Donald Trump’s team is hunkering down to draft the charge sheet the presumptive GOP nominee will unveil against Hillary Clinton on Monday, intent on laying out a credible general-election argument that leads voters to question her trustworthiness.
Senior campaign advisers beginning to focus on the speech cast it Wednesday as “all about pivoting to the general election.”
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But many Republicans worry that the former reality TV star’s penchant for focusing on the Clintons’ personal lives and scandals of years past—he declared them “fair game” months ago as he bulldozed to the finish line of a Republican primary—could undermine the more disciplined case party leaders have been making against Clinton for a year – that the Democrat’s email controversy and actions in Benghazi show she is too irresponsible to be commander in chief.
“If you want to talk about issues of character, you can talk about infidelity and the corruption scandals, but there are more here-and-now things, more contemporary to what we’re now discussing, that are where he’s going to focus,” said John Jay LaValle, a Trump surrogate and the Suffolk County, New York GOP chairman.
“If Mr. Trump stays focused on issues like Benghazi, the email scandal and to the extent that she was so willing to compromise national security, he’ll be able to make a credible case that she’s the one who would put the country in danger as commander in chief.”
Trump has had the advantage of nearly a month to pivot to Clinton. But it wasn’t until the last week of intense criticism over Trump’s racially charged attacks on a judge that party leadership and establishment Republicans pushed their presumptive nominee to focus his efforts on crafting a cohesive and compelling argument against their opponent.
Trump attempted to do just that on Tuesday night, sticking to more recent Clinton controversies and seemingly heeding the advice of RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who encouraged him to adopt a more coherent message that lined up neatly with GOP messaging. Reading a scripted speech from a teleprompter, the billionaire mogul who Clinton has cast as avaricious and ego-driven argued that it’s the Clintons who have wrongly cashed in on their three decades in public life.
“The Clintons have turned the politics of personal enrichment into an art form for themselves,” Trump said. “They’ve made hundreds of millions of dollars selling access, selling favors, selling government contracts and I mean hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Hillary Clinton turned the State Department into her private hedge fund,” he continued.
If Trump follows the contours of that attack and avoids the brash declarations about Clinton’s gender—his remark that “If Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she would get 5 percent of the vote” drew a visible eye roll from Chris Christie’s wife during a late April press conference at Trump Tower—he could go a long way toward mollifying the establishment’s concerns about his tendency to delve into conspiracy theories and overly personal attacks.
But Trump’s promise to deliver a speech about “all the things that have taken place with the Clintons,” nevermind a year-long campaign that’s been replete with impolitic, off-the-cuff statements, is unnerving some of them.
“It needs to be credible. He can’t give a ‘four Pinocchios’ tinfoil hat speech,” said Bruce Haynes, a GOP strategist in Washington. “If he’s going to disqualify her, the evidence that supports his case has to be legitimate. It can’t be the musings, whims and wannabes of the conspiracy illuminati. The good news for Trump is there is more than enough credible evidence out there to organize and demonstrate why she should never be president.”
As Trump’s inner circle begins to deliberate on what to say, the more salacious, headline-worthy attacks against Clinton, however dated, are never far from the candidate’s mind. And he’s already drawn on some of the most sordid allegations against the Clintons.
Just two weeks ago, Trump released a video featuring the voices of Kathleen Wiley and Juanita Broderick and an image of Bill Clinton chomping on a cigar as the women are describing their allegations of being sexually assaulted by the former president. And just last month, Trump’s campaign requested RNC research on Whitewater, the 1980s investigation into the Clinton’s real estate investments.
“Trump’s advisors believe Hillary has three major vulnerabilities,” one Trump insider said Wednesday, referencing the “epic corruption of the Clinton Foundation” and exorbitant speaking fees dismissed as “pay-offs and bribes”; Clinton’s tenure at the State Department and lingering questions about Benghazi, her use of a private email server and the nexus between the department and the foundation; and Clinton’s efforts to “discredit and intimidate” women who may have been involved with her husband.
This biggest proponent of using allegation about Bill Clinton’s actions is longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone, whose recent book about the Clintons details a number of alleged affairs that the Clintons allegedly covered up and could provide a trove of material, however controversial, if Trump opts to down this road.
The campaign would not comment on the record. But one campaign source made a point of clarifying that Stone “has nothing to do with this whatsoever. Roger has zero involvement in this campaign. He is tied to a super PAC, so by law we have nothing to do with him.”
Anti-Trump forces say Trump has a narrow window—maybe a week—to prove he can shed his irascible and petty behavior if he wants to squelch a suddenly reenergized movement to sideline him as the Republican nominee. Though such an effort is still considered an extreme long shot, his failure to silence it would prove he’s still struggling to unite wary conservatives behind his presidential bid.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Trump had yet to nail down the location for the speech on Monday, although during an interview he expressed interest in holding it at his golf course along the Potomac River just outside Washington, DC.
If the speech occurs Monday, it will come 11 days after Clinton’s point-by-point takedown of Trump in a San Diego speech that reframed the general election in stark terms as she argued that Trump is “temperamentally unfit” to serve as commander in chief.
Trump’s immediate reaction amounted to a few tweets and rally pronouncements declaring Clinton “pathetic” but little coordinated response, as few Republicans rose to his defense and campaign surrogates did little to change the narrative. Inside and around the campaign, some staffers and supporters are concerned about the lean operation’s slow and sometimes disjointed rapid response operation and the campaign’s ongoing failure to hire additional staff.
“It really shouldn’t take two weeks to formulate a response,” said one operative working with the Trump campaign.
Ben Schreckinger and Kenneth P. Vogel contributed to this report.