Down in the polls and short on cash, President Donald Trump and his team are ramping up their attacks on debate organizers, journalists and social media platforms in a bid to cast the final days of the 2020 race as “rigged” and “biased” against them.
It’s a combative strategy of attacking pundits and political arbiters drawn from the 2016 campaign, when Trump first presented himself as an outsider eager to disrupt national politics and the mores of Washington.
In 2020, Trump’s working-the-refs strategy is being deployed just as forcefully to target specific issues or people instead of the establishment at large. It’s an effort to reframe poor polls and an onslaught of critical advertising, while simultaneously keeping attention away from top-of-mind issues like the coronavirus and a still-struggling economy.
“You always work the referees. That is politics,” said Bryan Lanza, who served as deputy communications director on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “It also helps that the refs have given the president and his team significant ammunition to question their credibility.”
Questioning credibility and facts of any situation has been the hallmark of Trump’s political ascent and his time in the White House. Now, in the closing stretch of his second presidential bid, he is leaning heavily on his accumulated list of grievances to excite his base and woo new voters instead of presenting concrete ideas for a second term or a more optimistic take for the next four years.
While other presidents like Richard Nixon attacked the media with gusto, historians say Trump’s wide-ranging attacks two weeks before an election are unprecedented.
“He is trying to weaken confidence in the referees — undermining confidence in the outcome to possibly set up a challenge or justify his loss,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University who specializes in American political history. “The urgency is greater now that he is having trouble undercutting how people perceive his opponent.”
Critics argue this strategy makes the election all about Trump.
In 2016, Trump “was speaking to other people’s grievances,” said David Axelrod, chief strategist of both of Barack Obama’s winning presidential campaigns. “At this point, it seems more like he is disgorging his own. That is a substantively different and less effective way to win an election.”
Trump aides, allies and advisers hope the ongoing attacks motivate Trump supporters to go to the polls. Aides argue Trump still holds sway over what they like to call a “shadow” or “silent majority” of support in this country, citing internal data that his rallies attract people who did not vote in 2016 or do not consider themselves Republicans.
Advisers and allies have also been heartened in recent days by the increase in Republican voter registration in states like Pennsylvania.
“I'm not just running against Biden, I'm running against the left-wing media, the big tech giants, and the Washington swamp, and I've been running against it from the beginning,” Trump said at an Arizona rally this week. “And here I am, all by myself.”
Trump aides say these types of attacks are most effective against tech companies, since they argue — without conclusive evidence — that the platforms are engaged in active censorship.
Since the 2016 campaign, conservatives have accused social media companies of being biased against them , using a series of examples that researchers say do not add up to what they allege. These complaints have hardened in recent months into the charge that, as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) put it , “Silicon Valley billionaires, frankly, drunk with power,” are putting their thumb on the scale in favor of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
In May, after Twitter put misinformation warnings on several Trump tweets about mail-in voting, the White House quickly shot back with an executive order that attempted to impose new regulatory pressure on social media platforms, but that legal experts said was largely unenforceable.
The two sides clashed again last week when Twitter and Facebook both temporarily clamped down on the spread of the New York Post’s reporting on the unproven misdeeds of Hunter Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential nominee.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows vaguely threatened a lawsuit, saying of the social media companies, “They have two standards: one for one campaign, one for the other.”
Trump allies have also tried to pit the New York Post against other outlets by criticizing newspapers for not following the Post’s reporting. But it’s still unclear whether the materials presented in the Post story are even real. And scores of national security experts have warned that the claims bear all the hallmarks of a Russian disinformation campaign.
Another gatekeeper figure Trump’s team has gone after is debate organizers and moderators.
The Trump orbit has bashed the Commission on Presidential Debates for not centering Thursday's debate solely on foreign policy, a topic aides hoped would give Trump an opening to talk about Hunter Biden. But the two campaigns never agreed to such a focus, determining instead that the moderator would choose the topics.
As a result, Trump has gone after the debate moderators, including Thursday’s host, NBC’s Kristen Welker. At a recent rally, Trump called Welker “extraordinarily unfair,” even though he has praised her in the past.
And the Trump orbit is still pounding the commission itself, criticizing a decision to cut off microphones when the other candidate is speaking — a change made after Trump repeatedly talked over and interrupted Biden during the first debate. Even as they derided the move, Trump’s aides simultaneously argued it would benefit Trump by opening the door for Biden to make a gaffe.
The attacks build on a fight Trump picked with the debate commission earlier this month, when he refused to participate in a virtual debate after contracting coronavirus. While Trump claimed he would be cured by the debate, White House doctors declined to give basic information about Trump’s testing regime, or the last time he had tested negative before the first debate.
“I have no idea why we couldn’t do an in-person debate last week, and it’s the opinion of a lot of people around here,” said one White House official.
Even a television interview with “60 Minutes” anchor Lesley Stahl on Tuesday turned contentious when Trump did not like the tone of her questions. He cut short the taping and later threatened to preemptively release his own version of the interview. Some White House aides lamented that Trump’s pouting would simply call more attention to a tough interview, inadvertently boosting the ratings.
To Trump’s circle, though, it’s all just more of Trump being Trump. And that worked in 2016.
“The great thing about President Trump is you always know where you stand with him, and it is him continuing to be the most transparent president in U.S. history,” said Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign.
Nancy Scola contributed to this report.