Politics & Government

Trump roils conservatives on abortion, HB2

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Wednesday during a campaign event at Stephen Decatur High School in Berlin, Maryland.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Wednesday during a campaign event at Stephen Decatur High School in Berlin, Maryland. AP

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump challenged his party’s orthodoxy Thursday, speaking critically of North Carolina’s controversial HB2 legislation and suggesting that he’d push to soften the GOP’s anti-abortion platform.

Trump’s comments ignited conservative outrage and served as a reminder that despite all the recent efforts to create a “New Trump,” the old one is still there, making provocative statements and stirring wary Republicans.

In a town hall on NBC’s morning Today show, Trump panned North Carolina’s HB2, saying that if Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, visited Trump Tower, she could use whatever bathroom she prefers and suggested that people “use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate.”

“Leave it the way it is,” Trump said. “North Carolina, what they’re going through with all the business that’s leaving and all of the strife – and that’s on both sides. You leave it the way it is. There have been very few complaints the way it is.”

On abortion, Trump suggested that he’d try to change the GOP platform committee’s stance that strongly opposes abortion without exceptions.

Trump said he “absolutely” wants to change the abortion plank to include exceptions for incest, rape, and to protect the life of the pregnant woman.

“Yes, I would,” he said. “Absolutely. For the three exceptions. I would.”

Trump supporters at a rally in Harrisburg, Pa., were mostly supportive of Trump's position.

"A criminal act happened; the lady doesn't want it; I can live with that," Rob Winter, 43, of York said. "There should be exceptions in rare cases."

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Trump’s closest rival for the Republican nomination, and other conservatives, quickly pounced on the front-runner’s remarks, saying they underscore that Trump has no core conservative principles.

“His instincts are wrong on our core values,” said Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative advocacy group. “He has spent his life surrounded by Manhattan elites who have never shopped in a Target. Of course he doesn’t understand the outrage. I don’t know if this will ultimately hurt him politically, but it should.”

We asked his supporters to offer some constructive criticism to the Republican presidential front-runner. Here is what they said.

Cruz said, “Donald Trump is no different from politically correct leftist elites.”

Donald Trump is no different from politically correct leftist elites.

Ted Cruz

Trump’s comments come as his campaign is in the throes of change – a dramatic shift in personnel and tactics in its quest to secure the 1,237 delegates to nab the GOP presidential nomination ahead of the party’s convention in July.

He has hired old political hands and sidelined the less-seasoned staffers who helped propel Trump’s primary-winning ways. But at this point in the election process, Trump’s campaign must be as aggressive in collecting delegates as it is in winning states.

“At this level they needed an experienced national strategist,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a key Washington adviser to Trump. “My impression is there’s a significant clarification of strategy, a better understanding of where the campaign should go in the next few weeks.”

The role of controversial Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has been diminished as the role of recently hired veteran political operative Paul Manafort has grown.

Manafort is Trump’s convention manager. He’s tasked with executing the campaign’s delegate strategy — no small task with five primaries slated Tuesday for swing-state Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

In addition to Manafort, Trump has hired Rick Wiley, who managed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s failed presidential campaign, as national political director to oversee the campaign’s field operations, and veteran strategist Ed Brookover, who managed retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s unsuccessful presidential campaign.

Trump badly needs professional political management. He’s won 845 of the 1,237 delegates needed to nominate, and based on polls in upcoming states, and could top 1,100 by the time the last votes are cast June 7.

But he will need the pros to cajole unpledged delegates in states such as Pennsylvania and North Dakota to go back him and make his selection on the first ballot at the Republican convention in July appear inevitable. As important, he needs to make sure the delegates will stick with him if the selection process goes to a second ballot, or beyond.

So the Manafort team is trying to make sure its delegates remain loyal to Trump. They’re suggesting to insiders in private meetings at the Capitol, the Republican Party’s spring meeting in Florida, and elsewhere that denying Trump the nomination when he’s so far ahead could trigger a GOP civil war that in the end would doom the party’s 2016 prospects.

Yet as Trump looks to pivot to a more traditional campaign, he runs the risk of cooling the ardor within his base, which has reveled in his status as a political outsider. And his new campaign staff – with its close ties to the Washington establishment – could complicate Trump’s argument that he can take on the establishment.

There were flashes of the new and old Donald Trump on Wednesday and Thursday, when he called the decision to replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with slavery fighter Harriet Tubman political correctness run amok.

“Yes, I think it’s pure political correctness,” Trump said Thursday on “Today.” “(Jackson’s) been on the bill for many, many years and, you know, really represented somebody that was really important to this country.”

He said he thought Tubman’s image should be used elsewhere. “I think Harriet Tubman is fantastic,” he said. “I would love to leave Andrew Jackson and see if we can maybe come up with another denomination” for Tubman.

After receiving praise for delivering a New York primary victory speech Tuesday that was devoid of insults, Trump ripped Cruz in rallies in Maryland and Indiana, once again calling him “Lyin’ Ted” and labeling Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary.”

But signs of a new, evolving Trump also surfaced. Normally freewheeling and often free-association in his oratory, Trump had notes to help keep him concise and on point during a rally speech that came in under 46 minutes Wednesday night.

Trump may reportedly resort to using a teleprompter in upcoming speeches. However, during his speech in Maryland Wednesday, he mocked Clinton for using the device, saying it makes her look robotic.

Trump’s Twitter stream appears more restrained, at least for him. He tweeted Wednesday that Cruz was “mathematically out of winning the race. Now all he can do is be a spoiler, never a nice thing to do.”

845 Number of delegates currently pledged to Trump.

1,237 Number of delegates needed to clinch the GOP nomination.

That was a far cry from his approach Monday when he tweeted, “Lyin’ Ted Cruz even voted against Superstorm Sandy aid and September 11 help. So many New Yorkers devastated. Cruz hates New York!”

Since the arrival of Manafort and Wiley, seasoned political operatives have been hired in states with upcoming primaries. And delegates are being more carefully selected.

In some cases, potential delegates are asked how they would vote on a second ballot. Cruz has been asking similar questions, since a first-ballot win for him is a mathematical longshot.

Trump’s people are passing around lists of friendly delegates in Pennsylvania, as well as calling delegates. The Keystone State has a mother lode of delegates – 71 of them. However, 54 of them are unbound. There are 162 people running for those 54 delegate spots.

“My fear was that Trump would win the state and lose the delegate count,” said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., a Trump supporter. “Now I’m very confident.”

From missing voter registration deadlines to misspeaking in interviews and even totally losing any delegates from the state of Colorado, Trump’s campaign isn’t running smoothly these days. What could it all mean for the Republican frontrunner?

Steve Johansen, a 34-year-old real estate agent in Mechanicsburg, Pa., said he noticed a dramatic change in Trump’s ground effort over a 48-hour period. Johansen formed a “Make America Great” group to support Trump in Mechanicsburg but barely dealt with his campaign beyond getting yard signs.

“It was obvious that the organization wasn’t there, it was lacking,” he said. “I like what I’m seeing now.”

Among the changes, Johansen said, “we now have open communication between Trump national and Trump state.”

Trump’s campaign has also been busy in Washington. Manafort and others have not only been meeting regularly with supportive members of Congress, but also have been making sure they’re visible on Capitol Hill.

When they eat in the Senate Dining Room, as Manafort did Tuesday afternoon, it also says not only that they’re available for questions and conversation, but also that they’re one of them.

“My worries are put to rest,” Barletta said. “The last few days, I’m sleeping good at night.”

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas