ATLANTA—Donald Trump was supposed to be the keynote speaker at the RedState Gathering here, a convocation of the hard-core conservative activists who read the influential blog edited by Erick Erickson. But when Trump said on CNN late Friday that debate moderator and Fox News host Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” Erickson, who is a Fox News contributor, announced he had disinvited Trump from the conference. “There are just real lines of decency a person running for President should not cross,” Erickson wrote.
As the linchpin of a GOP counter-establishment of Tea Party-oriented media and PACs, Erickson may be the most powerful conservative in America. A knowledgeable source confirmed to me last week’s report that he will soon announce his departure from RedState—Erickson’s heart is in his work as a radio host, and he will continue to write commentaries on his personal website. Trump was one of 10 presidential candidates who had accepted the invitation to speak at this year’s RedState Gathering, including Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and Carly Fiorina.
When Erickson announced Trump's disinvitation to the packed ballroom Saturday morning—playing the offending video for the crowd—there were scattered boos but mostly cheers. Trump responded with a statement claiming he’d said “her eyes and whatever,” and meant her nose; he called Erickson a “total loser” and noted Erickson’s own history of sexist and offensive comments. I interviewed Erickson about the controversy, the effect Trump is having on the GOP, and Erickson’s own standing to criticize anyone for outrageousness. This is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Molly Ball: Why did you disinvite Trump?
Erick Erickson: I would have liked to have had Trump here. I mean, I don’t agree with some of the really bombastic things he’s said, but I know he resonates with a segment of the base, a lot of whom are here. But I just don’t want somebody onstage who would make a comment like he made about Megyn Kelly last night and then—the campaign didn’t even want to admit that he had made it.
Ball: You thought the implication, that he was referring to menstruation, was unmistakable?
Erickson: Oh, yeah. I did. And I don’t know anybody who didn’t think that, other than the Trump people. Now they’re saying he meant “bleeding out of her nose.” Okay, but it took you 12 hours to come up with that. I don’t want somebody onstage who would stay something like that, that doesn’t have the little voice in their head saying, “Maybe that’s not such a good idea.”
Ball: Trump previously insulted veterans and disparaged Christianity. Wasn’t that offensive? Why was this the thing that pushed you over the line?
Erickson: Because when you take tough questions from a journalist and your very first reaction is, “She must be hormonal”—he’s said a lot of things that I don’t necessarily agree with, but when that’s your immediate first reaction about another human being—I said last night on Twitter it was a bridge too far, but it was really more like the straw that broke the camel’s back.
There’s been the accumulated weight of things. When you get to this point, it becomes more of a distraction. I’ve got nine other presidential candidates here, and now they all are going to get asked by people in the media what they think of Donald Trump. I’d rather not bring the distraction onstage.
Ball: Critics note that you also have a history of nasty and misogynistic comments. Do you really have any standing to judge Trump?
Erickson: You know, I’ve said some pretty stupid shit in the past, and I’ve apologized for it. I didn’t deny that I ever said it, I didn’t claim that my Twitter account was hacked. I apologized, said I was wrong, and had to deal with it. Trump’s reaction is, “I said whatever, not wherever.” No, he didn’t. I listened to the tape twice. I played it for the audience; they got the full context of it.
I think had he come out and apologized for it, which I asked the campaign to do—they were very adamant they weren’t going to—I probably would have let him come and we could’ve dealt with it in the Q and A [session].
But he didn’t want to apologize for it, and he didn’t want to clarify other than “He said whatever, not wherever,” when he didn’t. That wasn’t a clarification. It was a lie.
Ball: You’ve told me before about your fear of becoming an element of the Republican establishment you’ve always opposed. That's what Trump is accusing you of now. Is there truth to the accusation?
Erickson: Oh, a lot of people are telling me today—Donald Trump apparently gave out my email, and I’m being flooded. My favorite was the “cunt whore member of the establishment”—I’d never seen that combination used before.
Ball: But circling the wagons to protect your own, the people you’re friends with—isn’t that what you’re against?
Erickson: Listen, if having common decency to other people makes you part of the establishment, I guess I am. I mean, if you can’t be nice to someone who asks you a tough question, then okay, I guess I am. If being a member of the establishment is recognizing that there are bounds you shouldn’t cross, and if you do you should apologize, then I guess I am.
Ball: Do you think this will be a turning point for Trump?
Erickson: I don’t know that I can even make a prediction about that. I didn’t think he was going to run, and then he did.
I’ve got to believe that your average voter in the Republican Party, who I think are reflected in this room, and who gave me a standing ovation when I played the clip and told them why I was disinviting him, at some point they’re just going to say, “You know, we can find somebody else who gives voice to our anger without saying stuff like that.” Advantage Ted Cruz, I guess.
Ball: You think Cruz benefits if Trump starts to fade?
Erickson: I think maybe so. He’s the other guy out there bashing Washington repeatedly, railing against it. But Ted Cruz would never go on TV or radio and say something like that.
Ball: Who do you like in the presidential field?
Erickson: I’m friends with so many of them. I do like Jeb Bush—I have always liked him and I will not stop liking him.
Ball: Do you take a lot of flak for that?
Erickson: I do. Ted Cruz is a dear friend, Marco Rubio is a friend, Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry are friends, I’ve gotten to know Scott Walker. I text all of them directly. The ones I know the least, probably, are Mike Huckabee and Carly Fiorina, who are here. I’ve got great friends running for president.
Ball: I get the sense you wouldn’t support John Kasich, however.
Erickson: Yes, I’m not a John Kasich fan. I already have a preacher. I don’t need somebody in the White House telling me Jesus told him to expand government.
Ball: Is he the only one who would be unacceptable to you as the nominee?
Erickson: Chris Christie and I disagree on some things, but I think he’s been a good governor, he’s fought the right fights. John Kasich expanding Obamacare in Ohio is something that, if Republicans embrace it, really ends the party in terms of being a meaningful agent of change.
Ball: The rise of Trump has given fodder to people to say, “See, Republicans are a bunch of hateful racists—this is what they want.” What does it say about the Republican Party that he’s doing so well?
Erickson: The Republican Party created Donald Trump, because they made a lot of promises to their base and never kept them.
At this point, most of the people I encounter on radio and on the internet, they’re not really people who at the end of the day want to vote for Donald Trump. But they sure do like that he’s burning down the Republican Party that never listened to them to begin with.