The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump gave the speech Republicans desperately needed. It might have come too late.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gave a speech at the Trump National Golf Club in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. (Video: Reuters)
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Donald Trump took the stage at Trump National Golf Club in Briarcliff Manor, New York, Tuesday night with self-inflicted chaos swirling all around him and chatter growing louder about whether he could make it to the ballot on Nov. 8.

Trump, reading off his long-despised TelePrompTers, delivered a composed, serious address full of just the sort of speechwriterly phrases that he has so long resisted.  ("Tonight we close one chapter in history and begin another," Trump said at the start of the speech in a feat of un-Trumpian language.)

It was a speech meant for one audience and with one message. The audience was the Republican establishment -- led by Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The message: I get it. I need to do and be better. I can.

"I understand the responsibility of carrying the mantle," Trump said at one point. "I will never let you down."

The only way he could have been more clear about what he was trying to do is if he had directly addressed McConnell and Ryan.  And, to Trump's credit, the speech was one that had to make both Republican leaders -- as well as the increasingly panicky flock of elected officials they speak for -- smile.

It was the speech the GOP establishment had hoped and prayed Trump could and would deliver. And it came not a moment too soon as McConnell, during a question-and-answer session Tuesday evening at the American Enterprise Institute, had signaled that Trump had one last chance before the GOP began a full revolt against him. "I think it's time for him to look like a serious candidate for president," McConnell said.

Trump will buy himself some time -- and maybe even some goodwill -- with tonight's speech.

But, two questions remain:

1) Have his comments about the Mexican heritage of federal judge Gonzalo Curiel -- not to mention the collective weight of all of his past controversial remarks -- already done too much damage to him both within the GOP and the broader electorate?

2) Do wavering Republicans believe that the Trump we saw tonight was the real thing or do they view it as just another short-lived attempt by Trump to show he can be something other than the brash bully who won the GOP primary?  Trump has had fleeting moments of "gravity" before; his performance in the final GOP debate, for example, was clearly an attempt on his part to demonstrate that he could be serious and "presidential."  It didn't last long.

Given Trump's track record in this campaign, it would be silly to conclude that tonight he, finally, made the much-talked-about pivot to the general election.  I am skeptical that there exists a "real" Donald Trump within the Donald Trump that we have seen during this campaign.

Tonight was a small step in the right direction for Trump. It remains to be seen whether it will be simply the latest false start for the real estate billionaire or whether this time is somehow different.