AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Donald Trump says the shackles are off both with his Democratic rival and the people in his own party. Trump lashed out at Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan on Twitter this morning. That's after Ryan said he would not defend Trump. And this all comes exactly four weeks to Election Day.
Now, to help us sort out what's going on is NPR's political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hey there, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So Donald Trump tweeted this morning that, quote, "the shackles have been taken off me, and I can now fight for America the way I want to." What does that look like?
LIASSON: Well, you might be excused for asking if the shackles are off now, what was he before? He is definitely in a more unfettered state. In his remarks at a rally in Pennsylvania yesterday, for instance, he called Bill Clinton a predator. He's also been in a tweet war with the media and the Republican establishment. The new, free-to-be-me Donald Trump is calling Paul Ryan a weak leader, predicting that Republicans who break with him will lose their elections.
And this actually started before Paul Ryan announced that he would be no longer defending Trump. This is the strategy that Trump started the day of the debate when he brought three women who had accused Bill Clinton of rape and sexual assault and tried to put them in the front row of the audience.
This horrified Republicans who had advised him not to do this not because Republicans don't feel that Bill Clinton has gotten away with sexual crimes; it's just they think that attacking Bill Clinton is not an effective defense for Donald Trump, who's still dealing with the fallout from that "Access Hollywood" tape. And Trump is running against Bill Clinton's wife, not Bill Clinton.
CORNISH: And then there's a new ad from the Trump campaign today, and maybe you can tell me if this is in line with this new-holds-barred - no-holds-barred strategy. Here it goes.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hillary Clinton doesn't have the fortitude, strength or stamina to lead in our world. She failed as secretary of state. Don't let her fail us again.
DONALD TRUMP: I'm Donald Trump, and I approve this message.
CORNISH: Mara, what do you make of this?
LIASSON: What you see on the screen in that ad are pictures of Hillary Clinton coughing, then being helped to her car on 9/11 when she had pneumonia, then another one of her being helped up some stairs by two men. So Donald Trump is now fully embracing the debunked conspiracy theories about Clinton's health. And the main purveyor of those theories has been breitbart.com, the website that was run by Steve Bannon, who is now the CEO of the Trump campaign.
So it's pretty clear that Trump is comfortable with this scorched-earth kind of campaign. After all, to quote him, what the hell does he have to lose? It's kind of a "Thelma And Louise" strategy. But the other thing about this ad that's interesting is it contradicts his answer in the debate at the end of the debate when he was asked what he respects about Hillary Clinton.
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TRUMP: I will say this about Hillary. She doesn't quit. She doesn't give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is. She's a fighter. I disagree with much of what she's fighting for. I do disagree with her judgment in many cases. But she does fight hard, and she doesn't quit.
LIASSON: So that's a pretty sincere-sounding testimonial to Hillary Clinton's stamina.
CORNISH: Now, talk a little bit, though, about the Republican Party on the whole here because we've been talking so much about Trump's campaign. He's not alone in this.
LIASSON: No. It's been described as open warfare, every man for himself, an elephant stampede. This is a moment of a great many metaphors. But the party establishment has all but conceded defeat. Yesterday Paul Ryan said he's going to just try to protect his congressional seats.
And what's interesting to me is how much Republican heads are already in the aftermath. They're already talking about the fallout and having an argument about who should pay for this. Trump supporters have a hash tag called own it, meaning that anyone who bailed on Trump is responsible for every liberal justice that Hillary Clinton might appoint or every tax she raises.
Then you've got on the other side the never Trumpers who are saying, we told you so; we could have won this race with anyone but him.
LIASSON: So you've got a party in existential crisis.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.