Within hours of President Donald Trump’s radioactive tweets on Sunday urging several minority Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to other countries, his campaign was scrambling to repackage the attack into a broader patriotic message.
By Sunday night, the campaign was portraying Trump as a defender of American pride. “President Trump loves this country [and] doesn’t like it when elected officials constantly disparage it,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for Trump’s reelection operation.
Story Continued Below
By Monday morning, the campaign’s rapid response director and Trump himself were branding the congresswomen as dangerous ideologues, retweeting Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s accusations that the congresswomen were “a bunch of communists.”
By Monday afternoon, Trump was clinging to a list oftalking pointsabout his initial comments as he discussed them at the White House, laying out the mutated framing that had developed among his campaign and closest allies over the last 24 hours — Democrats have become infested by socialists who detest America.
“My point was if you are not happy here, you can leave,” read one bullet point.
“They want America to be SOCIALIST,” read another.
The evolution from the Sunday tweets to the Monday talking points offers a glimpse of what the Trump campaign will likely have to deal with as it heads into the heart of the 2020 election. While Trump’s reelection officials have long insisted that the best strategy is to always follow the president’s political instincts, the last few days have shown they will also have to regularly find ways to map Trump’s outbursts onto the campaign themes they think will drive him to victory.
Indeed, numerous campaign officials and White House allies were disappointed with Trump’s Sunday Twitter attack on four progressive congresswomen — Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Trump wrote that the group should return to “crime infested places from which they came,” even though three of the four were born in America and all four are American citizens. Additionally, none of the lawmakers are socialist.
Other comments the president has made — first as a candidate and then while in office — have been equally jaw-dropping and attracted comparable amounts of negative coverage, but the timing of his latest tirade was more damaging than most.
Several advisers and allies expressed concern that the president was undoing months of campaign work to frame the upcoming election as a choice between an America-loving, pro-capitalist president, and a Democratic Party beholden to fringe socialists who hate America and despise capitalism. The comments also had the ancillary effect of uniting a fractious Democratic caucus that had spent the week engaged in intraparty squabbling between party leaders and the progressive members that Trump was going after.
“I’m disappointed he injected himself [in] Dem on Dem violence,” said a Republican who speaks with Trump regularly. “Anything the president does that distracts from the larger and broader issue is always a gift” for Democrats.
Sunday marked the first time an unexpected presidential tweet had sent the Trump campaign into damage control since the president officially launched his reelection bid in Orlando, Fla., last month. One former White House official said the episode should serve as a preview for new campaign officials as they prepare to enter a grueling election cycle.
“Right now, you’ve got a group of people who are relatively new to Trump world who are still of the mind that they can endure stuff like this. The only way to preserve your sanity is to understand that wave after wave of people have tried to get [Trump] to do certain things and so you either sign up for who he is or get out while you can,” the former official said.
Even if Trump’s current team can salvage his controversial outbursts by spinning them to fit his campaign message, the president still runs the risk of alienating independent and battleground state voters with the initial remarks.
The president has rarely found broad support when voters are polled on his use of Twitter. In a recent POLITICO/Morning Consultpoll, 70 percent of respondents said Trump uses the social media platform more than he should. Another 46 percent of voters said his Twitter use harms his shot at reelection.
Publicly, Trump’s allies argue that the president’s tweets helps him evade media spin. Trump employs Twitter “to speak directly to the American people without the filter of corporate media and poll-tested talking points,” said Kelly Sadler, spokeswoman for the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action, in a text to POLITICO.
And his latest remarks, she argued, merely highlighted how “The socialist wing of the Democratic party routinely criticizes America,” she said, adding, “the toxic attitudes and policies these socialists are promoting are dangerous and will be rejected by voters.”
There’s also evidence that moments in Trump’s presidency when he’s been accused of making racist statements have done the most harm to his image. When Trump claimed there were “very fine people on both sides” after white supremacists clashed with counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., killing one woman and leaving others injured, his approval rating dipped to a low of 39 percent. And after word leaked out of the White House that Trump once referred to El Salvador, Haiti and African nations as “shithole” countries, his rating fell to 36 percent.
Despite the corresponding slumps in his approval rating, Trump advisers still struggle to convince the president his line-crossing comments will damage his reelection prospects. Part of the problem, according to the former White House official, is that the president often develops a skewed perception of his support among minority voters.
“There’s a certain feedback loop that’s been established of how things are going that may or may not be reality. So if he’s watching Fox News all day and gets a certain view of the world, and you combine that with objectively strong economic numbers, you can see why a guy like Trump could convince himself that he’s doing well with minority voters,” the former official said.
A few Republican lawmakers joined the choir condemning the president’s attacks against their progressive colleagues in Congress — something that further emboldens Trump, according to one campaign adviser.
“He says these things because he knows he can get away with them,” the adviser said. “No one wants to challenge him because they will end up irrelevant if they do.”