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Trump Tries and Fails to Stay on Message

Trump tried and failed to stay on message on Wednesday, swinging back and forth between attacking rival Clinton and defending his own record.
Image: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Raleigh.
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S., July 5, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua RobertsJOSHUA ROBERTS / Reuters

Will Donald Trump ever learn to stay on topic?

It's a question that left Republicans scratching their heads anew on Wednesday, after the presumptive Republican nominee spent the day talking about himself instead of FBI director James Comey's scathing report on how rival Hillary Clinton handled her email as secretary of state.

Given the biggest political gift yet of his troubled campaign, Trump muddled his message and diminished its impact. He spent the day variously defending his decade-old business record in Atlantic City, digging up past allegations about the Clinton Foundation, and boasting of his fundraising haul — leaving congressional Republicans to make the case against the former secretary of state.

Comey on Tuesday declined to recommend bringing criminal charges against Clinton, but left her opponents with more than enough material for a year’s worth of attack ads: he called Clinton "extremely careless" and sharply criticized her judgement in using a private server and confirmed she did indeed send classified information on it. A meaty condemnation of her judgement by the FBI is the stuff most campaigns would have made a central tenet of the campaign, but Trump struggled to focus on it at all.

When Clinton hosted a campaign event at a bankrupted Trump casino in New Jersey — something Trump said Wednesday was simply an attempt to change the subject — the real estate mogul took the bait.

Trump did delay releasing the list of his convention speakers on Wednesday in an attempt to keep the story on Clinton's email scandal — though releasing the list on Thursday isn't likely to help much. Comey is expected to testify on the House floor that day.

That left Trump more time to deploy other off-topic statements to the press.

“I created thousands of jobs and made a lot of money in Atlantic City, which was what, as a businessman, I am supposed to do for my company and my family — and as President I will make America rich again,” he wrote in one statement just after Clinton's event.

Less than an hour later, he sent another release re-upping old allegations: "While Clinton attacks private business entities for creating jobs and powering the economy, it comes in stark contrast to Clinton's long record peddling political influence for cash."

Related: In Atlantic City, Clinton Uses Abandoned Trump Building as Giant Prop

Five minutes after that, Trump released a third press conference in just two hours boasting "impressive" fundraising totals for the campaign -- numbers that were impressive but still significantly lower than Clinton's, and half what Romney raised in the same position four years ago. Trump's campaign did not respond to questions on whether or not some of that money would go towards attack ads on Clinton's email scandal.

With their standard bearer’s message all over the map, Republican lawmakers went their own way — pressing down hard on the email scandal and training fire at Comey.

House Speaker Paul Ryan announced congressional hearings on the Clinton probe, for which the FBI director is expected to testify on Thursday.

"We have seen nothing but stonewalling and dishonesty from Secretary Clinton on this issue and that means there are a lot of more questions that need to be answered," Ryan said in a press conference.

Related: Two Potential Trump VPs Bow Out of Consideration

Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise went further: "It’s a big disappointment that charges weren't brought forward but at the same time, the FBI director pointed out that Hillary Clinton broke the law," he said.

But perhaps the biggest disappointment for Republicans is just how much Trump is struggling to use the story to his advantage: when he did finally start talking about the FBI investigation late on Wednesday, he repeatedly called her emails tweets.

"And you know the whole thing with her server and with cleaning off, 30,000 tweets, 30,000 tweets," he said in a phone interview with Fox News. "I think the whole thing is a disgrace."