In it, but not of it. TPM DC
Priebus’ unwillingness to criticize Trump is nothing new and was his practice even before The Donald decided to run for president. Even from the sidelines, Trump has known how to cause headaches for the party chairman. During the 2012 campaign, Trump never jumped to the race, yet managed to wreak havoc on the primary. Then, as now, Priebus was forced to comment on his antics time and time again, but refused to outright condemn them, perhaps out of fear the cantankerous billionaire would retaliate with a third party run.
How did Priebus deal with the Trump problem the last time around? Here’s a look:
April 2011: Trump fuels the birther furor. When flirting with a 2012 run, Trump pushed the birther issue hard.
“People are calling me from all over saying please don't give up on this issue. If you weren't born in this country, you cannot be President. You have no doctors that remember, you have no nurses -- this is the President of the United States -- that remember. Why can't he produce a birth certificate?” Trump told Fox News in late March.
Priebus called the issue a distraction, but stopped short of condemning Trump himself for pushing it.
Priebus even shot down reports that suggested he had told Trump to stop.
This isn't accurate ... I never said this. RT @usnews: GOP Boss Wants Trump to Shut up on Birther Claims http://bit.ly/gnZ5DM
— Reince Priebus (@Reince) April 14, 2011
But that didn’t stop the issue from coming up, particularly as other candidates began to face the question of where they believed President Obama was born.
“Listen, if Donald Trump -- I mean, he can talk about whatever he wants. It's up to the primary voters to decide. And you know what, the primary voters will decide in Iowa, in New Hampshire and South Carolina and the rest of the country as to who they want to represent them on the Republican ticket,” Priebus told CNN’s Carol Costello that April. “It's not my job to play police officer with the candidates. It's up to the voters to play police officer and go into the voting booth and check off who they want to vote for.”
When pressed further as to why he wouldn’t ask Trump to stop (the RNC chairman had reportedly called Trump introduce himself), Priebus again shrugged off the question.
“I mean, the point is -- because, listen, because Donald Trump can say what Donald Trump wants to say. We live in America. He has a right to say what he wants to say. And the media, I would say, enjoys picking up on a few of these lines and going to town with them,” Priebus said. “Look at, we are still talking about this birth certificate issue. It's old news. "
December 2011: Trump invites GOP primary candidates to a debate. While Trump resisted jumping into the Republican primary himself, he found another way to put himself front and center: inviting the field to a debate moderated by him and hosted by Newsmax in late 2011.
The opportunity to hash it out in front of the "Apprentice" star split the field, and at least some of the candidates -- namely former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum -- agreed to participate, while others turned the invitation down.
It also caused a panic among Republican strategists who considered it a circus. Karl Rove explicitly called for Priebus to get involved:
“I think the Republican National Chairman [Reince Priebus] ought to step in and say: We strongly discourage every candidate from appearing in a debate, moderated by somebody who's going to run for president," Rove said.
Here again, Priebus took a careful tone when dealing with Trump. He targeted his disapproval to the fact that Trump was still floating a run as an independent candidate.
“We appreciate what Mr. Trump has done, but if you’re still talking about potentially running as an independent candidate, I think that’s a problem,” Priebus told Fox News that December. “I think that would be malpractice for me as an RNC chairman to not believe that that is an issue.”
Priebus continued to distance himself from any criticism of Trump himself, telling Fox News' Greta Van Susteren, "Our relationship with Mr. Trump is very good."
"So I just want to -- you know, this has nothing to do with relationships or what we think about Newsmax or anyone else. This just has to do with the fact whether or not it's a smart idea to have a moderator who's batting around the idea of running as an independent to moderate a debate. That's all this is," he said.
After Trump dropped out of the debate, Priebus' kind words continued.
He told Fox Business News that “Donald's going to make up his own mind on what he wants to do” and that “we have respect for Newsmax and Donald Trump.”
August 2012: Trump promises a convention “surprise.” The trouble didn’t stop once the GOP had nailed down Mitt Romney as its 2012 candidate.
Today I am working on my 'big surprise' for the @RNC convention. Everyone will love it.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 14, 2012
Trump promised a “big surprise” for the August convention in Tampa, fueling plenty of media speculation and more questions for Priebus.
“I'm thankful to Donald Trump for all the work that he's done for us and for Governor Romney,” Priebus told CNN's John Berman. “But I don't know right now what he's going to do at the convention. But I do know that he's important to us, and I know that he's somebody that we appreciate, because he's telling the truth as far as where we're at in this economy.”
When asked by Berman whether a birther was “kind of guy you want on the podium,” Priebus still refused to call out Trump by name while calling the issue a “distraction.”
The surprise -- an “Apprentice”-style spoof video that was scheduled to air on the first night of the convention -- was spoiled by Hurricane Isaac, which caused convention organizers to cancel the day’s events.
Trump's video was ultimately shown on the "Today Show" instead.