There’s a new report out today which claims that advisers close to Donald Trump are privately fretting that their boss’s seemingly endless attacks on Joe Biden are actually helping the former vice president gain clout in the primary, rather than knock him down a few pegs. It’s very true that President Trump has mentioned Biden more than any of his other 2020 Democratic opponents, none have drawn such consistent ire in recent weeks, or even months, for that matter.
There’s an occasional tweet from Trump about Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren, or something mentioning Pete Buttigieg as having no chance at the presidency. However, Biden has gotten the royal Trump twitter treatment with almost-daily mentions and tweets mocking or prodding him in some fashion.
According to the New York Times report, advisors around Trump are fearful that Biden will use the attacks to his advantage:
For Mr. Trump’s advisers, it was one more example of the president’s inability to resist offering what amounts to an in-kind contribution to a Democrat who, according to their own polling, is positioned to soundly defeat them next year.
In the three weeks since Mr. Biden announced his candidacy, Mr. Trump has tried out two nicknames on him, accused his opponent and family members of corrupt dealings with Ukraine (prompting a coordinated Democratic response) and argued that he’s naïve about the threats America faces.
Early this month, as Mr. Biden began his campaign with the endorsement of the firefighters union, Mr. Trump unleashed a barrage of almost 60 tweets and retweets about his own support from rank-and-file union members, signaling his anxiety about Mr. Biden’s standing with a crucial constituency. Aides have said that Mr. Trump is keenly aware that he won in 2016 with support from union voters who did not follow their leaders in backing Hillary Clinton.
There are two ways to look at this. The first thing to recognize is that Trump attacks Biden because Trump believes that Biden is the sole Democrat with the best reasonable chance to defeat him. After all, Biden’s approval numbers are better than Hillary Clinton’s, and Biden is the only big-name national politician in the race with near ubiquitous name recognition.
In Trump’s mind, the more often he attacks Biden, the more damage he’s doing before the primary is even over. Trump has taken this view to counter his advisors’ fears:
The president, though, has told advisers he believes he can portray Mr. Biden, a longtime Washington veteran, as representative of an ossified political class the same way he did Hillary Clinton, wounding him with enough attacks and put-downs that Mr. Biden will either stagger into the general election or collapse in the primary.
For Trump, the attacks are rarely about policy and almost exclusively about picking one or two qualities of the person and blowing them up. With Biden, Trump calls him “Sleepy Joe,” a reference to his age for the most part. Beyond that, it’s a reference to Biden being part of the old, tired class of Washington politicians that voters have seen a hundred times before.
Trump is calculating that Biden is vulnerable to this line of attack, and will most likely continue unabated despite protests from his advisors. In fact, for Trump, it’s when someone tells him he shouldn’t do something that he is even more inclined to do it.
In Trump’s mind, the stuffy advisors in his inner circle don’t understand that the rank and file Trump supporters love seeing Biden, and others, so blatantly and publicly attacked in this manner.
The question is whether Trump is stepping on his own interests by elevating Biden so early in the process? Some Biden supporters and Republican strategists hold that view:
Mr. Trump’s attacks on Mr. Biden have defied the pleadings of his own aides, who think almost any other candidate would be easier to defeat, and left Republicans puzzled while delighting Biden supporters.
“It just shows everybody that the vice president is the candidate Trump is most concerned about,” said Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a Biden supporter, adding with evident relish: “He just can’t help himself during executive time.”
Matt Gorman, a veteran of past Republican presidential campaigns, said that Mr. Trump was simply handing Mr. Biden a gift.
“In a Democratic primary, attacks from President Trump are the best thing that can happen to you,” Mr. Gorman said. “It elevates you, gives you a huge fund-raising boost and sucks the oxygen from your competitors.”
Every time Trump tweets about Biden, reporters flock to Biden’s campaign for a response, which in turn gives him more air time and more chances to make the news that day. Conventional wisdom would say that ignoring opponents and starving them from oxygen in the media is the best defense for Trump right now.
However, Trump is anything but conventional, and this strategy of tearing Biden down might actually work. In the meantime though, every tweet attacking Biden is like nails on a chalkboard to Trump campaign strategists. It’s the eternal battle of Trump advisors over whether they should “let Trump be Trump,” or try to influence his actions in some way.