Donald Trump reversed course on Friday and endorsed House Speaker Paul Ryan for re-election, as he sought to stop his presidential campaign’s bleeding after several self-inflicted wounds and relentless criticism from his own Republican Party.
Facing sinking poll numbers and desperate to reset a campaign that has perhaps reached its lowest point of the year, Trump made a bald plea for unity and pledged to work with the very party leaders he had earlier dismissed as Washington’s ineffective establishment figures.
“We need unity. We have to win this election,” Trump told a rally in Ryan’s state of Wisconsin, as he stressed a “big tent” Republican Party is the only way to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in November’s election.
“In our shared mission to make America great again, I support and endorse our Speaker of the House Paul Ryan,” he said, to cheers from the Green Bay crowd.
He also announced support for senators John McCain and Kelly Ayotte, two lawmakers facing tough re-election fights.
Trump has suffered a brutal campaign week that included his refusal to back down in a confrontation with the parents of a Muslim American soldier killed in Iraq.
It got worse Friday with criticism from Michael Morell, a 33-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency who served presidents of both parties and helmed the agency in 2011, but announced his support for Clinton.
Trump “may well pose a threat to our national security,” he wrote in a New York Times column.
Morell said that as Russian President Vladimir Putin “played upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities by complimenting him. He responded just as Mr. Putin had calculated.”
Trump has praised Putin as a great leader, and taken policy positions “consistent with Russian, not American, interests,” including endorsing Russian espionage against US figures like Clinton, Morell said.
“In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation,” he added.
Clinton ‘Short-Circuited’ FBI
Clinton endured tests of her own on Friday, as she took the rare step of facing reporters at a Washington conference of journalists where she was pressed on her recent comments that she has been truthful about her private email account while she was secretary of state.
The Democrat had told Fox News Sunday that FBI director James Comey said her “answers were truthful” about whether she sent or received classified material via private email.
That comment was branded false by Washington-based fact-checkers, but Clinton doubled down on Friday, while admitting some of her answers may have been less than clear.
“I have said during the interview and in many other occasions over the past months that what I told the FBI, which he said was truthful, is consistent with what I have said publicly,” Clinton said.
“So I may have short-circuited, and for that I, you know, will try to clarify.”
The moment came as she opens substantial leads over Trump in opinion polls.
A national McClatchy-Marist survey on Thursday showed Clinton surging to a 15-point advantage, 48 percent to 33 percent.
In Georgia, which has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1996, Clinton leads by four points, according to an Atlanta Journal Constitution poll.
‘Vote For Pence?
Capping the lousy week, Trump admitted on Friday that he wrongly claimed to have seen secret Iranian footage of $400 million in hard currency being delivered to Tehran as payment for the release of US prisoners.
Trump raised eyebrows this week when he made that assertion and gave details of what he said he saw in the video.
But he made a rare backtrack. “The plane I saw on television was the hostage plane in Geneva, Switzerland, not the plane carrying $400 million in cash going to Iran!” Trump tweeted.
Trump’s campaign has insisted that the money was “a payment for hostages” held in Iran who were released in January.
The White House says it was returning cash from an unfulfilled 1970s Iranian military order.
As Trump sought to right the ship, and with fellow Republicans urging him to swiftly get back on message, he trained his fire on Clinton.
During a rally in Iowa he branded her a “pathological” liar for her contortions about her emails, and said the former secretary of state is “close to unhinged.”
If Clinton wins the White House, he warned, “you will have really, in my opinion, the destruction of this country from within.”
Trump appeared to try to assuage the concerns of reluctant Republicans, urging them to consider his running mate Mike Pence, the conservative governor of Indiana whom Trump chose in part because he brings important executive and congressional experience to the ticket.
“If you don’t like me, that’s OK,” Trump told a rally in Des Moines, Iowa. “Vote for Pence because it’s the same thing.”