Donald Trump has served public notice that he has no intention of firing his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, even after police in Florida formally charged him with battery in a case brought by a female news reporter who said he forcibly grabbed her arm at a press event.
“It would be the easiest thing to say, Corey, you’re fired,” he said campaigning in Wisconsin on Tuesday night, a week before the state holds a pivotal primary in the presidential nomination race. “I can’t do that. I can’t destroy a man, he has a beautiful wife and I am not going to destroy a man for that.”
The filing of charges against Mr Lewandowski on Tuesday morning has become the latest in a series of unexpected distractions on the Republican campaign trail. Last week, it was a toxic spat between Mr Trump and his nearest rival, Senator Ted Cruz, over the reputations of their respective wives.
A question and answer session near the end of an event with supporters in a hotel ballroom in Janesville, in southern Wisconsin, suddenly devolved into Mr Trump assailing Mr Lewandowski’s accuser, a reporter named Michelle Fields who alleged that the campaign manager grasped and pulled her arm at the end of a Trump press conference in Florida on 8 March, causing it to bruise.
Noting that in a video of the alleged attack released by police Ms Fields hardly seemed to flinch at the moment at issue, Mr Trump queried her sincerity. “Wouldn’t you start screaming or something? Did you see a change in her face?” One supporter in the room, a woman, said she hadn’t seen Ms Fields show any reaction either. “I ran it on wide screen,” she yelled to the candidate. “There was nothing!”
Earlier the Trump campaign formally sided with Mr Lewandowski. “Mr Lewandowski is absolutely innocent of this charge. He will enter a plea of not guilty and looks forward to his day in court. He is completely confident that he will be exonerated,” Hope Hicks, a campaign spokesperson, said.
But Mr Cruz, who is neck and neck with Mr Trump in Wisconsin, wasted little time before seeking to turn the affair against the former reality TV host. “Unfortunately, this abusive behaviour seems to be part of the culture of the Trump campaign,” a Cruz spokesperson said. “Personal attacks, verbal attacks, and now physical attacks, have no place in politics or anywhere else in our society”.
Off the campaign trail for the past week, Mr Trump vowed to remain in Wisconsin until the primary next Tuesday. He was greeted by news that the Governor of the State, Scott Walker, who gave up his own bid for the nomination last September, had endorsed Mr Cruz. Several other prominent Republicans in the state, including talk radio personalities, have also joined in calling for a Trump defeat next week.
Mr Trump repeatedly challenged the reputation of Mr Walker, reeling off a list of negative economic and jobs statistics for the state. “You have a governor who has you convinced that it (the state) doesn’t have problems,” he mocked.
He drew loud boos – and evinced surprise – when he asked the crowd if they liked House speaker Paul Ryan who lives in Janesville. “Send him over the wall,” someone in the room called out.
The anti-Trump movement also found voice on Tuesday in a blistering editorial in the state’s biggest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which called the billionaire an “un-American candidate” who is “utterly unfit” to be president, citing his “impossible and disruptive” immigration proposals and his “blustering anti-Muslim rhetoric that is helping to recruit terrorists”.
People who will flee America if Donald Trump wins
People who will flee America if Donald Trump wins
1/8 Miley Cyrus
'God’ he thinks he is the f***ing chosen one or some shit! … Honestly f*** this sh*t I am moving if this is my president! I don’t say things I don’t mean!'
Jemal Countess/Getty Images
2/8 Whoopi Goldberg
'I don’t think that’s America. I don’t want it to be America. Maybe it’s time for me to move you know'
3/8 Samuel L. Jackson
'If that mother**er becomes president, I’m moving my black ass to South Africa'
4/8 Raven Symone
'My confession for this election is, if any Republican gets nominated, I’m gonna move to Canada with my entire family. Is that bad? I already have my ticket. I literally bought my ticket, I swear'
'If he were to be elected, I'm moving to Jupiter'
6/8 Neve Campbell
'I’m terrified. It’s really scary. My biggest fear is that Trump will triumph. I cannot believe that he is still in the game ... [I'll] move back to Canada'
7/8 Jon Stewart
'I would consider getting in a rocket and going to another planet, because clearly this planet’s gone bonkers'
8/8 Randy Blythe
'He could just be a clown. If he is the president, though, I am leaving America 'till he's gone'
“A Trump presidency would float a river polluted by hyperbole and misstatement, tacking left to right, right left, claiming up is down, white is black, night is day. A reality TV wonderland,” it offered. “Wisconsin can be the beginning of the end of all this reality television nonsense. Voters can do the nation a huge service on April 5.”
An intimate venue by the standards of this campaign, the hotel ballroom in Janesville had been set up with a large pen into which Mr Trump strode to address only a thousand voters. (Thousands remained outside unable to get in.) Inside the enclosure with him stood Secret Service officers, two in Kevlar.
Security has become a paramount concern since violence between supporters and protests caused the campaign to cancel an event in Chicago four weeks ago. The events of that night have led critics of Mr Trump to accuse of him deliberately stirring an atmosphere of physical confrontation with his comments including one when he said he felt like punching a protestor who had been interrupting him.