Donald Trump's mensis horribilis: Why June was such a disastrous month for the US president

As demoralising as June was for many Republicans, what was less visible were the frenetic attempts by top Republicans to soothe Trump and steer him away from self-sabotage, while also manipulating him to serve their own purposes

The New York Times July 03, 2020 07:03:44 IST
Donald Trump's mensis horribilis: Why June was such a disastrous month for the US president

Washington: Last Saturday night, over dinner at the White House, Bernard Marcus, a top Republican donor, told President Donald Trump he was alarmed at Trump’s plummeting poll numbers and Jared Kushner’s stewardship of his father-in-law’s reelection effort.

Trump sought to assuage Marcus’ concerns, assuring the billionaire Home Depot founder that his political fortunes would soon change in part because he was bringing in “good people” to steady his campaign, according to a person briefed on their conversation.

The next morning, before setting off for a round of golf, the president tweeted a video from a Florida retirement community that featured a Trump supporter yelling, “white power,” setting Trump’s aides on a scramble to reach him on the course and have him delete the message.

As Trump heads to Mount Rushmore on Friday to spend the Independence Day holiday in the carved presence of presidential greatness, he is suffering through the most trying stretch of his administration thanks in large part to his self-inflicted wounds. June represented the political nadir of his three-and-a-half years in the Oval Office, when a race in which he had been steadily trailing, but faring respectably, broke open and left him facing the possibility of not just defeat but humiliation this fall.

The disconnect between the surge in coronavirus cases and Trump’s dismissive stance toward the pandemic has been particularly pronounced, mystifying Democrats and Republicans alike; this week, as some states halted their reopening because of a record-setting number of new cases, the president predicted the virus would “just disappear”.

In addition to public surveys showing him losing decisively to Joe Biden in a number of battleground states, private Republican polls in recent weeks show the president struggling even in conservative states, leading Biden by less than five points in Montana and trailing him in Georgia and even Kansas, according to GOP officials who have seen the data.

Last month’s convergence of crises, and the president’s missteps in responding to them, have been well-chronicled: His inflammatory response to racial justice protesters and his ill-considered rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma; his refusal to acknowledge the resurgent virus or seriously address detailed reports about Russian operatives’ putting a cash bounty on American soldiers. It’s this kind of behaviour, polls indicate, that has alienated swaths of swing voters.

“People are making judgments about the president’s performance there and how he’s handling it,” said John Thune of South Dakota, the second-ranking Senate Republican, making no attempt to sugarcoat what he acknowledged has become a referendum on Trump’s performance. “Sometimes you get dealt a hand and you got to play it.”

Yet as demoralising as June was for many Republicans, what was less visible were the frenetic, and often fruitless, attempts by top Republicans to soothe the president and steer him away from self-sabotage, while also manipulating him to serve their own purposes.

One Republican official who is in frequent contact with the campaign expressed incredulity at how some aides wilfully distort the electoral landscape to mollify Trump, recalling one conversation in which they assured him he was faring well in Maine, a state where private polling shows he’s losing.

Interviews with almost four dozen Republican lawmakers, strategists and administration officials about Trump’s reelection bid paint a picture of a White House and a reelection effort adrift, at once paralysed by Trump’s erratic behaviour yet also dependent on him to execute his own Houdini-like political escape. Most of those interviewed requested anonymity to freely discuss internal deliberations and to avoid retribution from the president.

Trump continues to hope for an economic recovery he can run on in the final four months of the campaign, and Thursday he trumpeted as a sign of progress the employment report showing 4.8 million jobs gained in June. But it is not clear that Trump will get much credit for a partial — and possibly fleeting — rebound when coronavirus cases are soaring.

Some of Trump’s advisors say their internal polling is more competitive than myriad public surveys showing the president in a deep hole. The debates, which could reorient the race, still loom, and even as Biden catches up, the president still enjoys substantial fundraising and organisational advantages.

On Thursday morning, top White House and campaign aides met to lay out a schedule for Trump through July, one that allows for politicking but, in a nod to Tulsa, at a far smaller scale than his signature rallies.

People close to the White House said that Trump remains stubbornly determined to feed the appetites of his hard-right base and deliver a message about what he describes as his great achievements in office. He’s also eager to re-create his tiny 2016 team.

Indeed, his well-financed political apparatus is more than ever a family affair, controlled by a small handful of Trump relatives and retainers who are exceedingly indulgent of the candidate — and often at war with one another.

In an interview, Kushner, whose influence in the administration is exceeded only by Trump, said his strategy amounted to letting the president dictate his own reelection.

“He’s really the campaign manager at the end of the day,” Kushner said, adding: “Our job is to present him with data, give him ideas, help him structure. And then when he makes decisions on where he wants to go, the campaign was designed to be like a custom suit for him.”

Letting Trump be Trump will delight some of his most committed supporters, but it is likely to dishearten Republicans who are already nervous about losing the Senate and yielding further ground in the House.

Some of the president’s closest outside allies are attempting to devise more of a strategic plan for his reelection.

Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, sent the president a memo last week that White House officials described as a blunt warning that he will lose if he does not stop running the 2016 campaign all over again and urging him to develop a clear vision for the next four years.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who joined Trump for his golf outing Sunday, is urging him to run as more of a populist on issues like stimulus spending, infrastructure and prescription drugs to combat the virus-driven recession.

A handful of Trump’s allies are more focused on the staff than the candidate. They are agitating for him to overhaul his operation and effectively demote the campaign manager, Brad Parscale; that’s a move Kushner has been encouraging in the wake of the Tulsa debacle, for which he has blamed Parscale, according to people familiar with his thinking.

But some of the president’s closest advisors believe that is unlikely to happen, in part because Trump is loath to take advice from new strategists anyway.

Kushner and Parscale appear increasingly at odds. Kushner has sent mixed signals about his view of the campaign manager: In a meeting with Republican officials this week, Kushner repeatedly shushed Parscale and told him to “shut up,” according to multiple people familiar with the events, but at other times he has urged friends of the president to tell Trump they think Parscale is doing a good job.

To some of Trump’s allies, including some in the conservative news media, the outsized role Kushner plays is part of the problem. And Trump, for his part, has been dismissive of Kushner in discussions with advisors in recent weeks, on matters including criminal justice reform, and has indicated that he wants to follow his own impulses, not his son-in-law’s, on how to campaign.

It’s those impulses that members of Trump’s inner circle spend much of their time on, seeking to quell his agitation over his sagging electoral prospects. Last week, for example, a handful of his White House advisors, but not Parscale, gathered in the Map Room to lift Trump’s spirits by showing him new campaign advertising.

Equally revealing — at a moment when Trump is bleeding support from Independents and some moderate Republicans — is how often his advisors pacify him by highlighting his standing with voters he largely has in hand: Those who participate in party primaries.

His campaign frequently trumpets the president’s record of success in influencing nominating contests, and in private, campaign officials wield his endorsement as a barely-veiled threat.

In an email last month that was shared with Senate Republican chiefs of staff, Trump’s White House political director, Brian Jack, reminded the head of the Senate Republican campaign arm about the president’s then-unblemished record of endorsements.

“After last night’s election results,” Jack wrote in the message, obtained by The New York Times, “candidates endorsed by Trump are now 64-0 in Congressional special and primary elections since the midterms.”

Such boasting, though, only drew more attention to an otherwise obscure House runoff last month for the North Carolina seat previously held by Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff. Meadows’ wife nudged Trump to endorse a candidate who wound up getting trounced, leaving the president unhappy with Meadows.

There have been strides, if tardy ones, toward a more functional political structure. A key Florida-based operative who was dismissed because the governor of Florida wanted her fired was suddenly brought back this week.

And after he endorsed Kris Kobach, the firebrand Republican, in the 2018 Kansas governor’s race only to see him lose the General Election in a deeply red state, Trump has played a hands-on role in attempting to deny Kobach the nomination for a Senate seat.

Last month, the president called David McIntosh, head of the conservative Club for Growth, and persuaded him to have the group take down its ads attacking a rival to Kobach, Representative Roger Marshall, who is favoured by many establishment-aligned Republicans. Still, Trump has not gone as far as endorsing Marshall, telling allies he did not want to anger his own voters by openly spurning Kobach.

Yet the campaign and the White House are still rife with fiefs.

Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former television personality who’s dating Trump’s eldest son, controls an expanding fundraising division that is paying at least one donor, socialite Somers Farkas, to help raise money.

At the same time, the campaign has quietly unwound a team dedicated to coordinating Vice-President Mike Pence’s activities, shedding a group of staff members assigned to him.

Trump is sometimes unaware of moves made in his name, even though Kushner has made it part of his role to ensure that people don’t take advantage of him. At times, his newness to national politics haunts him as other Republicans seek to have him promote their agendas.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, for example, had lobbied the president to endorse Tony Gonzales for an open south Texas seat over a more hard-line candidate they feared would have little chance in the general election.

But Trump grew uneasy after a call from Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who urged him not to take sides against Raul Reyes, a build-the-wall border hawk. Cruz endorsed Reyes on Tuesday, and it is now unclear what the president will do.

What mystifies many Republicans about Trump is why he is so unwilling to take easy steps that could help remedy his political difficulties.

The most visible example is Trump’s refusal to promote mask-wearing to fight the virus, which poses perhaps the most dire threat to his reelection. Several advisors have privately urged him to do so, to little avail.

“What I find hard to understand is that in order for the president to get reelected, he’s going to want to see a really strong economy,” Senator Mitt Romney said, adding that a recovery can’t happen without slowing the spread of the virus, which includes wearing masks. “So I would think the president would be on the air hammering his base to get the economy back and win the election.”

Romney’s lament illustrates the limits on the ability of Trump’s staff to influence him.

The president has resisted appeals from some advisors to start an onslaught of television advertising against Biden. Several people in touch with Trump and his campaign said the president strongly preferred seeing positive ads about his own accomplishments to negative ones about Biden. And he has told people he believes the race won’t be decided until October, as it was last time.

Mike Shields, a GOP strategist involved in outside-spending efforts to support Trump, said Republicans had to seize the opportunity to sully Biden in a new way. He said efforts to brand Biden as nearly senile were not working.

“He should not be portrayed as doddering; he should be portrayed as what he is: Someone who will drown our vulnerable economy and gladly sign Nancy Pelosi’s radical Left legislation into law,” Shields said, adding of Biden, “General Election voters simply don’t know this yet, so the sooner the better.”

Such a plan of attack would, however, require a disciplined president. Asked if his advisors could separate Trump from his Twitter feed as they did for a stretch in 2016, a senior administration official laughed and said Trump would do what he wanted.

Or, as Senator Rick Scott of Florida put it: “He is who he is. People know who he is. You think he’s going to change?”

Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns c.2020 The New York Times Company

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