WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump stood before a crowd in a state that had once been firmly in his grasp. There were fewer than three weeks left in the campaign, one reshaped by a virus that has killed more than 215,000 Americans, and he was running out of time to change the trajectory of the race.
He posed a question.
“Did you hear the news?” the president asked the hopeful crowd. “Bruce Ohr is finally out of the Department of Justice.”
There were scattered cheers in the crowd as the president then detailed the fate of a mostly forgotten, minor figure in the Russia probe that feels like a lifetime of news cycles ago.
That moment Wednesday in Iowa, a state Trump won comfortably four years ago but is now seen as competitive, underscored a fundamental challenge facing his reelection campaign: It’s not 2016.
The president’s attempts to recycle attacks he used on Hillary Clinton that year have so far failed to effectively damage Democrat Joe Biden. And Trump has found himself dwelling more and more in the conservative media echo chamber, talking to an increasingly smaller portion of the electorate.
Fueled by personal grievance, the president has tried to amplify stories that diehard Fox News viewers know by heart but have not broken through to a broader public consumed with the sole issue that has defined the campaign: the president's management of the pandemic. Though firing up his base to turn out in huge numbers is a vital part of his campaign’s strategy, Trump’s insistence on fighting the last war has sounded alarms within the Republican party.
“There’s probably no reason to change in his mind when he surrounds himself in an echo chamber where everyone always tells him he’s doing great and he’s always in front of adoring crowds who are cheering for him,” said Brendan Buck, a former top adviser to Republican House Speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner. “They’re running a campaign that tries to recreate the energy from before and there are many other factors that make that a fraught path to reelection.”
In recent days, Trump's campaign has tried to weaponize potentially hacked emails about Biden. Trump’s inner circle has been largely whittled down to the familiar faces of four years ago. A fundraising email sent late Friday was entitled “Lock her up,” the rallying cry against Clinton.
Oftentimes, it feels as though Trump is simply recycling old material.
“Biden’s repeatedly surrendered your jobs to China and other countries,” Trump said last month in North Carolina.
Four years ago in Florida, the line was: “It’s one more way the Clintons have surrendered American prosperity to China and so many other countries.”
And Sunday night in Nevada, he recounted — again — which states he won on Election Night in 2016.
Of course, Trump came from behind in the final stages of that campaign to win the White House. Four years later, his campaign expresses confidence that that attacking Biden’s nearly five decades in Washington, along with unproven allegations of family corruption, can work again.
“The president’s message is clear: he has accomplished more for America in 47 months than Joe Biden has in 47 years,” said Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh. “This boils down to a choice between a political outsider who has shaken up Washington and a failed career politician.”
The Trump campaign believes it has a viable, if narrow path to victory. It has tried to repair his standing among seniors and suburban voters and believes the president can find his way to 270 Electoral College votes again by winning the Sun Belt battlegrounds - Florida, North Carolina, Arizona - while making a huge push in perhaps the most contested state on the map, Pennsylvania.
But some Trump allies and aides believe the campaign’s inability to define Biden, while just resuscitating old talking points, is a failure, one exacerbated by a president who can’t stay on message, according to four campaign officials and Republicans close to the White House not authorized to publicly discuss private discussions.
It also points to a campaign that has been unable to adjust to an election year unlike any in a century.
From the start of the pandemic, Trump sought to downplay the threat of the virus. His scattershot management threatened his standing among seniors, who are a key to his bases. His approach also squandered what is often a normal American instinct during a crisis: to rally around the flag — and the president.
President George W. Bush campaigned for the White House in 2000 as a compassionate conservative. Like Trump, he lost the popular vote in his first race. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks reshaped his presidency, Bush pivoted to an emphasis on national security and ultimately won a majority of votes — and another term.
“When a crisis hits, and a leader grabs hold of the crisis, throws himself into it and as seen as the personification of how to get through it, crisis rebounds to the benefit of that person,” said Ari Fleischer, who was Bush’s press secretary. “President Trump downplayed the crisis enough when he was then viewed as not handling COVID well and has reaped no reward.”
Instead, Trump and his advisers leaned on their fog machine again, amplified by conservative media as it did during the Russia probe and the impeachment investigation. He pushed the Department of Justice to investigate members of the Obama administration and the federal bureaucracy for the investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia.
But a probe into unmasking, a common request by a government official for an intelligence agency to identify someone in contact with a foreigner under surveillance, ended with a whimper. And Attorney General William Barr has said John Durham’s probe — in short, an investigation into the investigators — would not be completed before the election, which drew Trump’s ire.
Last week, allegations about corruption by Biden’s son, Hunter, were met with skepticism, in large part because of questions about the authenticity of an email at the center of the story.
The FBI began investigating whether the emails published by The New York Post related to the younger Biden are connected to a possible Russian influence operation to spread disinformation.
None of the efforts had the impact of Trump’s claims four years ago that Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state endangered national security and alleged she used her government connections to enrich her family. Nor have the Biden emails gained the traction of those hacked from the Clinton campaign and distributed by WikiLeaks.
The one place where the allegations have taken hold is in the conservative media.
Fox News and other outlets have, with regularity, amplified the president’s attacks on the Deep State and ran with unproven allegations against the Obama administration and the Biden family. That, some Republicans believe, creates an echo chamber with Trump, an avid cable news consumer, and convinces him that the storylines are more broadly meaningful than they are.
"He’s in the Fox bubble, he’s not being effective against Biden, he’s throwing stuff up against the wall, it’s not going to work,” said Bill Kristol, former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle and director of Republican Voters Against Trump. “But he’s also an incumbent who is underwater because he’s done a terrible job. No campaign is going to take change that.”
And that bubble, some aides fear, has impacted Trump’s message.
In 2016, Trump stuck to key broad themes — on immigration, trade, corruption and political correctness — and channeled his supporters’ grievances. This year, he’s asking them to share his own.
“This is a fatal flaw for Trump. He needs to speak to what the people care about,” said Tobe Berkovitz, professor of communications and advertising at Boston University. “Yes, it’s COVID, but all the issues spinning around the COVID, like the economy, like can my kids go to school, can I afford cable so the kids can be in on Zoom. That matters. Not this.”
Lemire reported from New York.