Trump Hopes to Win Next Year, But Is Trying Not To
President Trump really wants to win reelection next year, he just acts like he doesn’t. After all, since polls started showing him losing to several Democrats, and by double digits to former Vice President Joe Biden, he’s been furiously shoveling that hole he’s in to make it ever deeper. And spending most of his campaign kickoff talking about Hillary Clinton, announcing plans to live-tweet the Democratic primary debates next week and continuing to say China pays for the tariffs are just the sprinkles, not the frosting or the cake.
The connection between Trump’s constant lying, norm trampling and undermining of democracy and his inability to reach 50% approval on even one day of his presidency seems lost on him. So he’s responded with more norm smashing, flouting the separation of powers, deepening an unpopular trade war and lying wildly some more, while throwing in some self-pity for good measure.
In the months before Biden entered the race Trump shut down the government, declared a national emergency his party begged him not to declare, and then threatened to shut down the border. More recently, in between talking way too much about Biden, Trump of course threatened tariffs on Mexico. All of these dramatic spectacles were criticized by members of both parties.
So perhaps the president thought inviting ABC News to trail him in Iowa, on Air Force One, inside the armored presidential limousine nicknamed The Beast, and then back at the White House in the Oval Office and Rose Garden would be a good reset -- a way to present a calm, focused candidate ready to reach out to the middle and win a general election campaign.
Instead, Trump spent 30 hours making a series of self-destructive statements to George Stephanopoulos. It was an epic meltdown as Trump embraced foreign government help in the coming election, declared his FBI director “wrong” for saying campaigns receiving it should notify the FBI, said he hoped there was not a nuclear threat from North Korea because he believes Kim Jong Un “likes me,” that no president (including those who have been assassinated, specifically citing Abraham Lincoln) were ever mistreated as much he has been, and that his former White House counsel Don McGahn lied in his 30 hours of sworn testimony to the special counsel about Trump asking him to fire Robert Mueller (which he did twice) because -- wait for it -- “he wanted to make himself look like a good lawyer.”
This prompted more calls for impeachment and new bills to mandate notification of the FBI if any campaign is offered information by foreign governments, but Trump was too focused on the leaking of his own internal polling to notice. While the public surveys all show the same trend -- every national poll and every state poll has him losing to Biden, losing to other top Democratic contenders and losing swing states -- his own campaign data was grimmer. The Trump internal surveys not only showed the president losing the critical states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, but also Iowa, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia, with only a two-point lead in Texas.
More than 16 months from Election Day, these polls predict nothing, and Trump is likely to match up more closely to a specific Democrat once he or she secures the nomination next spring, but they show weaknesses the president should work to shore up. Trump’s response to bad polling, however, is to deny reality and kill the messenger, so he fired three pollsters. Trump told Stephanopoulos that “those polls don’t exist. I just had a meeting with somebody that's a pollster and I’m winning everywhere, so I don't know what you’re talking about.”
Trying to win would involve course corrections, which Trump doesn’t do. It would require acknowledging that while he wasn’t on the ballot in 2018 midterms there were trends in that election worth paying attention to -- like his own voters supporting Democrats. In a new Fox News poll only 31% of white non-college women voters -- a big part of his base -- said his economic policies benefit them while 51% say they benefit people with money or no one. Trying to win would also involve admitting that Trump caught lightning in a bottle in 2016 and but for 77,740 votes in three states -- when Jill Stein’s margin was material in two of them -- he would have lost.
But that’s not in the campaign plan. “Not only is … Donald Trump the incumbent president, he is also the campaign manager, the comms director, the political director and more,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the campaign. “The campaign is an extension of him and as such we absolutely follow his lead.”
After all the denial, Trump told Time magazine on Monday that he would be 15 points higher in approval ratings, essentially acknowledging that poll findings are real, if it weren’t for the Mueller “witch hunt.” Of course, if Trump were the victim of a real witch hunt he would not amplify the perception of guilt by enforcing a historic blockade against Congress, ordering any witness to either defy subpoenas or refuse participation at hearings, using a fake form of executive privilege that doesn’t apply to people like former aide Hope Hicks.
Unfortunately for the president, Americans seem to believe law enforcement officials over Trump on what a majority clearly does not think is a witch hunt. The percentage of respondents who in the new Fox poll think the Trump campaign “coordinated with the Russians” went from 40% in January of 2017 to 44% in March of 2019 and jumped -- after people either read Mueller’s report or the coverage of it -- to 50% this month. Drawing attention to the startling findings, Trump made sure to tweet about it, writing that “Fox News polls are always bad for me...something weird going on at Fox.”
The president is good at attracting attention to his liabilities, and aware that health care remains one of the Republicans’ worst vulnerabilities going into 2020, he chose to step in it again. He told Stephanopoulos there’s yet another plan coming in two months, then a few sentences later changed it to a month. When he revisited the repeal-and-replace debacle this winter, Senate Republicans rebuffed him and he had to back down and pledge to introduce a health care reform bill right after the 2020 election. This new fake plan was met with the same slap-down, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell went on Fox to make clear the president was on his own. “We’re looking forward to seeing what he’s going to recommend,” he said, which means there’s no plan, just the president spouting off again and helping Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi leapt to blast Trump’s record on health care as a GOP Senate staffer told The Hill, “We don’t actually agree with each other on what replacement should be, which means we don’t have a replacement that Republicans can unite around,” saying the president’s promise was a “political gift for Democrats.”
There will soon be a more dangerous opportunity for President Trump to bring himself political pain, as in just 10 weeks Congress must pass a spending package that raises the debt ceiling, funds the government and lifts the Budget Control Act caps to avoid sequestration. Discussions with Democrats, for a package that could be voted on by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, cannot begin until Republicans resolve their differences with the White House. An on-the-record quote about the disagreements, from Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, spoke volumes about how worried Republicans are that the White House could force a fight that ends in a government shutdown or a debt default.
“We’re negotiating with ourselves right now,” Shelby told the Washington Post. “The president, the administration, has some views, maybe that are a little different sometimes than the Senate Republicans have. So we’re trying to see if we can be together as best we can.” Shelby said this after McConnell already failed, in meeting with the president alone, to convince him to sign off on a bipartisan package. A weeks-long recess in August leaves few legislative days to clinch a deal.
The president -- and Lord knows what the polls will be showing in mid-September -- does love leverage and stand-offs and will create a fight at the fiscal cliff; the only question is how large or small it will be and how damaging not only to his candidacy but to the markets and our credit rating.