WASHINGTON — Sitting on his plush private plane surrounded by a gaggle of reporters, Donald Trump laid bare the depths of his win-at-any-cost political philosophy.
"Nothing is presidential except victory," he said Tuesday. "Victory is presidential."
Very little about Trump's surprising White House campaign has fit into any traditional view of what's deemed "presidential" — the kind of know-it-if-you-see-it behaviour befitting an occupant of the Oval Office.
Indeed, that's part of the draw for Trump's supporters, many of whom praise the businessman's willingness to dispense with political correctness.
Yet even with the built-in expectation that Trump is running an atypical campaign, the Republican front-runner continues to surprise with how far he's willing to go in busting boundaries that restrain other presidential candidates. While he's suggested that he would be more of a statesman if he's the GOP nominee, encouraging Republican Party unity and promising to moderate his abrasive tone, he can't seem to resist the lure of a bareknuckle political brawl.
The latest surreal scene played out Tuesday, when Trump's campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was charged with simple battery for an altercation with a female reporter who was working for a conservative news outlet. Lewandowski is Trump's closest and most visible adviser, a constant presence at campaign events and the gatekeeper for who gets access to the real estate mogul.
He's also nearly single-handedly steered Trump's campaign within sight of victory in the Republican nominating contest.
Most presidential campaigns move quickly to shut down a firestorm over a staffer regardless of rank, particularly if legal issues are involved. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz abruptly fired one of his top aides earlier this year after the adviser posted a video online that inaccurately portrayed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as disparaging the Bible.
But Trump chose to fan the flames of the controversy surrounding Lewandowski. He vigorously defended his adviser and predicted no jury would convict him. He also accused journalist Michelle Fields of trying to destroy Lewandowski's life and questioned the origin of bruises on Fields' arm that she says were the result of the campaign manager's manhandling.
"How do you know those bruises weren't there before?" Trump said, his every word being blasted out live on cable news. At a campaign rally in Janesville, Wisconsin, he polled his crowd on whether they'd seen video of the incident. "What did you think, right?" he asked them. "Nothing."
Trump's comments come amid sharp criticism from Democrats, as well as some Republicans, of derogatory statements he's made about women — both during this campaign and during his extensive public life before entering politics. He's embroiled in a heated controversy involving an unflattering image of Cruz's wife that he highlighted on Twitter, as well as a vague and ominous threat he made on Twitter to "spill the beans" about Heidi Cruz.
Following the charge against Lewandowski, the Texas senator accused Trump of running a campaign "built on attacks" and said there's "no place in politics for insults, for personal attacks, for going to the gutter, and there should be no place for physical violence either."
Women comprise a powerful share of persuadable voters in the general election. And even as Trump is still trying to lock down the GOP nomination, he's struggling with the women he would need to win the White House.
A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 70 per cent of women had a negative opinion of Trump. Nearly three quarters of women overall, and 39 per cent of Republican women, had an unfavourable view of him in a recent CNN poll.
Yet some women who comprise Trump's supremely loyal legion of supporters say they see little wrong with Lewandowski's actions and the response from their favoured candidate.
"It's all ridiculous to me because I don't think grabbing someone's arm to restrain them is battery," said Carlene Summers, a 72-year-old who attended Trump's rally Tuesday in Janesville, Wisconsin. "I used to work on a school playground and I restrained quite a few kids and I never got in trouble for battery."
It's the tension between the voters Trump needs to win now as he tries to wrap up the GOP nomination and those he needs on his side in November that highlights the weakness in his boundary-pushing approach to the campaign. Beyond his comments about women, he's also been harsh in his depiction of immigrants, including calling Mexicans crossing into the United States murderers and rapists.
While Republicans have long grappled with both appealing to more conservative primary voters and a broader general election audience, the challenge they've faced has focused largely on modulating their policy positions.
It's deeply uncertain whether Trump can make the same pivot when his words and his actions seem as focused on the personal as they do on the policy.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Janesville, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.
Julie Pace has covered the White House and politics for The Associated Press since 2007. Follow her on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jpaceDC
Julie Pace, The Associated Press