Even by President Trump’s standards, it was a rampage: He attacked a government whistle-blower who was telling Congress that the coronavirus pandemic had been mismanaged. He criticized the governor of Pennsylvania, who has resisted reopening businesses. He railed against former President Barack Obama, linking him to a conspiracy theory and demanding he answer questions before the Senate about the federal investigation of Michael T. Flynn.
And Mr. Trump lashed out at Joseph R. Biden Jr., his Democratic challenger. In an interview with a supportive columnist, Mr. Trump smeared him as a doddering candidate who “doesn’t know he’s alive.” The caustic attack coincided with a barrage of digital ads from Mr. Trump’s campaign mocking Mr. Biden for verbal miscues and implying that he is in mental decline.
That was all on Thursday.
Far from a one-day onslaught, it was a climactic moment in a weeklong lurch by Mr. Trump back to the darkest tactics that defined his rise to political power. Even those who have grown used to Mr. Trump’s conduct in office may have found themselves newly alarmed by the grim spectacle of a sitting president deliberately stoking the country’s divisions and pursuing personal vendettas in the midst of a crisis that has Americans fearing for their lives and livelihoods.
Since well before he became president, Mr. Trump’s appetite for conflict has defined him as a public figure. But in recent days he has practiced that approach with new intensity, signaling both the depths of his election-year distress and his determination to blast open a path to a second term, even at the cost of further riling a country in deep anguish.
His electoral path has narrowed rapidly since the onset of the pandemic, as the growth-and-prosperity theme of his campaign disintegrated. In private, Mr. Trump has been plainly aggrieved at the loss of his central argument for re-election. “They wiped out my economy!” he has said to aides, according to people briefed on the remarks.
It is unclear whether he has been referring to China, where the virus originated, or health experts who have urged widespread lockdowns, but his frustration and determination to place blame elsewhere have been emphatic.
Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, said that Mr. Trump and his campaign were going on the offensive in nasty ways in an attempt to shift the attention of the public away from him and onto other targets, and ultimately onto Mr. Biden.
“If this election is about Trump, he probably loses,” Mr. Goldstein said. “Trump’s only hope is to make the election about Biden.”
A number of Republican operatives believe Mr. Biden’s advantage is soft and that his penchant for gaffes will at least make the race more competitive than it would otherwise be amid a pandemic and an incipient economic depression.
“We have a very good story to tell on him and we’ve got to do it,” said Corry Bliss, a Republican strategist, of the negative narrative his party aims to generate about Mr. Biden.
Still, Mr. Trump’s behavior has rattled even some supportive Republicans, who believe it is likely to backfire and possibly cost them the Senate as well as the White House. It has also further alarmed Democrats, who have long warned that Mr. Trump would be willing to use every lever of presidential power and deploy even the most unscrupulous campaign tactics to capture a second term.
In many respects Mr. Trump’s approach to the 2020 election looks like a crude approximation of the way he waged the 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton, attacking her personal ethics, often in false or exaggerated terms; taking Mrs. Clinton’s admitted errors and distorting them with the help of online disinformation merchants; and making wild claims about her physical health and mental capacity for the job. Given that the 2016 campaign — the only one Mr. Trump has ever run — ended in a razor-thin victory for him, it is perhaps not surprising that the president would attempt a kind of sequel in 2020.
He is running against an opponent in Mr. Biden who, despite his vulnerabilities, has not faced decades of personal vilification as Mrs. Clinton did before running for president. And unlike 2016, Mr. Trump has a governing record to defend — one that currently involves presiding over a pandemic that has claimed more than 80,000 American lives — and he may not find it easy to change the subject with incendiary distractions.
Yet with the responsibility to govern also comes great power, and Mr. Trump has instruments available to him in 2020 that he did not have as a candidate four years ago — tools like a politically supportive attorney general, a Republican-controlled Senate determined to defend him and a vastly better financed campaign apparatus that has been constructed with the defining purpose of destroying his opponent’s reputation.
His attacks over the last week on Mr. Obama have showcased Mr. Trump’s persistent determination to weaponize those tools to bolster a favorite political narrative, one that distorts the facts about Mr. Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser, in order to spin sinister implications about the previous administration.
But Mr. Trump also appears to genuinely believe many of the conspiratorial claims he makes, people close to him say, and his anger at Mr. Obama is informed less by political strategy than by an unbending — and unsubstantiated — belief that the former president was personally involved in a plot against him.
This weekend, Mr. Trump will huddle with some of his conservative allies in the House at Camp David, where they are expected to discuss the efforts — entirely fruitless up to this point — to prove Mr. Obama was involved in a conspiracy.
Of all Mr. Trump’s efforts, this one may be among the least concerning to Democrats, given Mr. Obama’s strong popularity and the degree to which Mr. Trump’s claims of an “Obamagate” scandal have been confined so far to the usual echo chambers of Fox News and right-wing social media. As he did in 2016, Mr. Trump is trying to force other outlets to cover the matter through repetition on his Twitter feed.
Democratic anxiety about the president’s attacks on Mr. Biden runs higher. But in general Mr. Biden’s advisers have professed confidence that the severity of the country’s problems will make it difficult for Mr. Trump to retake control of the campaign, and that Mr. Biden’s fundamental political strengths make him well positioned to survive a campaign of attempted character assassination.
On a conference call with reporters on Friday, Mike Donilon, one of Mr. Biden’s closest advisers, said Mr. Trump was transparently engaged in “an all-out effort to take people away from what they’re living through.”
“I think that’s going to be real hard to do, because the country has really been rocked,” Mr. Donilon said. “And where the president has succeeded in the past, in terms of throwing up lots of distractions and smoke screens and trying to move the debate to other questions, I don’t think he’s going to succeed here.”
Still, Mr. Trump’s political operation has moved over the last month to devise a plan for tearing down Mr. Biden, who does not inspire great enthusiasm in voters but is held in higher esteem by most than the incumbent president. The result has been a blizzard of negative digital and television ads, battering Mr. Biden on a range of subjects in a way that suggests Mr. Trump’s advisers have not yet settled on a primary line of attack.
The campaign’s ads on Facebook are as relentless as they are varied, as if plucked from a vintage Trump rally rant: Some make unfounded inferences about Mr. Biden’s mental state, saying “geriatric health is no laughing matter.” Others paint the presumptive Democratic nominee as “China’s puppet” highlighting statements that Mr. Biden made when he was vice president, like “China is not our enemy.” Still others stick to traditional themes of illegal immigration.
Over the last week, the Trump campaign has spent at least $880,000 on Facebook ads attacking Mr. Biden.
Yet there are persistent doubts even within Mr. Trump’s political circle that an overwhelmingly negative campaign can be successful in 2020, particularly when many voters are likely to be looking for a combination of optimism, empathy and steady leadership at a moment of crisis unlike any in living memory. And the more Mr. Trump lashes out — at Mr. Biden and others — the more he may cement in place the reservations of voters who are accustomed to seeing presidents react with resolute calm in difficult situations.
Private Republican polling has shown Mr. Trump slipping well behind Mr. Biden in a number of key states. Perhaps just as troubling for Mr. Trump, it has raised questions about whether his efforts to tar Mr. Biden are making any headway.
Last month, a poll commissioned by the Republican National Committee tested roughly 20 lines of attack against Mr. Biden, ranging from the private business activities of his son, Hunter Biden, to whether Mr. Biden has “lost” a step, a reference to mental acuity. None of the lines of attack significantly moved voter sentiment, according to two people briefed on the results. There were some lines of attack that had potential, one of the people briefed on the results said, but they were more traditional Republican broadsides about issues like taxes.
Mr. Trump has also been warned by Republican veterans that his efforts to define Mr. Biden in negative terms so far have been slow or ineffective. At a meeting with political advisers this week that included Karl Rove, the top strategist for former President George W. Bush, Mr. Rove warned Mr. Trump that he had fallen behind in the task of damaging Mr. Biden, people familiar with the meeting said.
Part of the challenge, though, is that Mr. Trump constantly undermines his own team’s strategy, in ways big and small. While he finally stopped doing his daily press briefings, after weeks of pleading from his allies, he still makes comments on Twitter or to reporters nearly every day that hand Democrats fodder and make Republicans squirm.
In addition to his attacks against Mr. Obama, he separated himself from the highly popular Dr. Anthony Fauci, downplayed the importance of testing and has refused to wear a mask. And Mr. Trump’s appetite for conspiracy theories is often embarrassing to his party: Several times in recent weeks, he has falsely accused a prominent television host of murder and called for a “cold case” investigation.
The president also routinely misses even the political opportunities his advisers deliberately tee up for him.
When Mr. Trump was visiting Pennsylvania this week, for instance, his team scheduled a friendly interview in the hope that he would make the case that Mr. Biden would undermine fracking, an important industry in Pennsylvania. But Mr. Trump made no mention of fracking and instead attacked Mr. Biden’s mental condition and called wind power a “disaster” that “kills all the birds.”
“He’s come back down because that’s where his natural state is,” said Terry Nelson, a Republican strategist, referring to Mr. Trump’s slide in the polls after a short-lived bump in March. “Because he’s not in position to rally the country in a way a president traditionally would in a situation like this.”