Back in 2013, a longtime friend of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks ‘the Squad’ as ‘racist group of troublemakers’ MORE’s, Michael Caputo, sought to persuade the real estate mogul and reality TV star to run for governor of New York the following year.
Trump, Caputo told The Hill, said he preferred to aim for “the big thing” — the presidency.
When the discussion turned to how Trump would stand out from other candidates who would likely seek the GOP’s 2016 nomination for the White House, Trump had a simple answer.
“He saw how to manipulate the media better than any potential opponent,” Caputo recalled. “And later, as I watched him eliminate his opponents one by one, his expertise was completely clear.”
Trump’s compulsion to dominate the media agenda has driven him to more and more inflammatory tactics.
On Monday, Trump ratcheted up the heat again.
He renewed the feud on Twitter with the four Democratic congresswomen known as “the squad” that has seen him widely accused of racism, including by some GOP lawmakers.
Seeking to reverse that charge, the president accused the four Democrats — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezIllinois GOP group shares, then deletes meme labeling minority congresswomen ‘Jihad Squad’ Trump’s calculated climate of fear Two Democrats vow to press forward on Trump impeachment MORE (N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarTrump attacks ‘the Squad’ as ‘racist group of troublemakers’ Rep. Haaland says Trump’s go-back remarks ‘perplexing and wrongheaded’ to Native Americans Trump blasts ‘bonkers’ media spewing ‘Radical Left Democrat views’ MORE (Minn.), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyTrump attacks ‘the Squad’ as ‘racist group of troublemakers’ Rep. Haaland says Trump’s go-back remarks ‘perplexing and wrongheaded’ to Native Americans Trump blasts ‘bonkers’ media spewing ‘Radical Left Democrat views’ MORE (Mass.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibTrump attacks ‘the Squad’ as ‘racist group of troublemakers’ Rep. Haaland says Trump’s go-back remarks ‘perplexing and wrongheaded’ to Native Americans Trump blasts ‘bonkers’ media spewing ‘Radical Left Democrat views’ MORE (Mich.) — of being “a very racist group of troublemakers.”
Old allies like Caputo retain their faith in the president’s touch, arguing that he is forcing the Democratic Party onto his preferred territory. But others, including some in the GOP, are much more skeptical.
Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, said he believed Trump had been on the right track at the very outset of the furor, when the president defended Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi, Mnuchin reach ‘near-final agreement’ on budget, debt ceiling Wendy Davis launches bid for Congress in Texas Steyer calls on Pelosi to cancel ‘six-week vacation’ for Congress MORE (D-Calif.) from the four progressive congresswomen in a way that seemed designed to deepen rifts among Democrats.
“I thought that was a very shrewd way to get in and blow that fight up even bigger. If he’d stopped there, that would have been very smart,” Heye said. “But this is now taking the country into a very negative place, where it didn’t need to go.”
The “racist group of troublemakers” jab came at the end of a string of other controversial tweets, with the president lashing out against the Federal Reserve (“misguided”), The Washington Post (“fake news”), the mainstream media (“bonkers”) and former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerThis week: Mueller dominates chaotic week on Capitol Hill Top Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have ‘no choice’ but to prosecute Trump for obstruction MORE (“highly conflicted”).
Later, during a visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Trump insisted it was only the fact that he didn’t want to “kill 10 million people” that prevented him from winning “that war [in Afghanistan] in a week.”
Virtually no one on any part of the political spectrum believes Trump is going to change his political behavior at this point.
Any sense that he would moderate the tone heard on the 2016 campaign trail had mostly evaporated within weeks of his taking office.
The idea that he would build a reelection strategy aimed at broadening his support toward the middle ground has come to seem equally risible.
Trump allies adamantly deny the charge of racism and insist that he is successfully baiting the media and Democrats.
Members of the media often repeat his central charges even as they criticize or dispute them. Democrats, meanwhile, can get baited into debating on Trump’s terms.
In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s first tweets against “the squad,” the four Democratic congresswomen held a news conference at the Capitol, warning against allowing Trump’s words to become a distraction.
Yet that’s exactly what has happened.
Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio host and longtime Trump critic, said that as he watched the news conference, “I was thinking, this is exactly what Donald Trump wants. He wants the focus on these four, and as long as they are the focus, he thinks he has accomplished what he wants. He thinks he is winning.”
Sykes made clear his distaste for Trump’s politics — he said it was “obvious” to him that Trump’s attacks were racist, given how he attacked four nonwhite congresswomen for their supposed radical beliefs rather than white left-wingers such as Sens. Bernie SandersBernie Sanders‘Medicare for All’: The hype v. Maryland’s reality Biden says he supports paying campaign staff minimum wage Biden’s lead narrows in early voting states: poll MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren warns another ‘economic crash’ is coming The Hill’s Morning Report — Mueller Time: Dems, GOP ready questions for high-stakes testimony Biden’s lead narrows in early voting states: poll MORE (D-Mass.), both of whom are prominent 2020 presidential candidates.
At the same time, Sykes said, Trump’s approach could work.
“He is pursuing a strategy, not of broadening his base, but of stoking loyalty and energy among his base. So maybe he will lose California by an additional 5 percentage points, but he is hoping to maximize the white working-class voter turnout” in states that could ultimately be more electorally important.
Another “Never Trump” conservative, GOP strategist and author Rick Wilson, agreed, with a similar focus on the Electoral College.
“In 35 states, the election is already over,” Wilson said, referring to states that are safely in the Republican or Democratic column. “But in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona, there is still very much an election.”
“The demographic character of those places has not changed all that much,” Wilson added. “It has not become particularly diverse, or hip or young or Hispanic. In those places, old white dudes are a big part of the vote.”
Still, it is an open question whether Trump’s willingness to ignite controversy on some of the most delicate topics in American life will deliver the same kind of electoral success as in 2016.
Skepticism is built on poll findings that suggest widespread concern about his tactics.
A new CBS News/YouGov poll found that 55 percent of adults surveyed disliked Trump’s tweets about “the squad,” while only 26 percent liked them.
That, in turn, goes to a bigger point: the possibility that Americans might finally be beginning to tire of Trump’s antics, and his relentless need to be at the center of every story.
“The exhaustion level he causes with Americans is constantly rising, because he doesn’t care about anything beyond winning the headline, winning the minute,” said Wilson.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.