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Why Donald Trump Reversed His Pledge To Support The GOP Nominee

Donald Trump takes part in a CNN town hall event in Milwaukee on Tuesday.
Darren Hauck
Getty Images
Donald Trump takes part in a CNN town hall event in Milwaukee on Tuesday.

If someone tells you the same thing five times, you probably should believe he means it.

Back in August, Donald Trump and all the other Republican candidates were given the chance to say they would pledge support to whomever the Republican nominee would be — and not wage an independent bid for the presidency if he or she didn't win.

Trump raised his hand, the only one on stage to do so, to say he would not make that pledge. He was pressed and pushed, the question was rephrased, the audience grumbled, and five times, within a span of a minute and a half, he refused to change his mind.

"I fully understand," Trump said then of the implications of his decision.

Everything seemed to change a month later.

After meeting with the Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, Trump emerged at his gilded Trump Tower holding up a Sharpie-signed 62-word pledge "totally pledging" to support the GOP nominee "regardless of who it is."

On Tuesday night, Trump changed his mind again. "No, I don't anymore," Trump told CNN's Anderson Cooper when asked if he would continue to support whoever the GOP nominee is. "We'll see who it is," Trump added. "I have been treated very unfairly." He pointed to the "RNC" and the "Republican Party establishment."

It was just 27 days ago that all of the Republican candidates were pledging to support the eventual nominee, even if it was Trump. Now, none of them is pledging to support anyone. After bitterness with Trump, stemming from personal attacks about their wives, Ted Cruz also backed away from the pledge Tuesday night. So did John Kasich, who has been moving that direction over the past few weeks after the violent protests at a Trump rally in Chicago — and Trump's response to them.

Two words are key here: "fairness" and "leverage." Trump, as he has been saying all along, has threatened to bolt if he's not treated "fairly." Now, he believes he hasn't been because of the possibility of a brokered convention and delegate allocation rules. (We get into more on why below.)

In that original hand-raising debate, Trump said, "I am discussing it with everybody, but I'm, you know, talking about a lot of leverage." Threatening to run third party is the biggest piece of leverage Trump has. Republicans believe an independent Trump bid would ensure a Hillary Clinton presidency, because Trump, like George Wallace in 1968, could win lots of states in the South outside of the party structure. In today's electoral map, that would imperil the GOP nominee.

Why did Trump change his mind? And what about fairness?

With the finish line in sight, Trump also sees a great big hurdle being erected. There's an active stop-Trump, or #NeverTrump, effort that is determined to try to keep Trump below the 1,237 delegates needed to become the GOP nominee. If they can do that, they would try to nominate someone else on the second ballot at the Republican National Convention this summer. It's not clear it would work, but Trump doesn't like what he sees and thinks it's not fair. It's as simple as this in his view: He's got the most votes, so he should be the nominee.

That's not how it works. The rules of the game are — and have been since the process left the smoke-filled rooms — whoever has a majority of delegates will be the nominee. At a debate March 10, Trump called 1,237 a "very random number." It's not. It's 50 percent, plus one, of the total number of voting delegates to the Republican National Convention this summer — 2,472.

Trump this week also threatened to sue over not getting the most delegates out of Louisiana even though he won the most votes in the primary. Again, that's not inherent unfairness, that's a lack of understanding about how the process works and having an on-the-ground organization. It may seem unfair, but those are the rules these candidates sign up for. Each state does things differently, and that's why it's so hard and so expensive to win, because you need to have a team in place that understands the rules in each state.

These aren't new or unfair rules created for Trump. But for someone who's an outsider, who doesn't like the system and is fueled by support from people who also don't thoroughly understand, like or accept the system, he thinks they're unfair.

Does it matter whom Trump supports?

The point here is that Trump has a strong and devoted following among a significant chunk of GOP primary voters. This is Trump's biggest piece of leverage. Remember last year when Trump was saying Mexicans were "rapists," and RNC officials started to delicately criticize him, saying on TV that it wasn't the tone the party needed?

Trump thought that was unfair, and he started to float the idea of running as a third-party candidate. Leverage. The RNC backed off.

Now, as Trump sees this effort by Washington insiders take real shape to stop him, and he continues to hear rumblings that even if he has the most votes, he might not be the nominee, Trump is using what he's got in hopes they back off again.

So, it's not really about Trump supporting anyone, it's about him not running third party in the fall, and hobbling the party's chances at the White House. Some party loyalists, though, are willing to take that chance, because they believe Trump as the standard-bearer of their party would be even worse. (By the way, a Trump third-party bid may prove more complicated than Trump thinks because of complex, state-by-state ballot access rules, but if you're someone who doesn't know or care about the rules, who knows? He could run a write-in campaign — and everyone knows how to spell "Trump.")

Does this make Trump seem indecisive, or is he making the most convenient decision at the time, like all politicians?

It's certainly a risk for Trump to look like he's inconsistent. But one man's inconsistent, indecisive or even calculating is another man's unpredictable, powerful and smart.

In other words, for people who didn't like him, they'll continue to think the worst.

And for his supporters, they'll think more power to him, because they're there for him — not for the Republican Party.

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.