Trump’s political tactics have never edged toward the optimistic or cheerful. But as he looks toward this year’s election contest, Trump is embracing anew the divisive persona he believes helped propel him into office, even though as president he now presides over a nation in the throes of a generation-defining health crisis.
Whether Trump’s tweets are an attempt at distraction, a genuine reflection of a conspiratorial mindset or some combination of both isn’t necessarily clear. People close to Trump have said before he genuinely believes a lot of what appears in his tweets, including outlandish claims against political rivals that outside observers brush off as diversionary tactics.
Wednesday’s messages are only a slice of a conspiratorial streak that has also included unfounded claims of criminal activity by his predecessor, allegations of senility against his election opponent and sustained attacks on reporters and the media.
They provide a snapshot of Trump’s mindset at an uncertain political moment as the economy shudders and Americans judge his handling of the pandemic.
His claims against Joe Scarborough, the host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” are among the most outrageous. He renewed them in earnest last week, asking in a tweet: “When will they open a Cold Case on the Psycho Joe Scarborough matter in Florida. Did he get away with murder?”
Authorities in Florida have answered — adamantly — no. They ruled the 2001 death of Lori Klausutis, who worked as an aide in Scarborough’s congressional office when he represented Florida’s 1st District, accidental. And they have not described the matter as a “cold case.”
But that has not stopped Trump from fanning the flames of conspiracy on his Twitter feed, which often reflects his agitation as he watches cable news, where Scarborough and his wife Mika Brzezinski host a morning show.
Trump has been locked in a feud with the couple since before taking office and has hardly allowed the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 90,000 Americans, from slowing him down. On Wednesday, he raised the false allegation again, this time tying it to the conviction of his longtime friend and political associate Roger Stone.
“Roger Stone has been treated very unfairly. How about that jury Forewoman, does anybody think that was fair. DISGRACEFUL! Stay tuned,” Trump wrote. “And guys like Low Ratings Psycho Joe Scarborough are allowed to walk the streets? Open Cold Case!”
The message offered a buffet of Trump Twitter hallmarks: vague insinuations, hypotheticals about crime and a tease for something, perhaps a presidential pardon, to come: “stay tuned.”
Afterward, Brzezinski addressed Trump’s claims on her program.
“Donald, you’re a sick person,” she said.
Later she tweeted that she would be phoning the head of Twitter “about their policies being violated every day by President Trump. Hope my call is taken.”
Trump has long fumed at how Stone was treated, including claims that the jury forewoman was biased and therefore unfit to participate in his longtime friend’s trial last November. Stone’s defense team did not attempt to challenge the juror from serving on the panel at the time, and the person in question told the judge and lawyers for both sides that she could be impartial.
Still, after the forewoman publicly identified herself earlier this year, Stone’s supporters attacked her for negative social media posts she made about Trump and his backers before the trial.
Trump amplified those attacks and has suggested Stone — along with his onetime national security adviser Michael Flynn — was unfairly maligned by the justice system. While Trump had not ruled out pardons for either man, he seemed to avoid a potentially unpopular move with Flynn when the Justice Department announced last month it was dropping pending criminal charges against the onetime aide.
But that hasn’t stopped Trump from continuing to stoke conspiracies surrounding Flynn, including by utilizing his administration’s ability to declassify material that, in turn, allowed him to float unsubstantiated claims about the Obama administration.
Trump’s attorney general acknowledged this week that criminal charges were not expected against the former president or Joe Biden, who is competing against Trump for the presidency. But William Barr did say the Justice Department’s “concern over potential criminality is focused on others,” a sign that other Obama-era officials could be swept up in a probe critics say is clearly politically motivated.
As Trump heads into an election season marked by uncertainty due to the pandemic, his once-solid bulwark — a strong economy — has vanished. Trump has lashed out at political aides when presented with polls showing him struggling against Biden, even as his campaign insists he’s made up the deficit.
Now he’s returned to official travel, focusing on key battleground states that also happen to be microcosms of the national political debate playing out over reopening. When he visited Pennsylvania last week, Trump criticized the state’s Democratic governor for his caution in lifting certain restrictions, suggesting residents were eager to go back to work.
The dynamic is likely to repeat itself on Thursday when Trump travels to Michigan, where the Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has emerged as a regular foil for the President.
He lashed out against the state a day ahead of his visit.
“Breaking,” he wrote, “Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election. This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”
It was a continuation of another conspiracy that Trump has fueled amid the pandemic: that vote-by-mail provides fertile ground for voter fraud, despite a lack of evidence to support the claim.
In this area, Trump may find himself at odds with most Americans. Polling from the last month finds majorities of Americans in favor of expanding access to vote by mail.
And Trump himself voted by mail in Florida’s Republican presidential primary in March.