Paul Manafort, the man charged with electing Donald Trump president in the fall, sat down with HuffPo's Howard Fineman earlier this week to talk about his candidate and the broader race. The interview is filled with Trumpian bluster — "this is not a hard race," Manafort told Fineman of the general election against Hillary Clinton — mixed with remarkably candid looks into how The Donald operates as a candidate.
Here's the one thing Manafort said that amazed me the most. It came in response to a Fineman question about Trump's incredibly controversial proposal in late 2015 to place a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States:
He’s already started moderating on that. He operates by starting the conversation at the outer edges and then brings it back towards the middle. Within his comfort zone, he’ll soften it some more.
He’ll still end up outside of the norm, but in line with what the American people are thinking.
If there were two seminal moments of Trump's march to the Republican presidential nomination, they were (a) his proposal to build a big beautiful wall along our southern border and make Mexico pay for it, and (b) his temporary ban on Muslims. The former came at the start of the campaign and helped propel Trump to the top of the GOP field. The latter came in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., attacks and fueled a second Trump surge.
But, according to Manafort, that whole "ban Muslims" thing was more of a negotiating tactic than an actual policy position from Trump. "He operates by starting the conversation at the outer edges and then brings it back towards the middle," explains Manafort.
On one level, that is the least surprising thing ever. Trump has evolved — ahem — on a variety of issues, both over the course of this race and over the course of his life. It's been quite clear to anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention that outside of trade and immigration (sort of), Trump doesn't have any deeply held policy positions. Everything is a negotiation. Everything can be adjusted.
He hates Megyn Kelly, and she's the worst journalist until he loves her and does a prime-time special with her. Ben Carson has the traits of a child molester until he is leading the vice presidential search for Trump. And so on — and on and on and on.
The surprising part to me — or I should say one surprising part to me — is Manafort's willingness to acknowledge that, no, of course Trump isn't going to ban Muslims, and, yes, of course, he's going to moderate that position and lots of others. I am not naive. I get that politicians — all politicians — adjust some of their policy positions as they transition from primary to general election. Sometimes (okay, oftentimes) they adjust those positions in the middle of a primary or a general election.
But almost never does the campaign's lead strategist say what Manafort did. Particularly about an issue that sits at the heart of his candidate's appeal. It would be sort of like David Plouffe, Barack Obama's 2008 campaign manager, giving an interview in June 2008 and saying: "Of course Barack knows 'hope' and 'change' aren't going to work."
The other thing that is more concerning than amazing is that Manafort's quote on the Muslim ban opens up the possibility that there isn't really anything that would count as a deeply held belief for Trump, something he'd be willing to stick to no matter the political consequences. That, at his core, the only thing that he believes in is himself.
And, if that's the case, any policy adjustment or outright reversal can be not only undertaken but fully justified. If that's right, this could be a very long five months for Republicans.