Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s ambiguity in his public attitude towards the endorsement of prominent white nationalist and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke will end up hurting him in the general election.
Trump first came under fire for stumbling on a question from CNN’s Jake Tapper, who asked the candidate on "State of the Union" to disavow the support he has received from Duke. Trump later said he did not hear or understand the question, although he continued on to say he did not know David Duke, NPR reports.
Trump later went on Twitter to more formally disavow Duke’s support, and his son, Donald Trump Jr., told MSNBC’s Chris Jansing, "I'm pretty sure we're not interested in those kinds of votes.”
Regardless of whether or not he truly did not hear “KKK” coming from Tapper, the initial lack of formal rejection is likely to hurt Trump with general election voters.
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The Democrats have already started seizing on Trump’s non-answer to Tapper’s question and will undoubtedly use this as a political bludgeon should he become the Republican nominee.
CNN reports Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke out against it on Super Tuesday, March 1, telling supporters, “I was very disappointed that he did not disavow what appears to be support from David Duke and the Klan. That is exactly the kind of statement that should be repudiated upon hearing it."
Her Democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has similarly criticized Trump’s lack of condemnation of Duke’s support.
But Trump will also have to worry about similar attacks from congressional Republicans such as Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
“If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games," Ryan said on March 1, without mentioning Trump by name. "They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people’s prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln.”
McConnell went on to make it clear that Senate Republicans condemn the support of the KKK, The New York Times reports.
“That is not the view of Republicans that have been elected to the U.S. Senate, and I condemn his comments in the most forceful way,” he said.
It was a not-so-subtle way of heaping criticism on Trump without mentioning him directly.
While many congressional Republicans have pledged to support Trump’s campaign should he be the nominee -- if for no other reason than they want his supporters to vote for them -- others, like Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska have said they will openly campaign against him. The KKK slip-up will provide those candidates with further ammunition against Trump.
By running on an emotional campaign of disgust and anger, Trump has attracted many supporters. His Super Tuesday wins were impressive, and prove his viability as a competitive Republican candidate.
But the big question that lingers on in the public’s mind is if he can weather the inevitable attacks that will come his way in a general election. Given the many political enemies he’s made and the groups he’s insulted so far, it’s hard to imagine this particularly slip-up will do anything but cut into his support among undecided voters in the general election.