.
Tapper wanted to probe that, knowing — as many of his viewers may not — that Trump has a loud cheering section on social media among alt-righters and white nationalists. He tweeted this a month ago. The question was rhetorical:
When did twitter become the comments section for Stormfront? I missed that memo.
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) January 28, 2016
By no means are most of Trump’s fans racist but there’s a subset that is and he’s galvanized them. Duke is merely the most prominent name among them. Tapper, I think, wanted to see here how mindful Trump is of their support and how far he’d be willing to go to disclaim it. A harsh denunciation might cost him votes in the primary, but it’d also be a way for Trump to steer towards the center ahead of the general election. So he tossed him a softball. And, rather than swing, Trump took the pitch, pretending bizarrely like he didn’t know who Duke was. Why?
Trump critics spent the next three hours on Twitter reiterating that they’ll never, ever vote for this guy, capped by this tweet from Ted Cruz — who promised earlier this morning to endorse whoever the Republican nominee is, end of story:
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) February 28, 2016
Later Rubio chimed in:
Rubio: "We cannot be a party that nominates someone who refused to condemn white supremacist and the Ku Klux Klan"
— Benjy Sarlin (@BenjySarlin) February 28, 2016
Trump gave in amid the uproar and tweeted, “As I stated at the press conference on Friday regarding David Duke- I disavow,” along with a short clip from the presser. Which brings us to the question of the day: Why didn’t he say that to Tapper? Why pass on a gimme? Your answer, I think, depends on how charitable you want to be to Trump. Most charitable: He was tired and had a brain fart under pressure, knowing that Tapper was putting him on the spot. How hard is it, though, to field a question that boils down to “KKK, yes or no” even when you’re tired? A less charitable theory: Trump is so narcissistic that he can’t bring himself to harshly criticize someone who’s praised him, even if that someone is David Duke. In Trump’s world the moral fault line between good people and bad people seems to lie between whether they’re pro- or anti-Trump. (See also Putin, Vladimir.) The problem with that, though, is that Trump’s condemned Duke before, as noted. Maybe not “harshly” (at least not since 2000), but if all you want is to hear him say that he doesn’t want the support of a particular Trump fan, well, he’s said it already.
Which brings us to the least chartable possibility. Maybe he really is mindful of the racist minority among his supporters and didn’t want to say anything in a high-profile format like a Sunday news show that might piss them off before Super Tuesday. It’s one thing to perfunctorily disavow Duke in a brief exchange during a Q&A at a press conference that’s devoted to another matter. His alt-right fans have evidently convinced themselves that Trump saying he loves Israel and “the blacks” are just lies he’s telling the media to keep himself viable for the election. Viewed that way, Friday’s disavowal of Duke was just another opportunistic lie and therefore forgivable. The risk posed by this morning’s interview was that Tapper might have drilled down on the subject to try to get Trump to say he despises Duke, loathes the alt-right and so forth, which would have risked convincing some of those same supporters that he’s been lying to them, not the media, in pretending to worry about “Mexican rapists” and Muslim visitors from overseas, etc. So, pressed by Tapper, he played dumb with the cameras rolling and then did another perfunctory disavowal on Twitter later to try to clean up the mess for the benefit of media types. He’s triangulating, essentially. It’s just that, instead of triangulating between Republicans and Democrats, he’s triangulating between the mainstream right and David Duke.
The punchline to this will come when Cruz and Rubio are inevitably attacked as being “politically correct” for siding with the dreaded media in their contempt for the Klan. If that happens, I hope Cruz points out that by bringing this up he’s only being “helpful” to Trump in the same way that Trump’s been “helpful” to him in questionining his eligibility. Trump’s defense for doing that is that Democrats will surely challenge Cruz’s natural-born status if he’s the nominee, so Republicans might as well do it themselves right now and clear the cloud that’s hanging him over. Well, same deal here. We can’t have a nominee enter the general election with people wondering if he’s ambivalent about white supremacy. Cruz, by demanding that Trump clarify his position now, is merely trying to take an arrow out of the Democrats’ quiver before November. (Although it’s too late for that, of course. You’ll see this clip in a thousand attack ads over the next eight months.) See how “helpful” the candidates can be to each other when they try?