June 28, 2020
Donald Trump knows he’s losing.
The president has privately come to that grim realization in recent days, multiple people close to him told POLITICO, amid a mountain of bad polling and warnings from some of his staunchest allies that he’s on course to be a one-term president.
Trump has endured what aides describe as the worst stretch of his presidency, marred by widespread criticism over his response to the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide racial unrest. His rally in Oklahoma last weekend, his first since March, turned out to be an embarrassment when he failed to fill the arena.
What should have been an easy interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity on Thursday horrified advisers when Trump offered a rambling, non-responsive answer to a simple question about his goals for a second term. In the same appearance, the normally self-assured president offered a tacit acknowledgment that he might lose when he said that Joe Biden is “gonna be your president because some people don’t love me, maybe.”
In the hours after the interview aired, questions swirled within his inner circle about whether his heart was truly in it when it comes to seeking reelection.
Trump has time to rebound, and the political environment could improve for him. But interviews with more than a half-dozen people close to the president depicted a reelection effort badly in need of direction — and an unfocused candidate who repeatedly undermines himself.
“Under the current trajectory, President Trump is on the precipice of one the of the worst electoral defeats in modern presidential elections and the worst historically for an incumbent president,” said former Trump political adviser Sam Nunberg, who remains a supporter.
Nunberg pointed to national polls released by CNBC and New York Times/Siena over the past week showing Trump receiving below 40 percent against Biden.
If Trump’s numbers against erode to 35 percentage points over the next two weeks, Nunberg added, “He’s going to be facing realistically a 400-plus electoral vote loss and the president would need to strongly reconsider whether he wants to continue to run as the Republican presidential nominee.”
Behind the scenes, Trump and his team are taking steps to correct course. In the week since his Tulsa rally, the president has grudgingly conceded that he’s behind, according to three people who are familiar with his thinking. Trump, who vented for days about the event, is starting to take a more hands-on role in the campaign and has expressed openness to adding more people to the team. He has also held meetings recently focusing on his efforts in individual battleground states.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who effectively oversees the campaign from the White House, is expected to play an even more active role.
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale was blamed internally for the Tulsa rally failure. Some people complained about him trumpeting that 1 million people had requested tickets, a boast that fell flat when thousands of seats sat empty during Trump’s speech.
Parscale has been a target of some Trump allies who argue the campaign is lacking a coherent strategy and direction. But people close to the president insist that Parscale’s job is safe for now. Trump, who visited the campaign’s Arlington, Virginia headquarters a few months ago, has told people he came away impressed with the sophistication of the organization.
Parscale, whose background is as a digital strategist, has received some reinforcements in recent weeks. Longtime Trump adviser Bill Stepien was given added responsibilities in the campaign, including working with political director Chris Carr and the Republican National Committee on voter turnout. And Jason Miller, a veteran of the 2016 campaign, was brought back to serve as a chief political strategist, a position that had been unfilled.
But those internal moves have done little to calm Republican jitters about the president’s personal performance. Fox News host and Trump favorite Tucker Carlson issued a blunt warning on his show this week that the president “could well lose this election.” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, another close Trump ally, told reporters that the president needs to make the race “more about policy and less about your personality.”
Trump’s team insists the president’s numbers are bound to improve as he steps up his public events and intensifies his attacks on Biden. People involved in the campaign say they have settled on two main avenues to go after the former vice president: That he’s beholden to liberals who want to do away with law and order, and that he’s a consummate Washington insider.
The campaign has begun a massive TV ad campaign going after the 77-year-old former vice president, including over his mental capacity and his nearly five-decade political career. Hoping to make inroads with African-American voters, Trump’s campaign is running ads slamming Biden over his central role in the 1994 crime bill.
The commercials are airing in an array of states including Georgia, a traditionally red state where Trump suddenly finds himself in a fight. The cash-flush campaign is expected to remain on the TV airwaves in a host of key states through the election.
Veterans of Trump’s first presidential campaign liken their current predicament to the nightmarish summer of 2016, when he was buffeted by an array of self-inflicted scandals — from his criticism of a Gold Star family to his attack on a federal judge of Mexican ancestry.
Then as now, Trump trailed badly.
“There was similar fretting in 2016 and if it had been accurate, Hillary Clinton would be in the White House right now. Joe Biden is the weakest Democrat candidate in a generation and we are defining him that way,” said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. “We are four months from Election Day and in the end it will be a clear choice between President Trump’s incredible record of achievement and Joe Biden’s half-century of failure in Washington, D.C.”
Still, Trump advisers acknowledge that tearing down Biden will require a level of discipline he isn’t demonstrating. They have pleaded with Trump — who has used his Twitter account to vilify critics from MSNBC host Joe Scarborough to former National Security Adviser John Bolton — to stop focusing on slights that mean little to voters.
Biden’s low-profile during the pandemic has made it that much harder for Trump to land a punch, his advisers said.
But Republicans say he and his campaign need to figure out something soon.
“The key factor has been that Biden has been able to stay out of the race,” said David McIntosh, the president of the pro-Trump Club for Growth. “Republicans have to start defining Biden and put resources and effort and consistent messaging behind it.”