NEW YORK — This was the Donald Trump that Republican leaders have been waiting for: focused, systematic and, despite spraying a stream of falsehoods, ruthless in trying to destroy one person — Hillary Clinton.
Absent from a Trump campaign speech here Wednesday were references to a federal judge’s Mexican American heritage or ethnic slurs such as “Pocahontas.” The presumptive GOP presidential nominee also left out the colorful play-by-play of his exploits in the primaries and did not threaten his fellow Republicans; in fact, he never mentioned them at all.
Instead, Trump zeroed in on the “rigged” (a word he uttered 10 times) economic and political systems. The billionaire mogul promised to be a fixer, making America richer, bigger, better and stronger. And he portrayed Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, as a “world-class liar” and a danger to the country.
In a 42-minute performance reading from teleprompters, Trump moved closer Wednesday to being the kind of general-election standard-bearer Republican leaders have been pleading with him to become. The bombastic candidate had been somewhat tamed, or so it appeared. The question was whether the same Trump would show up for the next 139 days before the November election.
“One day does not make a streak,” said Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under President George W. Bush. “In order for Trump to win, he has to make this election a referendum on Hillary and not on his own antics. Today, he made an effective and powerful case against Hillary. . . . [But] it’s the distractions and the sideshows that are killing him.”
Trump and his advisers hoped Wednesday’s address, delivered before family and friends at the Trump SoHo hotel, would help him gain solid footing after what generously can be described as a challenging first seven weeks as presumptive nominee.
With less than one month until Republicans gather in Cleveland for their national convention, Trump is struggling to unify his fractured party and convince his doubters that he can be a disciplined general-election candidate. He also has been locked in a defensive crouch thanks both to his own stumbles and attacks from Clinton and her Democratic allies over his temperament, policies and business record.
Trump sought to engineer a course correction by effectively hurling the opposition-research book at Clinton. In Wednesday’s speech, he hit the former secretary of state, senator and first lady on her decision-making surrounding the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya; her and her husband’s paid speeches; her use of a private email server; her deep ties to Wall Street; and her past support for trade deals.
Trump also explicitly blamed Clinton for the death of J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and for general unrest there and in Egypt, Iraq and Syria.
“No secretary of state has been more wrong, more often and in more places than Hillary Clinton,” he said to applause. “Her decisions spread death, destruction and terrorism everywhere she touched.”
But some of what Trump said about Clinton’s record was exaggerated or untrue. He charged falsely that Clinton wants “totally open borders” and that she would admit hundreds of thousands of refugees from dangerous countries without vetting them.
Trump also incorrectly stated that Clinton supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal she has opposed since last year. And he said that Clinton “has spent her entire life making money for special interests” when in fact she spent much of her career in government service or at nonprofit organizations.
After making a vague reference to his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, Trump said, “Hillary Clinton wants to bring in people who believe women should be enslaved and gays put to death.” Clinton has been a vocal advocate for global human rights, but Trump cited payments or donations that she, former president Bill Clinton or their family foundation accepted from oppressive regimes in Brunei, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.
Campaigning later Wednesday in Raleigh, N.C., Clinton briefly responded to Trump’s attacks by accusing him of peddling “outlandish lies and conspiracy theories.”
“He’s going after me personally because he has no answers,” Clinton said. “All he can do is try to distract us.”
Trump’s Republican critics pointed to his misstatements as proof that he lacks discipline.
“Even in a teleprompter speech, he still has to include conspiracy theories and grossly exaggerate the case against her rather than sticking to the credible facts,” said GOP strategist Tim Miller, who worked for former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. “So then you spend all afternoon talking about his lies and his conspiracy theories rather than the real, fair criticisms of her foreign-policy record and of the Clinton Foundation.”
As for whether Wednesday’s speech would turn the page on Trump’s troubles, Miller — an organizer of the “Never Trump” movement — said it would not. “I don’t understand how many times the Republican political class has to be fooled into thinking he’s going to change,” Miller said. “He’s never going to change.”
Trump knows that there is no greater common enemy among Republicans than Clinton. By training his rhetorical fire at her, he hopes to paper over the self-induced controversies that have stymied his efforts to rally the party behind him.
“For a lot of conservatives, delivering an indictment against Hillary Clinton is something they’ve wanted him to do,” said Michael Steele, a former Republican National Committee chairman. “But does he step on that message in his next interview? Does he devolve into more name-calling or alienating more groups important to building the coalition for victory?”
Trump also focused on big economic themes that Republican strategists believe can help him broaden his now-limited appeal to independents and disaffected Democrats. He argued that the economic system had failed too many people and the political class was incapable of fixing it — and he made a direct plea to supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to join his coalition.
For a politician known for simple declarations, Trump also had rare oratorical flourish, for a moment, as he described how he felt the country had lost its ambition.
“Americans are the people that tamed the West, that dug out the Panama Canal, that sent satellites across the solar system, that built the great dams and so much more,” Trump said. “Then we really started thinking small. Something happened. . . . We stopped believing in what America could do and became reliant on other countries, other people and other institutions. We lost our sense of purpose and daring. But that’s not who we are.”
Fleischer said this was a message that could carry Trump to the White House if he sticks to it.
“It wasn’t just a rant. It wasn’t just anger,” he said. “There was something uplifting about his notion of what America used to be for people who want to move up.”
Rucker reported from Washington.