The implications have been slow to surface, but it seems as if the month of August 2015 was an important turning point for two American political players — one in the White House and another behind a microphone here in Georgia.
We don’t yet know whether that single month poses significant jeopardy for President Donald Trump. We do know that Erick Erickson, the conservative WSB Radio host, managed to survive that August — but still walks a tight rope when it comes to Trump.
“I can see myself voting for him in 2020. I’ve tried the third-party route — didn’t work out. I like the policies, even if I don’t like him,” Erickson said last week. “But there’s still the overarching issue of character there. I think character matters. And I don’t think he has good character. So I’m more torn than I expected to be over this.”
Several weeks ago, the U.S. Justice Department let it be known that David Pecker, the publisher of the National Enquirer tabloid, had admitted attending a meeting with Michael Cohen, the president’s lawyer and fixer, to establish a method of paying off — and so silencing — women who alleged having sexual flings with the then-presidential candidate.
Independent reports say a third person in the room was Trump himself.
So, in August 2015, we have the beginnings of what might be called a top-level conspiracy to handle the fallout from Trump’s physical relationships with women.
No precise date is given for the meeting, but it’s worth remembering a parallel event from that same month.
On Thursday, Aug. 6, in a first, crowded debate of GOP presidential candidates, then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly had homed in on Trump’s attitude toward the opposite sex, noting that he had “called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.”
The next day, Trump went on CNN to dump on Kelly: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” Many considered the candidate’s remarks to be a rude reference to menstruation.
One of them was Erickson. The evening voice of AM750 and 95.5FM News/Talk WSB had put together a three-day national gathering of 700 conservative activists that would begin that same Friday. The event was in Buckhead. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB Radio are both owned by Cox Media Group.)
The draw was a parade of 10 presidential wannabes, including Trump — who had been offered the final Saturday speaking slot.
It didn’t happen. Trump’s remarks about Kelly prompted Erickson to scratch the candidate’s appearance. “I don’t want Donald Trump in the room with my daughter,” he told his crowd.
That summer, we discovered that Donald Trump had a Teflon tongue. Nothing that rolled off it could dissuade his supporters. And Erickson learned the price to be paid for dissing the candidate who even then was redefining conservatism and the Republican Party. His family was threatened. Angry strangers showed up at his door in Macon.
Three-and-a-half years later, we now know that Megyn Kelly wasn’t the only woman on Trump’s mind that August. Shutting them up or dismissing them was something of a late-summer theme.
“When they doubled down and made it all about me the next day — that was a wake-up call about how they were going to operate moving forward,” Erickson said.
We were in the radio host’s office in the basement of WSB headquarters off Peachtree Street. I asked him if he had any regrets about what he did that August. Zilch, Erickson answered.
And the hatching of a “catch-and-kill” strategy by the Trump campaign only a few days later?
“I don’t think that was coincidental,” Erickson said. “But he won.”
The radio host would remain a “Never Trumper” through the general election, though he quickly sought to make amends. If you Google the words “Erick Erickson” and “crow,” up pops the op-ed he wrote for The New York Times days after Trump’s victory.
“Those of us who opposed him should pray for him and give him a chance. But conservatives should realize they won a battle, but are losing a war for ideas,” he wrote.
Erickson said his wife, Christy, remains “militantly enraged at the idea of Donald Trump” — a situation experienced by many Republican husbands these days.
But Erickson himself, 43, remains a man in the middle of the conservative milieu. He no longer has a paid gig as a Fox News contributor — that ended last January. Even so, he is making more TV appearances than before, albeit unpaid. He has a chair on NBC’s “Meet The Press” every other month.
Last summer, in Austin, Texas, Erickson revived a version of the Trump-less gathering in Atlanta that he hosted in August 2015, under the auspices of his new website, The Resurgent. It was a success — a few Trump officials even showed up — but the financing was tight. Sponsors are hard to come by. “We don’t have the millionaire-billionaire support you get when you’re on one side or the other,” Erickson said.
Erickson has been on vacation since Trump’s renewed insistence on a southern border wall has led to a partial shutdown of the federal government, but he pays homage to the influence Rush Limbaugh, a longtime hero, has on Trump and the rest of the Republican Party. “This is not just Rush Limbaugh saying it — it’s 10, 15 million people. He knows his audience very well. And the president understands that this is a base operation. If he gives up on the wall, he gives up on his base,” Erickson said.
And yet, those doubts from August 2015 continue. Erickson’s objections to Trump have a religious and moral origin. He already has a law degree but is currently dabbling with an online doctorate program at a Southern Baptist seminary.
On air and in writing, Erickson wonders whether another U.S. Supreme Court appointment would finally satiate conservative Christians and cool their transactional support for President Trump.
Erickson has personally forsworn supporting anyone’s third-party presidential bid in 2020, but he also thinks one might spring up. “It’d have to be socially conservative but fiscally less restrained than what the GOP has claimed to be. More big government than I’d like,” Erickson explained.
And there were these ambivalent lines he penned for his website, marking the November death of the 41st president:
“As a conservative, I don’t dispute that President Trump has done more to advance the conservative policy sphere than President George H.W. Bush did.
“As a conservative, I also note that President Trump has done far more to corrupt and pervert conservatism than President Bush did.”
But there are times and places where pursuit of the middle ground has its benefits. On Thursday, Erickson’s airtime on WSB Radio will shift, from 5 to 7 p.m. to 4 to 6 p.m. The midafternoon airtime allotted to Sean Hannity, a confidante of President Trump, has been shortened to accommodate the move.
“There’s something to be said for having two hours where you know the person is fundamentally conservative, fundamentally Christian, but I’m not doing pep rally afternoons,” Erickson said.
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