Inside Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, Joe Biden is a shadow of the past.
Once his chief rival in the 2020 Democratic presidential field, and the cause of so much presidential angst that Trump mounted a pressure campaign against Ukraine to damage him, the former vice president’s name is now hardly mentioned in conversations with the president’s aides — that is, unless they’re mocking him.
“Lately, he looks like he’s competing against himself,” a top Trump aide said late last week as delayed data from the Iowa caucuses appeared to confirm Biden’s dismal fourth-place finish.
With Biden increasingly struggling — recent polls showed him trailing Sen. Bernie Sanders and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in New Hampshire just ahead of the first-in-the-nation primary, and he is said to be running low on cash — the Trump campaign is now salivating at the thought of what could unfold next.
After months of meddling in the Democratic primary with presidential tweets, campaign ads and behind-the-scenes oppo dumps, the president and his team are taking a break to let the nominating contest play out naturally and taking bets on when — not whether — it will devolve into an epic intra-party conflict.
“The campaign doesn’t have to do anything but step back and watch the Democrats demolish themselves,” said a GOP operative close to the Trump campaign. “This is like a dream scenario.”
“If you had asked me at the beginning of all of this which Democrats would be the weakest to run against from the moderate and the progressive lanes, the answers would have been Buttigieg and Bernie,” the operative added, pointing to the two candidates leading the Democratic field out of Iowa.
Of course, it’s too early for anyone on the Trump campaign to predict which candidate — or candidates — will still be in the race by the time Democrats host their mid-July nominating convention in Milwaukee. The field remains as large as it was heading into Iowa, where caucus results faced significant delays following the nightmarish failure of the state party’s reporting app. A decisive victory for Biden in South Carolina, where other candidates have failed to cut into his support among black voters, could shake up the horse race later this month.
There is also looming uncertainty surrounding Mike Bloomberg’s quarter-billion-dollar campaign and clean up-or-bust strategy for Super Tuesday, when 14 states will vote on March 3. The former New York City mayor and Trump traded insults on Super Bowl Sunday after both men aired campaign ads during the expensive commercial breaks, and the president described Bloomberg as “very little” during an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. (Bloomberg is five feet and eight inches tall.)
“Mini Mike is part of the Fake News,” Trump wrote in a tweet, taking aim at the media company Bloomberg News that bears the candidate’s name.
Some Trump critics have suggested the president is unnerved by Bloomberg’s unprecedented spending and willingness to go toe-to-toe with him. A person close to the president said he has been fixated on Bloomberg since the beginning of the year, repeatedly bringing up the former mayor’s growing campaign operation, which surpassed 1,000 staffers last month and includes a number of seasoned Democratic campaign veterans, and the ads he has blanketed the nation’s airwaves with.
On Friday, a White House official said Trump was irritated when he learned that former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who was pushed out of the administration last November, planned to endorse Bloomberg during a campaign stop in Virginia.
Others said Trump, an avid consumer of cable news, is only talking about Bloomberg because he constantly sees his ads on TV, and that his campaign views the former mayor as more disruptive to the Democratic party than threatening to Trump.
“He’s very reactive to what he sees and the fact that Bloomberg’s ads are all over better explains the attacks on him than Trump being fearful of him,” said the GOP operative, adding that Bloomberg “is the definition of the rich technocrat that the Bernie wing [of the Democratic party] can’t stand.”
A second person close to Trump added that his 2020 campaign “is concerned about Bloomberg’s money for obvious reasons… We saw the impact he was able to have on 2018 House races.”
“But the countervailing view is that at some point his money becomes counterproductive,” this person continued. “When you close in on spending $500 million by the end of February, it starts to look like you’re buying the presidency, and I think that’s a problem for Democrats who are out there criticizing the millionaires and billionaires controlling everything.”
The president and his team have indeed used Bloomberg’s candidacy to sow chaos inside Democratic circles, accusing party elites at the helm of the Democratic National Committee of rigging the party’s primary to avoid crowning Sanders, a self-avowed “democratic socialist” and longtime critic of big money in politics, their 2020 nominee.
Days after POLITICO first reported that some DNC members had begun discussing ways to weaken Sanders’ surging campaign, Trump tweeted: “They are doing it to Bernie again, 2016.”
And speculation about other nefarious Democratic motives is spreading throughout the Trump camp. One senior Trump campaign official suggested that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi conspired to hurt Sanders’ chances by delaying the release of the articles of impeachment against Trump to the Senate to boost the chances of his trial overlapping with the last stretch before the Iowa caucuses. Because Senate rules require members to remain in Washington during the course of the trial, Sanders and two of his Democratic competitors — Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar — were unable to campaign as aggressively as Biden and Buttigieg in the final days before Iowa.
“Bernie and his supporters must be thinking they’ve seen this movie before. Last time it was the DNC that stole the nomination. This time it’s Nancy Pelosi,” the official said.
Even as Trump allies amplify concerns that unelected party officials are trying to block Sanders from becoming the party’s nominee, they are divided over the Vermont senator’s electability. Trump himself made an astute observation during a private lunch with news anchors earlier this week when he told attendees one of the contributing factors behind his victory in 2016 was Sanders supporters from Rust Belt states who voted for him over Hillary Clinton because of their shared views on trade and the Washington establishment, according to a person familiar with Trump’s comments.
Other Republican officials have theorized that Sanders would be Trump’s easiest general election opponent due to his far-left ideological views and their belief that some Democratic officials and voters would have a tough time swallowing his candidacy. For instance, a band of Republican officials in South Carolina began encouraging GOP voters to support Sanders in the state’s open primary on Feb. 29 to boost his chances of eclipsing Biden, who they view as more competitive in a general election.
“I think we can easily affect the outcome. This is going to catch on like wildfire,” Greenville GOP chairman Nate Leupp told The Post and Courier earlier this week.
Team Trump’s modified strategy — from constantly attacking different candidates to eagerly watching from the sidelines as chaos taints the Democratic primary process — follows a spate of good news for their candidate.
Months after he attempted to hurt Biden, his most experienced rival in the Democratic presidential field, by mounting a pressure campaign to convince Ukraine to make damaging public statements about the former vice president and his son, Trump was acquitted this week on the impeachment charges that sprouted from those pleas for foreign interference in the 2020 election.
It’s impossible to know whether Trump’s attacks — particularly his focus on the Bidens’ work in Ukraine — actually dented Biden, or whether Biden would have stumbled on his own.
But Trump took a victory lap during a press conference on Thursday, telling Republican lawmakers and White House allies gathered in the White House East Room that he received “a total acquittal.”
“This is really not a news conference, it’s not a speech. It’s not anything. It’s a celebration because we have something that just worked out,” Trump boasted.
The meandering speech, during which Trump lobbed repeated insults at Democrats and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the only Senate Republican who voted in favor of removing Trump from office, came on the heels of a Gallup survey that showed the president’s approval rating at 49 percent — the highest it’s been in the weekly survey since he took office in Jan. 2017. Other polls continue to find Trump’s approval rating in the low-to-mid 40s, including a Reuters/Ipsos survey released last week.
“I think all of the Democratic candidates are struggling to prove to voters that the economic policies of this administration aren’t working,” said one of the people close to Trump. “Still, the general view is that we don’t know who will prevail on the Democratic side and we may not know for a while.”