ST.CLAIRSVILLE, OHIO -- After days of increasing criticism and mixed messaging over Donald Trump's plan to temporarily ban Muslims from coming to the United States, Trump further muddled his message at a speech here Tuesday, decrying the difficulties that Christian Syrians have in getting into the country, even though he has proposed banning all immigration from Syria.
And likely to further frustrate Republicans, more than 24 hours after a hotbed Supreme Court decision was handed down regarding abortions clinics in Texas, Trump surprisingly refrained from weighing in. Trump also didn't make any mention of the findings concerning presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the House Select Committee's report on Benghazi.
Instead, Trump reached deep into his primary campaign's greatest hits catalog, going on a lengthy bit about his support for waterboarding.
"They can do chopping off heads, drowning people in steel cages - they can do whatever they want to do," Trump said. "And you know, they eat dinner like us. Can you imagine them sitting around the table or wherever they're eating their dinner, talking about the Americans don't do waterboarding and yet we chop off heads. They probably think we're weak. We're stupid. We don't know what we're doing. We have no leadership. You know, you have to fight fire with fire."
And once again, Trump delivered a contradictory message on one of the staples of his campaign platform: the temporary ban on refugees and Muslims.
"If you were a Christian from Syria, it was one of the hardest places in the world to come into the United States," Trump said. "It was one of the hardest things you could do was to get into the United States. If you were a Muslim from Syria, it was one of the easier places to come into the United States from. And I'm not saying one or the other. I'm saying how unfair is that. How bad is that?"
Trump has said that the United States should not accept any refugees from Syria. In a speech in New Hampshire recently, Trump said that immigration would be banned from countries linked to terrorism. The campaign has made no attempt to clarify what countries that would include or whether this would include non-Muslims.
On Monday, Trump tweeted, "We must suspend immigration from regions linked with terrorism until a proven vetting method is in place." His spokesperson, Katrina Pierson, told CNN that there was to be no change to the initial Muslim ban. Trump called NBC News to say Christians from Syria would be "vetted very, very seriously," without clarifying whether they would be allowed into the United States or not.
Walid Phares, a top foreign policy advisor to Trump, told The Hill in an email that he would be scaling back the policy.
"[I]t is natural that the principle of a general ban will evolve into narrower policy suggestions during the campaign, and eventually when Mr. Trump is elected, he would direct the agencies and work with Congress to develop precise policies to detect the actual Jihadists," Phares wrote to The Hill. "His statements were not against any community but warnings that the terrorists are penetrating every group they can."
But Hope Hicks, Trump's director of communications, in a statement to CBS News over the weekend, said Trump's policy had not changed since his speech in New Hampshire, which did not suggest any sort of scaling back of the ban.
Trump has run a more traditional and professional presidential campaign operation recently. He has expanded his campaign staff. He is making more use of opposition researchers. There are more press releases going out to reporters. However, it hasn't helped with his general election messaging.
Trump gave a speech earlier in the day, in Pennsylvania, touting his policies on trade - that he would label China a currency manipulator, that he would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was the side of Trump that the Republican establishment has been able to get behind - a tough stance on China with a pro-worker tinge.
However, in Ohio, Trump seemed to let his impulses for colorful rhetoric get the better of him, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a "rape" of the United States.
"So, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is another disaster," Trump said. "Done and pushed by special interests who want to rape our country, just a continuing rape of our country. That's what it is too. It's a harsh word. It's a rape of our country."
It wasn't the first time Trump had used "rape" in a political context. In early May, Trump accused of China of "raping" the United States at a rally in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Many in the Republican Party, the very one Trump is struggling to unify behind him, support free trade and the TPP. For example, House Speaker Paul Ryan, someone who Trump has already had a tense relationship with, has vigorously touted free trade policies.
The presumptive Republican continues campaign stops on Wednesday, heading for a rally in Maine with Governor Paul LePage.
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