We are -- all of us -- living in the summer of Trump. Donald Trump's fireball presidential candidacy went supernova over the weekend when he cast Arizona Sen. John McCain as something short of a war hero and noted: "I like people who weren't captured."
Trump has spent the last 48 hours insisting he didn't say what he said (and didn't mean what he meant) about McCain. The goal, of course, is to muddy the water enough that his gaffe doesn't look so bad or, more importantly, hurt him as badly as it should among Republicans.
Amid all of Trump's bluster, it's worth remembering some truths about him and this race.
1. Trump absolutely said that he didn't think McCain was a war hero. Did Trump use the words "war hero" to describe McCain on Saturday in Iowa? Sure -- as former CBS News reporter Sharyll Atkisson noted in a report that Trump is touting as evidence he is being misinterpreted. But, context matters. Twice, Trump said of McCain "He's a war hero because he got captured." A third time, Trump said: “I believe, perhaps, he’s a war hero." I mean, come on. That's like me saying "I love mayonnaise....not." I TECHNICALLY SAID I LOVE MAYONAISSE!
2. Trump was trying for a laugh. If you watch the clip of his Iowa interview with Frank Luntz, it's quite clear that Trump offers his thoughts on McCain's war service as a sort of aside aimed at playing to a crowd who he suspects isn't in love with the Arizona Senator. (McCain is regarded by many conservative activists as insufficiently loyal to core party principles and is facing a challenge from his ideological right in his 2016 reelection race.) Trying to paint his comments -- as Trump has done -- as a broader critique of what McCain has (or hasn't) done for veterans is simply disingenuous. That's not what he was doing. Watch it yourself.
3. Trump is not a serious candidate for president. Ever since he started flirting with a run for the White House, the Trump people have insisted that he should be taken seriously -- particularly after his recent rise in polls. “Nobody’s asking Jeb Bush if he’s serious about running,” Trump campaign manager Cory Lewandowski told the New York Times last week. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know which metric you want to measure it by.” The metric is -- or should be -- does this person take the process of running to be one of the most powerful people in the world seriously? Does Trump think before he speaks? Does he understand that words can have consequences well beyond the room in which he is speaking? The answer to those questions appears to be a resounding "no."
4. That's not the media's fault. Reeling from the bad publicity, Trump has taken to blaming the media for purposely misinterpreting his comments about McCain. His interview on the "Today" show Monday morning was an epic attempt to blame the press for his problems.
But, here's the thing: The media didn't make Trump say what he said about McCain. (If you have any doubt what Trump meant to say about McCain, please refer to point #1 above.) Scapegoating the media for "misunderstanding" something you said is the easiest way to get out from under saying something dumb. But, that doesn't make it true.
5. The Republican party needs to get away from Trump -- immediately. Republican establishment types have largely adopted a "hey, that's just Donald being Donald" approach to Trump to date. Yes, some condemned him for his comments about Mexicans during his announcement speech but it was clear that they viewed him as a sort of sideshow with which they didn't want to engage. That strategy is no longer operative for Republicans. Trump has reached heights -- in terms of public attention -- that could have a real impact on the Republican brand heading into the 2016 election. And, as his comments about McCain show (or, maybe more accurately, prove) Trump will say almost anything. You can't have someone like that tied closely to your party. That would be like allowing Clint Eastwood to speak unscripted to an empty chair on the final night of your nominating convention. Oh wait.
6. Trump will be in the debates. And be a problem. As Philip Bump noted last week, it's virtually impossible for Trump not to qualify for, at least, the Fox News Channel debate on Aug. 6. Even if his poll numbers plummet in the wake of this McCain gaffe, he would still make the debate stage by a fairly wide margin.
I've written before that Trump on the debate stage is a nightmare scenario for Republicans -- and that's more true now than ever. How do the candidates on stage avoid letting the entire storyline in (and after) the debate be about Trump? Even if The Donald doesn't go on the attack (doubtful) he has dominated coverage of the race for more than a month now so the moderators will be hard-pressed not to focus on some (ok, all) of the controversial things that he has said. How the heck does, say, Chris Christie or Rand Paul or Mike Huckabee deal with that reality? Attack Trump to get yourself in the story? Ignore him and hope he goes away? (That one hasn't worked so far.)