President Donald Trump’s initial racist jab at a foursome of Democratic congresswomen came as a surprise – and not a pleasant one – to many of his aides, who began texting about how to defend their boss’ tweets minutes after he fired them off.
Three days later, the shock has faded and the tweet is being used to frame a long-term political strategy.
Trump views his attacks on the four congresswomen of color as an unbridled political success, people familiar with his thinking say, and plans to continue his efforts as he moves into a period of politicking.
“I’m not relishing the fight. I’m enjoying it because I have to get the word out to the American people,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday. “And you have to enjoy what you do. I enjoy what I do.”
Despite initial queasiness from some aides at the overtly racist implications of Trump’s attacks on the minority lawmakers, most now say the President’s tactic of tying the liberal “squad” to the larger Democratic Party is a winning tactic. Many have come to his defense, declaring him correct in his view that critics of the United States should move somewhere else.
In meetings at the White House this week, Trump and his aides have devised talking points to continue his attacks and defend against accusations of racism. The topic has overtaken West Wing policy sessions as Trump looks to harness what he views as political momentum.
The President has arrived to his last two public appearances prepared to redouble his attacks and escalate his rebuke of the lawmakers: Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
He carried a bulleted list of talking points to an event on American manufacturing on Monday (though didn’t stick to it). During a Cabinet meeting a day later, he pointed to a document he said contained “a list of things here said by the congresswomen that is so bad, so horrible, that I almost don’t want to read it.”
Picking his foils
Trump has settled on a strategy of painting the freshman lawmakers as the face of the Democratic Party, though they don’t hold formal leadership positions. He’s equated the rush of support for the four women from fellow Democrats as a sign of support for their far-left policy positions, including on the environment and heath care.
That discounts the deep divides that remain among Democrats, including between the progressive lawmakers and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Some of Trump’s political allies have encouraged the President to exploit those divisions as the party prepares to nominate a formal standard bearer to challenge him for the White House.
But Trump has chosen the opposite route, believing that by forcing Democrats to rally around their more controversial members, the entire party will appear more extreme.
“The reason my father is going to win again, this isn’t the party of JFK anymore. This isn’t the Democratic Party,” the President’s son, Eric Trump, said on Fox News. “I mean, this is literally a radical socialist party that does not relate to every day Americans.”
Pelosi rejected Trump’s attempts at framing her party during a Wednesday news conference.
“We’re not having him set our agenda. We’ll set our own agenda,” she said.
Still, Trump’s attacks have undoubtedly raised the profile of the congresswomen, particularly as the large field of Democratic presidential candidates continues to work to distinguish themselves on the issues. His characterization of them as radical communists – if not his racist rebuke they “go back” to where they came from – has been adopted by many Republican officials.
Consternation to support
Even as they express their support for Trump, some of the President’s allies have encouraged him to avoid the inflammatory rhetoric that could unite Democrats in outrage and opposition. Sen. Lindsey Graham, otherwise supportive, told him to “aim higher.” Sen. John Kennedy told reporters, “When you argue with a fool, it just proves there are two.”
But Trump has chosen to largely ignore the gentile nudges toward civility and focus instead on the backing he’s received from the overwhelming majority of elected Republicans. He tweeted words of support from both Graham and Kennedy, skipping over their light criticism. He has signaled no intent to back off his assertions that the group represents a radical new party with little appeal to most voters.
He tweeted a video on Wednesday showing footage of himself greeting law enforcement officers and military service members set to Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American,” with text at the end proclaiming: “America: One ‘Squad’ Under God” – an unsubtle nod to the congresswomen’s nickname.
The messaging presages a divisive 15-month campaign that could prove even darker than the contentious 2016 contest. The strategy mirrors his warnings of migrant “caravans” pouring across the border ahead of the 2018 midterm contests, elections where the GOP suffered.
Rallying the base
Now, Trump is eager to solidify his core voter base, even as some of his political advisers encourage him to expand his appeal.
That includes women, as evidenced by the launch Tuesday of “Women for Trump” in suburban King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The President has also sought to highlight his record on jobs for women and minorities.
At a rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on Wednesday evening, Trump is expected to continue touting a strong economy – but also to repeat his attacks and defend himself against accusations of racist nativism.
“Lots of great things to tell you about, including the fact that our Economy is the best it has ever been,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning. “I’ll talk also about people who love, and hate, our Country.”
He’s set to continue his campaign push August 1 in Cincinnati, a city like Greenville with a large black population. Trump’s campaign has sought to expand his political support beyond the white base of voters who propelled him to the presidency in 2016. Some view the increasingly divisive rhetoric as a hindrance.
“He’s obviously trying to trigger people and maybe he’s trying to engage his base. I mean, maybe that is a successful strategy for 2020,” said one-time White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci on CNN’s “The Lead.”
“But I think a more successful strategy would be to focus on the growth in the economy and policies and go after moderates and independents that I think he needs, if you look at the electoral college map, he needs those people to win,” Scaramucci added.