Well into the second half of last night's
CNN-televised Republican Presidential Debate in Miami, moderator Jake Tapper finally got around to confronting frontrunner Donald Trump about the issue that led most national nightly news broadcasts last night: the recent spasms of violence that have occurred at his campaign events, including the sucker-punch thrown by 78-year-old John McGraw to the face of a 26-year-old protester being ejected from the event.
McGraw, who was arrested and charged with assault and battery yesterday, told Inside Edition that punching the protester "felt good" and "The next time we see him, we might have to kill him. We don't know who he is. He might be with a terrorist organization."
Referring to this incident, Tapper asked Trump, "Do you believe that you've done anything to create a tone where this kind of violence would be encouraged?" Trump replied that he hoped he hadn't done anything to encourage violence and doesn't condone it, but that there's an "anger that's unbelievable" in this country over "bad trade deals" and "higher taxes."
When confronted with a run-down of recent quotes where Trump literally encourages violence against protesters at his rallies, going so far as to "promise" to pay for the legal fees of any of his supporters who "knock the crap" out of dissenters, Trump replied:
We have some protesters who are bad dudes, they have done bad things. They are swinging, they are really dangerous and they get in there and they start hitting people. And we had a couple big, strong, powerful guys doing damage to people, not only the loudness, the loudness I don't mind. But doing serious damage. And if they've got to be taken out, to be honest, I mean, we have to run something.
At this point, Tapper or one of Trump's opponents on the stage could have jumped in and pointed out that there is not a single documented case of violence attributed to a protester at a Trump event. Instead, Tapper allowed Trump to trail off into a spiel about how police are "taking tremendous abuse in this country and they do a phenomenal job."
When asked about the images of violence potentially harming the GOP's chances in the general election, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tx.) ignored the question entirely and gave a short answer implying President Obama thinks he's "above the law" and "behaves like an emperor." Gov. John Kasich (Ohio) said he worries "about the violence at the rally," then segued into a rehearsed talking point about Americans being insecure about the economy.
The last contender given an opportunity to call out Trump's rhetoric as an inciting factor in the recent violence, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fl.), said "I'm concerned about violence in general in this society," then proceeded into an anecdote about how his grandfather watched the 1969 moon landing and said "Americans can do anything."
Following the debate, Trump told NBC's Katy Tur that the sucker-punching McGraw was a "passionate person" and the incident was "just one of those things."
CNN's Dylan Byers addressed a different but related elephant in the spin room, the accusation levied against Trump's campaign manager Corey Lewandowski that he forcibly yanked Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields after Trump's post-primary press conference Tuesday night.
Even though an audio recording backs up Fields' (and the Washington Post's Ben Terris') description of the incident, and Fields has shared a photo of her bruised forearm on Twitter, Trump said point blank that he believes she "made the story up." The Trump campaign is sticking to this story, with Lewandowski taking his case to Twitter in a series of tweets where he repeatedly referred to Fields as an "attention seeker."
It should be noted that Lewandowski reportedly admitted to Breitbart reporter Matt Boyle that he did indeed grab Fields, which he tried to explain away by saying he mistook Boyle's colleague for "an adversarial member of the mainstream media" rather than an employee for the single most pro-Trump news site in the country. Perhaps this is why Lewandowski is letting others, like Trump himself, flat-out deny the incident took place, while Lewandowski can stick to smearing Fields as an "attention seeker."
When Tapper failed to follow-up on his initial question about violence at Trump rallies with a query about the Lewandowski/Fields incident, he let Trump tap-dance his way out of any responsibility for inciting violence and for creating a campaign culture where his most senior staffer would find it appropriate to trigger a physical altercation with a female reporter if she worked for an "adversarial" media outlet.
Trump's opponents, who have railed against his "incivility" and "bullying" for months, completely let him off the hook at last night's debate when presented with the opportunity to explain how the Trump movement goes far beyond just nasty rhetoric, but is instead now manifesting itself violently, often with pointed racial connotations.
At a press conference this morning, Trump referred to a past event where he said he'd like to punch a protester. He described an incident taking place in the stands, that has not been reported anywhere, of a single protester who he says "was swinging. He was hitting people. And the audience hit back. And that's what we need. A little bit more of."
If last night is any indication of how Trump's rivals and the media plan on holding Trump accountable for how his words influence the actions of his supporters, it's a fair bet to say that "a little bit more" violence is what we'll see.
One wonders if John McGraw will reach out to Trump for help with his legal bills. After all, the senior citizen who assaulted another man for "not acting like an American" is facing some serious charges, and Trump did promise to defend his punchy supporters in court.
(UPDATE: Moments after I published this post, Breitbart's Joel B. Pollak released a report stating that the organization believes the incident did take place but that Terris likely misidentified the man who grabbed Fields. Pollak writes that the likely culprit was a man standing next to Lewandowski who bears a physical resemblence to him. Also moments ago, Independent Journal reported that Fields filed charges against Lewandowski.)