In a return to his old fighting form last week, President Trump suggested that his electoral rival, Joe Biden, should go to prison for an unspecified offense he labeled the “greatest political crime in the history of our country.”
In response, Biden did nothing, holding back in silence for hours after Trump’s interview aired Thursday on Fox Business Network, until the presumptive Democratic nominee’s campaign finally sent out a tweet.
“There’s nothing that the American people cannot accomplish when we stand together — one nation, united in purpose,” it read.
The cheery non sequitur underscored a core presumption of Biden’s senior team as it enters a new phase of the presidential campaign, one marked by hourly offensives from one of the most accomplished political pugilists in American history, who now enjoys the largest electoral cash advantage of the modern era.
Biden’s advisers, aware of what Trump is preparing to fire at him, describe themselves as dead set against being triggered by his provocations or engaging with him on his terms. Voters will decide the election, they believe, in response to the crisis now engulfing the nation, not the spectacle of Trump’s Twitter feed.
The most explosive Trump volleys have been dismissed by them as distractions — so far at least — even as Trump’s attacks on the former vice president’s competence and economic record stir more concern and response.
“The context of this race is different than anything anyone has experienced since probably 1932,” said Anita Dunn, a senior strategist for the Biden campaign. “The question that the American people are going to be posed in 2020 will be: Who do you trust as we enter this new phase of this nation’s history?”
Some of Biden’s top advisers have gone even further, predicting that Trump’s tactics of embracing false conspiracy theories and stirring up hurricanes of controversy could backfire, given an unemployment rate approaching 20 percent and a viral pandemic that has already killed nearly 90,000.
“The public is really focused on what matters in this election. And they’re not being dragged into side issues and they are not being dragged into manufactured issues,” said Mike Donilon, the Biden campaign’s senior strategist. “It’s just too serious. So I think Trump is risking a real problem in trying to push the conversation to a place where the country knows that’s not what’s at stake.”
It’s a wager the Trump campaign’s top advisers are happy to take. After more than two months of mixed messages and inconsistent strategy, Trump chose the second week of May to finally launch his campaign at its full power against Biden, attacking his record, his integrity and his mental acuity with a media blitz anchored by about $10 million in television ads in the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, Arizona, Iowa and North Carolina. Trump has focused extensively on Pennsylvania and Florida in recent conversations with political advisers, who met with him in the Oval Office last week.
Pro-Trump ads in the electoral battlegrounds now outnumber Democratic ads for the first time this year, by a margin of about 2 to 1 since the beginning of the month, according to Democratic advertising tracking data provided to The Washington Post. And that is just part of the effort Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale calls “omnichannel,” a reference to the scope of its delivery systems, which include online advertising, social media posts, phone banking and an extensive surrogate operation.
On Facebook, the Trump campaign debuted new ads calling Biden a “corrupt BIG GOVERNMENT SOCIALIST,” and others attacking his record on guns and immigration. One set of digital ads casts the former vice president as a puppet in the hand of Chinese President Xi Jingping, and another photoshops Biden as a spoon-fed invalid in a nursing home with the caption “Too Old?”
Trump allies and advisers are likely to slam Biden for other unproven charges, such as allegations about women and being mentally disabled. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., posted an image Saturday on Instagram that showed an alligator calling Biden a pedophile, an allegation with no foundation. In emojis, the younger Trump indicated he found the image to be funny.
Among the other messages the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign have tested in polling: Biden’s support for the Iran nuclear deal, his boast of wanting to get rid of fossil fuels, his vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement and his support for access to health insurance for undocumented immigrants. They have also tested attacks about members of Biden’s family making money while he held public office, his vote for the Iraq War, his personal wealth and his tendency to stumble over his words.
Among the attacks that have polled better, advisers say: Hitting him on China, NAFTA, support for the Green New Deal and Iran.
Parscale and his team have tested positive messages about Trump and did not get the same results, according to people familiar with the campaign tests. But there are some limits to how well some of the attacks might work. After voters in the 17-state RNC survey were provided an onslaught of negative statements about Biden, the Democrat still won by 1 percent over Trump, compared with 3 percent before they heard the statements, an official familiar with the poll said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the findings.
One adviser said of Trump: “We are testing if he still has the amazing ability to get people to vote for him who say they can’t stand him.”
The sheer volume of attacks is part of the strategy, an effort to overwhelm a Biden campaign that is still finding its footing after a near standing start at the end of the Democratic primaries.
“They don’t have a choice but to just take it on some of these things. They don’t have the war chest or the structural organization to fight a multi-front battle,” said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director. “If they say their strategy is to take gut punch after gut punch and that’s their plan, I’m not sure who’s buying that.”
Talking points distributed Tuesday by the Trump campaign to surrogates asked them to hammer Biden on his support for China gaining entry to the World Trade Organization, opposing “strong trade actions” against China and the evidence-free charge that Biden’s son, Hunter, took $1.5 billion from China. (The younger Biden was involved in a Chinese investment effort during his father’s time as vice president, but there is no public evidence the fund ever attracted that much investment or that the younger Biden profited to that extent.)
Similar scripts were given to Trump’s army of grass-roots volunteers, who have been blitzing key states with phone calls and text messages, according to a campaign official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.
Trump and his advisers see scorched-earth as the way to win. Campaign adviser Bill Stepien has recounted to others being in Trump Tower on Election Day 2016 and telling the president his approval rating was 38 percent — and Trump still believed he would win.
At the same time, Trump has personally taken the lead attacking Biden from the White House, even as he simultaneously denies that Biden is the focus of his campaign.
“I’m not running against Sleepy Joe Biden. He is not even a factor,” Trump tweeted on Saturday. “I’m running against the Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats & their partner, the real opposition party, the Lamestream Fake News Media!”
Over the past week he has questioned Biden’s ability to perform as a candidate and latched on to a recently declassified document showing that Biden was one of 16 officials who requested the unmasking of a person who turned out to be Trump’s first national security adviser, after his conversation with the Russian ambassador was captured in intercepts gathered as part of a foreign intelligence operation after the 2016 election.
The same document says standard procedures were followed during the unmasking, which occurs in every administration, including Trump’s, if top officials can show they need to know the name of Americans or legal residents interacting with foreigners targeted by spy agencies. But Trump has nonetheless alleged that Biden’s actions are part of a criminal conspiracy to undermine his incoming administration, which he has labeled “Obamagate.”
Many Democratic strategists, including those outside the Biden campaign, have warned that the attacks are tangential and should be ignored. “Vote,” tweeted former president Barack Obama in an apparent one-word rejoinder to the attack, which Biden echoed with the phrase, “What he said.”
“If I were them I would be as quiet as a church mouse,” said Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic pollster who has been working with independent groups to help defeat Trump. “Engaging with an arsonist will only light your house on fire.”
Inside the Biden campaign, the greatest concern is raised by Trump attacks that might erode Biden’s standing as a person better able than the president to help the country recover from the coronavirus pandemic. The campaign has hit back on Trump’s China attacks, using the president’s own words to argue in digital videos that it is Trump who is too cozy. And advisers have taken notice of the Trump campaign’s fixation on Biden’s mental competence.
Biden has also launched an economic policy attack on Trump’s coronavirus response, tapping into liberal economic populist arguments that Biden has embraced in past campaigns.
“Trump and his administration are carrying out what is now the largest corporate bailout in American history in a way that is systematically rigged in favor of big businesses, the wealthy, and the financial sector — and against the working people and middle class families,” advised a Biden campaign memo to surrogates on May 8.
The campaign has also focused on health care, a significant Trump weakness, according to internal and external polling.
The Biden campaign has also been playing its own branding game, seeking to build out an online brand identity with a “campaign code” of inclusion, empathy and kindness, words not associated with Trump’s more aggressive style. Campaign videos make jokes about the candidate’s love of ice cream and aviator sunglasses.
His advisers have also been cheered by internal and public polls that show Biden with advantages in key personal attributes and a far more favorable rating among voters than the last Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, had at this point in 2016.
A CNN poll released last week found that Biden had a 12-point advantage over Trump on the question of whether the candidate “cares about people like you,” a 15-point advantage on being “honest and trustworthy” and a 17-point advantage on uniting the country, not dividing it. Biden trailed Trump by three points in a question about who had the sharpness and stamina to be president. Internal Trump polling has shown similar numbers.
While there is no certainty that those numbers will hold up over the Trump blitz to come, Biden and those working to elect him believe they will be better off ignoring much of it.
“By the end of next week they will be done with this and they will go on to the next thing, which is Beijing Biden or whatever,” said Rick Wilson, a Trump foe and Republican consultant. “The Biden campaign needs to just keep one thing in mind: Every reelection is a referendum on the incumbent.”
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