The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In an awkward exchange, Trump finds out his radio interviewer is a ‘#NeverTrump guy’

Donald Trump. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

MADISON, Wis. — The worst-kept secret in Wisconsin’s primary is that its most influential conservative radio hosts are hostile to Donald Trump.

Trump was apparently the last person to learn that secret.

Fourteen minutes into his talk with Milwaukee-area host Charlie Sykes, after excruciating exchanges about the candidate’s donations to Democrats and insults of women, Sykes asked a rudimentary question.

“Mr. Trump, before you called into my show, did you know that I’m a #NeverTrump guy?” asked Sykes.

“That I didn’t know,” said Trump.

“I thought it was interesting,” Sykes said. “People were wondering, ‘Does Donald Trump know what Charlie Sykes has said about him in the past?’ ”

“No, I didn’t know that, but I assume you’re also an intelligent guy,” said Trump. “I know you’re an intelligent guy.”

Why some Republicans are feeling shame

Cruz is blasting Trump for a National Enquirer story accusing Cruz of having five mistresses. Here's a breakdown of how a week of fighting got us here. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Trump pivoted immediately, arguing for reform of an “obsolete” NATO. But the interview was emblematic of Trump’s oddly slow start to his Wisconsin campaign — scattered and unfocused, with an increasingly nervous conservative movement demanding accountability that it blames the mainstream media for not getting earlier.

Sykes, who has been widely quoted about his #NeverTrump views and his endorsement of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) since the race moved to Wisconsin, hardly ambushed Trump. After congratulating the candidate for the birth of a new grandson, Sykes asked him to close the book on the interminable story of his threat to bring Heidi Cruz into a fight over reputation and looks.

“Wouldn’t it be a good way to start off your Wisconsin campaign by saying that wives should be off-limits and that you apologize for mocking her looks?” asked Sykes.

“I think it’s true, Charlie, actually,” said Trump, apparently agreeing that wives were off limits, albeit in a confusing way. Later, he said he did not know Cruz’s wife but assumed she was “incredible.” Given several chances, he just couldn’t clean up the story.

An even stranger moment occurred when Sykes switched topics, to Trump’s old liberal views and donations to Democrats. “As a businessman, I never even thought about all the things you’ve talked about,” said Trump. Over several minutes he never mentioned the one fact that could appeal to Sykes’s listeners — that he had donated close to $300,000 to help Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) beat back a recall campaign.

On the right, Sykes — already well-respected — was feted as a hero. Trump, reported the conservative Federalist website, “fell apart live on-air when asked tough questions about his record on the issues.” The front-runner was “destroyed” by Sykes, according to RedState’s editor-in-chief Leon Wolf. “Finally someone who isn’t afraid to hold The Donald accountable for what he says,” assessed the Right Scoop.

Trump had hardly been hiding from the media. Just 24 hours before his Sykes call-in, he took six questions from ABC News’s Jonathan Karl about the Heidi Cruz spat. But there’s growing resentment on the right that Trump has received exponentially more free media than Cruz, that the GOP delegate chase is covered as Trump’s to lose and that even Fox News mangled the Heidi Cruz story, with Sean Hannity and Geraldo Rivera mistakenly blaming Sen. Cruz for starting the fight.