Republicans divided over whether Trump should tone it down on the stump

Image: President Trump rally in Erie, Pennsylvania
The president made a few adjustments to his stump speech this week. The question now: whether he sticks with them. Copyright Leah Millis Reuters
By Jonathan Allen with NBC News Politics
Share this articleComments
Share this articleClose Button

As an edgy nation watches, the president has to weigh whether the benefits of firing up his loyalists outweigh any potential risk of a backlash if he sticks to his usual script.


WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is likely to revert to his hallmark hard-hitting style on the campaign trail after he pulled back a bit Wednesday following the delivery of pipe bombs to several of his political adversaries, according to allies, even as others in the GOP are recommending a lower-temperature approach in his stump speeches.

"He goes right back to it," Stephen K. Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, said in a telephone interview with NBC News. "This is a base election."

On Wednesday, a more subdued version of Trump emerged at a rally in Mosinee, Wis. Though he refrained from familiar personal attacks on prominent Democrats like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., both of whom were sent pipe bombs, Trump blamed the news media for negativity in the national political discourse, and used thinly veiled terms to call on his political opponents to show more civility.

"As part of a larger national effort to bridge our divides and bring people together, the media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone, and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative, and oftentimes false, attacks," he said.

But with 12 days left before the pivotal midterm elections — and with election experts predicting that Democrats could take control of the House — Trump has to weigh whether the benefits of firing up his loyalists outweigh any potential risk of a backlash when some of his favorite foils have been the targets of acts that might eventually be classified as terrorism.

The balance is a tricky one for Trump because while his most ardent supporters believe that the targets of his scorn are worthy of it, there may be sympathy for them among the broader electorate in the wake of the mail bombs.

Asked Thursday whether Trump would continue to single out specific political opponents — including those who received mail bombs — White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said he would remind voters of the contrasts between the parties, but declined to directly address whether he would name-check Democrats.

"The president is going to continue to lay out the case and differences between Democrats and Republicans," she said. "Americans have a choice to make, and he's going to lay that out, and you're going to see him do that over the next 12 days."

Federal authorities have not identified any suspects, or a motive, in what is believed to be a coordinated set of pipe-bomb deliveries, and no one has been injured by the devices.

But among the president's allies, there is a palpable frustration with the belief that the news media is trying to connect his rhetoric with the pipe bombs sent to some of the most frequent targets of his attacks.

"There's no evidence to support that anyone did this because of anything the administration has said or actions we've taken," one White House official said.

Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a close ally of the president's, said in a phone interview with NBC that voters will judge "as unfair" any attempt to "blame Trump rhetoric for pipe bombs."

Schlapp blamed the media for the emergence of that narrative and said Trump should push back on the press, despite any risk in being seen as overly combative at a time when he has called for national unity.

"There is a peril," Schlapp said, "but I think the president has to fight, aggressively, the bias in the news media."

Trump himself again pointed to the press as a source of growing anger in American politics in a tweet sent Thursday morning that echoed his Wednesday night remarks.

The view that Trump is battling the media is widely shared among his allies, but there is some difference of opinion on whether he should continue to depict Democrats broadly, and specific figures in the opposition party in particular, in the derisive terms that he typically uses from the stump, on twitter and in exchanges with reporters.

"I thought he set a very good example last night, an example that would be great if Maxine Waters, Hillary Clinton and [former Attorney General] Eric Holder would follow," Michael Caputo, a Republican strategist who advised Trump's 2016 campaign, said of Trump dialing back his attacks on Wednesday.

It's good for Trump to point out "the ridiculous behavior" of Democrats during the recent hearings on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Caputo said. "But as we approach Election Day, it's much less necessary to call out 'crooked Hillary' and the rest of them. Everybody knows who they are, everybody knows what they do, and driving the Republican rank and file doesn't require reminding them of their nicknames."


Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who has been loyal to Trump, said the president and the party would be best-served if the "new Donald Trump" is the version that appears on the campaign trail in the stretch run before voters go to the polls.

"He can whip up a crowd without using those kinds of epithets and names," Cole said. "I don't think it's necessary. If anything, I think it works the other way. I think it costs him credibility."

Moreover, he said, Trump figures to be looking at a Congress that has more Democrats in the House — whether or not they take control — and will have a better time trying to work them on legislative priorities before his re-election bid if he's less abrasive now.

"I don't think strident rhetoric in these next two weeks is necessary and I think it hurts you down the line," he said.

But Trump knows that many of his biggest applause lines come when he singles out specific political adversaries for derision. On Wednesday, he didn't mention Clinton by name, but the crowd had already chanted "lock her up" during a speech delivered by Republican Senate candidate Leah Vukmir before he arrived on Air Force One.


Schlapp said Trump's backers deeply believe Clinton was "never held accountable" for the private email server she set up as secretary of state. "I think it's a real cheap shot to assume just because people are chanting 'lock her up' that means to blow her up," he said. "To back off from that fight would be a big mistake."

Bannon said he has no doubt that the president will "go full Trump" in the coming days.

"He's going back to full attack mode," Bannon said. "He's going to go back to what he understands drives his base."

Share this articleComments

You might also like

Former US governor becomes first Republican to challenge Donald Trump for president