Opinion writer
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus (L) and Speaker of the House and Chairman of the convention Paul Ryan confer on what to do after the Alaska delegation demanded that their votes for candidates other than Donald Trump be counted and recorded at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 19, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus (L) and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan confer after the Alaska delegation demanded that their votes for candidates other than Donald Trump be counted and recorded at the Republican National Convention in Clevelandin July. (Mike Segar/REUTERS)

Those Republicans mortified by the presidential nomination of Donald Trump have been pondering a series of questions over the past few months:

  • Have Republicans put party above country in backing Trump?
  • Can the GOP survive Trump?
  • Should the center-right let bygones be bygones after the election?

The answers have become clear over the past few days. Trump’s campaign put out an egregiously false statement on Thursday claiming Trump “ended” the birther controversy in 2011 and blaming Hillary Clinton for starting the racist smear. Trump, without explanation or apology, on Friday announced the president was in fact born in the United States. A series of surrogates, including Kellyanne Conway, Gov. Chris Christie and vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, fanned out on Sunday to double down on the lies, reiterating this was all Clinton’s fault and insisting, despite Trump’s multiple utterances since 2011, that he had not fanned the racist fires and built his political image on birtherism.

Donald Trump's campaign praises the Republican presidential nominee for ending the 'birther' controversy while his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton says he must apologize to President Obama. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

It is noteworthy that NBC’s Chuck Todd, CBS’s John Dickerson, CNN’s Jake Tapper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz all grilled — and in some cases decimated — the Trump surrogates, demonstrating that responsible journalists do not abandon the topic when Trumpkins try to deflect but press and press again for answers.  They remind us this must be front and center at the debates, and moderators should not move on until Trump answers their queries. Here was just one such exchange:

DICKERSON: I would like to move on to a position that Mr. Trump held for five years, that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. He changed that position on Friday. Why?

CONWAY: Well, on Friday, he made very clear three things, number one, that it was Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist and pollster, who put President Obama’s citizenship in question when he wrote a famous memo in March of 2007 questioning his — quote — “American roots,” saying, at a time of war, how could we elect someone like this? It was pretty radical stuff.

And, then, of course, even Patti Solis Doyle, who was Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager in 2008, John, until she was fired by Hillary Clinton, admitted on Friday to Wolf Blitzer that she said, yes, these are her words. There was a volunteer in Iowa who was pushing this.

And so this started with Hillary Clinton’s campaign, number one. Number two, it was Donald Trump who put the issue to rest when he got President Obama to release his birth certificate years later.

And, number three, he said that President Obama was born in this country, period, and let’s move on to creating jobs, defeating radical Islam, rebuilding our inner cities. And that’s what he said.

DICKERSON: The reason I want to stick on this a little bit is he promoted this for five years. So, this isn’t just some passing notion. This was a considerable amount of energy and time and money that he spent promoting this idea. . . .

So, I go back to my original question. Why did he change his mind, and when did he do it?

CONWAY: Well, Donald Trump was not running for president against — in a bruising, vicious primary in 2008 against Hillary — against Barack Obama.

Hillary Clinton was. And you know that the former D.C. bureau chief of McClatchy newspaper, a respected journalist, just on Friday, John, said that he was approached, he had a meeting with Sid Blumenthal, what is a very close confidant of both Clintons and then was on the payroll of the Clinton Foundation thereafter, he had a meeting with him where Sid Blumenthal allegedly told him that President Obama was not born in this country and to go check it out. So, the idea that Clinton — that people around Hillary Clinton were not responsible for this, Donald Trump in 2007 and 2008, while the Clintons folks were pushing this theory, he was a successful businessman. He was building things.

(CROSSTALK)

DICKERSON: But, Kellyanne, he’s asked us to go back and look at things that he said about foreign policy back in 2003, to draw conclusions about his judgment.

So, things he said in the private sector, something he spent five years promoting, you said he got the birth certificate released and that put an end to it. But it didn’t put an end to it for him. For years after the birth certificate was released, he continued to question it, continued to question whether Barack Obama was born in the United States and whether the birth certificate was a fraud.

So, when the campaign puts out a statement and says he ended in 2011, and you have asserted that today, that’s just not the truth, is it?

CONWAY: No, I didn’t say that.

What I’m saying is, is that it was President Obama released his birth certificate in 2011. Nobody accuses Hillary Clinton with Mariano Rivera. She’s not a good closer. And she wasn’t on this issue at all.

Associates of Hillary Clinton started pushing the issue because Barack Obama came out of nowhere to them. They never expected him to rise in the polls, let alone beat her in her Democratic primary, where a vast majority of voters, by the way, were female and rejected her in that year, just like they didn’t see Bernie Sanders coming and just like they didn’t see our comeback of the Trump campaign coming.

DICKERSON: Let me ask you, Kellyanne…

CONWAY: She’s not known to be a closer. She’s not known to be good at recapturing momentum. And that proved it.

DICKERSON: So, I understand you wanted to talk about Hillary Clinton, and this is an election about a choice. That’s important.

But it’s also about whether people can trust the candidate who may become president one day and who may send people to die in a war. And so, just on this question of trust, Donald Trump advocated something for five years that was a lie. Why did he do that?

CONWAY: Well, you’re going to have to ask him.

But I — again, I think that this is a sideshow now that the media seem obsessed with this John, respectfully. And, again, he put everything out on the table on Friday. Those are his words. He does things on his term, on his timeline, and he very crisply got to the microphone after honoring 14 gold medal recipients and also after — after — after showing all these veterans that supported us, our campaign. We were very proud to stand with them in Washington, D.C. . . .

DICKERSON: I understand, but he did spend five years on it, so it would be — it would be something — we would be remiss if we didn’t pay some attention to something that he spent so many years advocating and promoting.

J

Also. let’s not forget that in a second stream of deplorable rhetoric Trump has also suggested violence might come Clinton’s way. This weekend he declared that her security detachment should disarm and we will “see what happens.”

To top it off, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus , who has carried Trump’s water and defended his egregious remarks, on Sunday threatened “penalties” would be enacted on the Republican nominees (e.g., Ohio Gov. John Kasich) who refused to endorse the racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, pathological liar.

In light of that, let’s look at the three questions above. No matter what Hillary Clinton’s faults — and they are many — it is hard to seriously argue that a man who would lead a racist conspiracy  theory and then try to blame his opponent is fit to be president. Trump, like a small child caught misbehaving, simply denies the evidence or blames someone else or lashes out in anger. (He also this weekend called former defense secretary Robert Gates a “clown” in response to Gates’s well-reasoned argument that Trump is unfit to serve as commander in chief.) Again and again he’s proven his views so extreme (e.g., rounding up 11 million people), his judgement so egregious (e.g., embracing Vladimir Putin) and his character so twisted that only someone in deep denial or blinded by partisanship could defend him and insist he is worthy of the office.

As for the fate of the GOP, the evidence mounts that it cannot go merrily on its way after the election. A party that would sanction people who call out a racist deserves to go out of business. A party whose congressional leaders remain supportive of a nominee who incites violence, perpetuates racism, blatantly, and traffics in conspiracy theories loses the moral authority to govern.

In essence, birtherism is a lenient dividing line. Any who excuse Trump’s involvement in birtherism and defend his current lies should not have a seat at the center-right political party. That still allows reconciliation with those Republicans who felt Trump was “better than Hillary” (patently wrong, but earnestly felt). That still allows embrace of Republicans who meekly put party above country by endorsing Trump. (From a personal standpoint many of us in the #NeverTrump camp could not personally vote for anyone who fell into any of the categories — be it Speaker of the House Paul Ryan or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or Indiana Gov. Mike Pence; others are surely entitled to conclude differently.) Actively defending, excusing, covering up and minimizing Trump’s birtherism puts Republicans in the exact camp as David Duke, the alt-right and other white supremacists. They should not be welcome in whatever party follows the GOP.

Donald Trump spent a lot of time raising doubts over President Obama's birth certificate in 2011. He finally admitted Obama was born in the U.S. on Sept. 16, but falsely accused Hillary Clinton's campaign of starting the rumor. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

It’s been deeply upsetting to Democrats and Republicans alike to see so many voters buy into the Trumpkin lies and conspiracies. “Aren’t we better than that?” The verdict will not be pretty on the GOP voters who supported him, but going forward the goal must be to never again nominate someone who appeals to our most negative, darkest impulses.

Priebus inadvertently suggested the right approach — although he got the solution backwards. Anyone who refused to embrace Trump, who stood up to his lies, who refused to put party ahead of country should be at the vanguard of the future center-right party. That may include people with exceptionally different ideological views (e.g., former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Sen. Ted Cruz [Tex.]). But it will not include apologists or enablers of Trump. The #NeverTrump vanguard will be responsible for creating a home for those who can no longer carry the banner of a Republican Party that repudiated its ideological origins as the Party of Lincoln.