DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Their party in crisis, Republicans’ frustration with Donald Trump reached new heights on Wednesday as GOP leaders scrambled to persuade the presidential nominee to abandon divisive tactics that have led to sinking poll numbers and low morale.
Party chairman Reince Priebus appealed to the New York billionaire’s adult children to help.
Worried that that may not be enough, Priebus also joined a handful of high-profile Trump allies in considering whether to confront the candidate directly following a series of startling stances and statements with Election Day quickly approaching. Trump has exposed deepening party divisions by refusing to endorse GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan’s re-election and continuing to criticize the family of a slain U.S. soldier.
An official with direct knowledge of Priebus’ thinking was granted anonymity to discuss internal strategy after one of the most tumultuous weeks of Trump’s presidential campaign.
Trump on Wednesday dismissed suggestions that the GOP frustration was hurting his campaign, even as he openly contemplated an Election Day loss.
“Wouldn’t that be embarrassing to lose to crooked Hillary Clinton? That would be terrible,” he said during a campaign stop in battleground Florida shortly after he declared, “We’ve never been this united.”
Yet the most powerful Republicans in Washington and New York’s Trump Tower concede things will not change unless Trump wants them to.
“The candidate is in control of his campaign,” campaign chairman Paul Manafort told the Fox News Network Wednesday afternoon, highlighting his inability to control the nominee. “And I’m in control of doing the things that he wants me to do in the campaign.”
Clinton, meanwhile, kept up her assault on Trump’s business practices, holding up a Trump-branded tie as she spoke at the Knotty Tie Company in battleground Colorado.
“I really would like him to explain why he paid Chinese workers to make Trump ties,” she told employees in Denver, “instead of deciding to make those ties right here in Colorado.”
Trump blamed the media — “so dishonest” — for growing criticism of his recent statements and his unwillingness to accept guidance from senior advisers.
Priebus, Trump confidants and numerous GOP lawmakers have been particularly irked by his repeated criticism of an American Muslim family whose son, a U.S. Army captain, was killed in Iraq. The soldier’s father appeared at the Democratic National Convention last week.
“I would say in the last couple of weeks, he has been remarkably underperforming and we’ll see whether or not he can take a deep breath and learn these lessons,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Fox Business News.
Gingrich may join Priebus and another Trump ally, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in specifically urging Trump to adjust his approach, according to the Republican official.
Trump’s vice presidential nominee, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, tried to put a better face on a recent difference during a phone interview with Fox.
Pence said he spoke with Trump Wednesday morning “about my support for Paul Ryan and our longtime friendship. He strongly encouraged me to endorse Paul Ryan in next Tuesday’s primary. And I’m pleased to do it.”
Trump stunned Republicans by telling The Washington Post in an interview Tuesday that he wasn’t ready to endorse Ryan, who faces a primary contest in Wisconsin next week. Ryan has backed Trump despite deep differences on policy and temperament, and has encouraged other Republicans to unite behind the party’s nominee.
The turbulent week, including Trump’s criticism of the Muslim soldier’s family and sinking poll numbers, has led to low morale within his small campaign team. After months of Trump promising to adopt a more presidential tone, Republicans are beginning to lose hope of a pivot for the general election.
“He’s incapable of changing. He’s irremediable,” said Republican strategist Rick Tyler, who previously worked for Trump adversary Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Former Trump adviser Barry Bennett acknowledged signs of poor morale among the campaign staff he maintains contact with, but he also said it would be silly dismiss Trump’s chances with three months before Election Day.
“This would be the end of any other Republican candidate in the history of the country. And he’s only 5 or 6 points behind,” Bennett said.
Indeed, Trump on Wednesday reported raising $80 million in July for his campaign and the Republican Party, a significant improvement from past months. Clinton raised about $90 million over the same period.
Clinton’s aides see opportunity in Trump’s missteps.
The Democrats’ campaign is expanding its outreach to moderates and independents, particularly women in key battleground states. Winning some of those voters could offset expected losses among the white working class voters drawn to Trump’s anti-trade, anti-illegal immigration message, Clinton aides say.
A pro-Clinton super PAC released a new ad on Wednesday featuring footage of 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney and other Republicans questioning Trump’s character and foreign policy credentials.
Manafort dismissed reports of a so-called intervention by Priebus, Gingrich and Giuliani.
“The campaign’s focused and the campaign is moving forward in a positive way,” Manafort told Fox. “The only need we have for an intervention is maybe with some media types who keep saying things that aren’t true.”
Peoples reported from Washington. AP writers Julie Pace in Washington and Jill Colvin in New Jersey contributed to this report.