The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee are joining forces to counter-program the upcoming CNN Democratic debates set for Tuesday and Wednesday, but as ever, it’s President Donald Trump who is framing his reelection issues.
His Republican allies have plans that include “street theater” – the placement of Trump supporters around the debate site to create protests and “spectacles” – several local events organized by the RNC and a media blitz across TV and radio.
Trump, however, spent the weekend castigating a prominent African American Democratic lawmaker and his hometown of Baltimore, the second weekend in a row that he’s attacked Democratic lawmakers of color.
From the earliest days of his first campaign, Trump’s free-wheeling style has often scuttled even the best-laid plans of his aides. Campaign officials have long said they take their cues from the President, and his decisions about how to respond to Democrats – and what to respond to – will shape his team’s handling of the second set of primary debates this week.
Campaign and GOP officials have long learned getting too far ahead of the President in messaging can cause problems. Earlier this month, for example, the campaign held a conference call with surrogates directing them to downplay the chants of “send her back” that broke out at Trump’s most recent rally – just hours before Trump himself disavowed the chants altogether. One person familiar with the episode called it “a reminder to everyone and anyone: wait and follow the President’s lead.”
Trump’s allies say they are looking for “moments,” like the episode in one of the first Democratic debates when all 10 candidates onstage raised their hands in support of free health care for undocumented migrants, to amplify and promote. A major focus is highlighting comments or positions from candidates that can be portrayed as far left – fitting neatly into the Trump campaign’s strategy of projecting some of the most extreme positions from some candidates onto all of the Democratic primary field.
As the stars of the debate, Democrats will drive the conversation this week both before and after the events. RNC officials say they plan to base some of their approach to the second debate off of the exchanges that gain traction from the first.
Sure to be mentioned in this week’s debates: Trump’s weekend attacks on Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings and his Baltimore district in which he claimed that “no human being” would want to live in Cummings’ “disgusting, rat and rodent infested” district.
Democrats have accused Trump of exploiting racial divides as a political strategy aimed at shoring up his base. CNN reported earlier this month that the President viewed his tirades against the four Democratic House freshmen known as the “Squad” as a political success because they forced the larger Democratic Party to embrace those members, who have staked out far-left positions on some issues.
Trump’s political team warned him last week that former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris could both pose different kinds of challenges to his reelection prospects were they to win the nomination. Although Trump has relished going after Biden – whom he has branded “Sleepy Joe” and attacked for his age, despite being just three years younger – he has largely shied away from savaging Harris, the only black woman in the primary.
Ahead of last month’s inaugural Democratic primary debates, which the President spent either flying to or working in Japan on a visit to the G20 summit, Trump waffled on whether he’d watch along and tweet. He seemed to suggest he would not, writing on Twitter as he left Washington for the summit, “Sorry, I’m on Air Force One, off to save the Free World!”
That sentiment lasted all of a couple hours before Trump weighed in on the sparring: “BORING!” he wrote from the sky.
The idea that Trump would skip viewing the debate and responding in real time was never plausible even to most of Trump’s aides, who fully anticipated watching the event aboard Air Force One.
The same was true of the second night, which occurred as Trump was meeting with foreign leaders in Japan. Trump recalled catching a few minutes of the debate on a television inside the G20 summit hall, but later told German chancellor Angela Merkel – rather implausibly – he’d rather spend time with her than watch any more.
This time, however, Trump will be in the White House for both nights of the debate – and therefore be in a better position to offer more real-time thoughts about the Democratic clashes. His trip to Williamsburg is to mark the 400th anniversary of the first legislative assembly in Jamestown. The senior White House official said Trump will also try to watch as much of the debates as he can to get a sense of what his competition looks like and how he should frame his counterpunches, if need be.
The campaign will dispatch spokespeople Marc Lotter, Kayleigh McEnany and Tim Murtaugh to Detroit as well as RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who led a political briefing for Trump at the White House on Thursday, to try to blanket the airwaves with the President’s message by doing media from Detroit.
RNC staff have mined the last pair of debates in Miami for soundbites with which to compare candidates’ comments from the Detroit debates hoping to highlight any changing positions.
Much of the Trump team’s messaging push will also focus on what the GOP argues is its ground game advantage in Michigan, McDaniel’s home state. However, Trump trails in Michigan to several of the Democratic candidates in recent polls, with his largest losing margin in head-to-heads with Biden. The RNC is also preparing to promote an economic message that focuses on growth in the state as well as the President’s efforts to pass the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a trade deal that the administration has characterized as a boost to workers in places such as Michigan.
“As Democrats prepare to take the stage for two more nights of political theater, our team is armed with a fully-equipped rapid response operation and we stand ready to fact-check their socialist claims and highlight their egregious statements and missteps,” McDaniel said in a statement to CNN. “We made history when we delivered my home state of Michigan for President Trump in 2016, and we’ve been hard at work building and growing our infrastructure so we can do it again in 2020.”
Democrats flipped two House seats, wrested control of the governorship from the GOP and fought off a strong challenge from a Republican Senate candidate in 2018, signaling Democratic ascendance in the Wolverine State.
Whoever the Democratic nominee is will almost certainly dedicate a significant amount of time next year competing with Trump for Michigan, which the President won in 2016 by less than half a percentage point.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.