After Donald Trump made remarks many saw as a hint at rival Hillary Clinton's assassination, the GOP issued the collective shrug of a desensitized party whose future is tied to his. Politicians updated their usual deflections and downplayed Trump's suggestion that deadly force be used by "Second Amendment people" for political gain.
"It sounds like just a joke gone bad. I hope he clears it up very quickly," Republican House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan said late Tuesday night. "You should never joke about something like that."
Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, facing a tough re-election bid in New Hampshire, called the remark "inappropriate" on Wednesday, then tried to quickly change the conversation.
Even Trump's critics tried to downplay the incident. Rep. Peter King called the remarks wrong, but insisted that it wasn't as bad as some thought. Sen. Susan Collins, a senator who already said she wouldn't vote for Trump ahead of this latest controversy, said she didn't think he was "actually" trying to incite violence.
Amid a primary where blaring controversy bloated Trump's appeal, the question was often, What will he say next? Now the question has become: Is there anything Trump can say that will unequivocally earn rebuke? Is there a line, and if so, where is it?
"And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin got assassinated," New York Times opinion writer Thomas Friedman warned in a stinging editorial that linked Trump's hint-hint to the demonizing rhetoric used in a political campaign against ahead of Rabin's death.
For some, the line was there — and it was crossed yesterday. "A bloody line has been crossed that cannot be ignored," wrote former Florida Representative and "Morning Joe" host Joe Scarborough in a Washington Post editorial that implored his party to remove the nominee.
"There's a time when you put your country first," former Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays said on Wednesday's Morning Joe, asked about why he was supporting Clinton for president.
The Clinton campaign boasted Wednesday of nearly 50 endorsements from Independents and Republicans, including three former cabinet secretaries, six current or former congressmen (including Shay), six former ambassadors, five military leaders and 20 senior GOP administration officials, who all decided at one point or another that Trump was irredeemable.
The loudest voices defending the Second Amendment remarks were Trump and his team, as they attempted to turn a suggestion of deadly force into the kind of surge in free coverage that boosted him in the primary. His campaign cried media bias, rushed to blame others for negatively interpreting the remark just as it appears some in Trump's own audience did.
Top surrogate Rudy Giuliani said on Wednesday that Trump responded to the firestorm by calling Clinton a word that "begins with a b."
The National Rifle Association thanked Trump with some hefty support, defending his remark and launching a $3 million dollar advertising buy against Clinton.
Trump told Fox News' Sean Hannity that the outrage was "a good thing for me, because it's going to tell more people about me with the respect to the Second Amendment."
Trump secured the Republican nomination by riding controversy after controversy. He suggested that one rival's father was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, likened another to a child molester and spread racially-charged fiction about minorities. His party, along with primary voters, largely cheered him on.
Now, as the GOP nominee staring embarking on the general election, the tables have turned. He's losing in the polls he spent months championing while Clinton enjoys a double-digit lead in some national polls and a strong lead everywhere else. Trump's ground-game is all but nonexistent, he hasn't bought a single dollar of television advertising and his party is fleeing from him as the reality of a Trump candidacy crystallizes.
The stakes and electorate have changed since the primary, but Trump hasn't. In his first 100 days as the presumptive nominee, amid short-lived attempts at being more presidential and a handful of scripted speeches, Trump questioned the objectivity of an American-born judge due to his Mexican heritage, suggested Russian hackers target former Secretary of State Clinton, and repeatedly attacked the Muslim parents of a fallen U.S. soldier who criticized him.
It's a strategy, and a series of escalating and dangerous remarks, that is turning the 2016 election into a national day of reckoning for the Republican Party and the nation.
"It must be the responsibility of all Americans — from Donald Trump himself, to his supporters, to those who remain silent or oppose him — to unambiguously condemn these remarks and the violence they insinuate," Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, herself a victim of attempted assassination, and husband Capt. Mark Kelly said in a statement. "The integrity of our democracy and the decency of our nation is at stake."