- President Donald Trump and his campaign have yet to find a strong strategy for addressing the massive nationwide protests against police violence.
- Trump and his campaign have ping-ponged between messages focused on shoring up his base in the Christian right and attacking former Vice President Joe Biden to siphon his support among black voters.
- Current and former advisers describe a campaign that was beleaguered even before the protests engulfed the country, and it has only gotten worse since then.
- A 2016 Trump aide said the president’s Monday visit to St. John’s Church was a missed opportunity. “He should have gone over there and inspected the damage, or if he was going over there with a Bible, he should have prayed,” the person said.
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President Donald Trump and his campaign are struggling to find a coherent strategy with the clock ticking toward Election Day.
That’s the takeaway from interviews with a half-dozen members of the president’s circle of loyalists who see a reelection effort tossing out different messages by the day in a struggle to regain the narrative amid the double whammy of the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests over the Memorial Day death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.
It’s been a whirlwind 72 hours, even by Trump standards. The president has ping-ponged between a focus on his piousness, attacks on Joe Biden’s lengthy record with African Americans, and a promise he is the “law and order president” akin to Richard Nixon’s successful 1968 bid for the White House.
As the president hemorrhages support — his current and former Defense secretaries joined the list on Wednesday — people close to the 2020 campaign say they are frustrated at the lack of a clear strategy.
“They think they had a pretty good narrative until all of this happened,” said a Trump 2016 campaign adviser in touch with the re-election effort. “They want to recapture the narrative.”
Trump isn’t doing himself any favors
The protests over Floyd’s death hit just as Trump’s team was finding its footing after a rocky two months since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Jared Kushner led an overhaul inside the campaign last week, installing former White House political director Bill Stepien as it’s new de facto campaign manager. And campaign aides have been talking up how to get Trump back to his in-person campaign rallies, possibly as soon as next month.
But his focus on energizing his base has cost him support with the broader electorate. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday found 64 percent of Americans surveyed were “sympathetic” to those protesting police violence and Floyd’s death. The poll found that 55 percent of respondents disapproved of Trump’s response to the protests.
Trump hasn’t done himself any favors.
Consider his trip to St. John’s Church on Monday and then to the St. John Paul II shrine on Tuesday. The president’s goal in the two Washington D.C. outings was to showcase his ties to the conservative Christian base and appeal to suburbanites and independents with his “law and order” proclamation.
But the forceful removal of protesters camped outside the White House by federal police instead drew criticism from across the political spectrum, including an admonition from famous televangelist Pat Robertson.
On Wednesday, Trump tried another tactic. He pivoted to attacking former Vice President Joe Biden over his support for the 1994 crime bill that increased the number of minorities locked up across the nation while touting his support of historically black colleges and universities.
The aim: Undercut African American support for Biden, a critical demographic for Democrats if they’re going to win back the White House.
But he stepped on his own message again as military troops for a third straight day cordoned off federal buildings from looters and activists protesting police violence against blacks in the wake of Floyd’s death.
Priority No. 1: Keeping the Christian right satisfied
Trump’s walk to St. John’s Church, his advisers said, was also a nod to Christian right voters, one of the biggest groups the president must hold to win in November.
But the trip, which the White House memorialized with a campaign-style video, drew criticism from a cross section of religious figures, from Robertson to the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which oversees St. John’s Church, and the Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C.
The former Trump adviser said those complaints can be brushed off easily because the church leaders are left of center and Robertson has lost a step with the Christian right during the Trump era to leaders like Franklin Graham. But there is still a widespread recognition the president needs to do more to keep the Christian right happy.
“I thought going over to the church was a good idea, it showed he wasn’t locked in the basement,” the former adviser said. But this person also complained that the quick trip didn’t get executed well.
“He should have gone over there and inspected the damage, or if he was going over there with a Bible, he should have prayed,” the 2016 Trump adviser said.
‘Casting doubt’ on Biden’s record with African Americans
Trump advisers have also been urging him for months to launch the kind of attack that he leveled Wednesday on Biden over his support of the 25-year old crime bill. The goal is to both peel away some of the presumptive Democratic nominee’s African American support— or just depress turnout from the demographic come November in critical battlegrounds like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Earlier Wednesday, Trump signaled the pivot away from the religious focus (for now), tweeting “In 3 1/2 years, I’ve done much more for our Black population than Joe Biden has done in 43 years.”
By contrast, Biden has made white supremacists’ support for Trump, and Trump’s own comments that white supremacists protesters in Charlottesville three years ago included some “very fine people”, a centerpiece of his campaign.
Trump advisers have argued he should own policy victories for African Americans, like his signing of sweeping criminal justice reform legislation almost two years ago, and his work with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West.
“At the end of the day it’s not just about him winning their votes,” said Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary who on Wednesday aired an interview with Trump for his new gig as the host of a nightly show on the conservative network Newsmax.
“It’s also about him casting doubt about them voting for Biden. From that standpoint it can be effective,” Spicer added.
Trump adviser: St. John’s visit wasn’t intended for the blue coastal states
The focus on messaging “law and order” plays well to an important crowd of Americans who are angry at the looting and destruction of businesses that has often overshadowed the protests against police violence, Trump advisers tell Insider.
“The president’s going to take action and stand up,” said a 2020 campaign adviser.
She noted that Trump’s walk to St. John’s and clearing of the protesters wasn’t meant to appeal to people who live in blue states on both US coasts. The president instead was speaking to his supporters, including the business owners who’ve had their businesses looted.
“If the media is going to be ridiculous against us and not get the pulse of the real people, he will go out and talk to them directly,” the Trump adviser said.
But Trump’s shocking law and order response to the protest nonetheless drew sharp criticism from even inside his most ardent supporters.
Robertson said Tuesday that Trump should be uniting and healing the country, and that forcing out protesters “isn’t cool.” And Trump’s own defense secretary, Mark Esper, said he opposed sending in military troops and even said they could leave their posts — though he later reversed course following a meeting at the White House.
Another startling response came from Trump’s former defense secretary, James Mattis, who said in a statement submitted to The Atlantic that Trump was tearing apart the country in a style akin to the Nazis.
“‘Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that ‘The Nazi slogan for destroying us … was ‘Divide and Conquer,'” Mattis wrote.
“Our American answer is ‘In Union there is Strength,'” he continued. “We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis—confident that we are better than our politics.”
Paul Winfree, a former top deputy for domestic policy at the Trump White House and now with the Heritage Foundation, summed up the campaign’s problem as a straightforward one that leaves the burden on the president.
“Biden is not going to defeat Trump on policy,” he said in an interview. “Biden is going to defeat Trump on not being Trump. Trump knows that.”