Campaigns

With racist tweets and comments, Trump signals bare-knuckle reelection fight

“He’s willing to go as far as he wants and needs,” GOP strategist says

President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media over the roar of Marine One's engines on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

“Quiet! Quiet! Quiet! Quiet!” With those four words, President Donald Trump threw onto the 2020 canvas the political boxing gloves he ripped off Sunday with two racist tweets.

An animated-then-aggressive Trump was demanding silence of a reporter, under an intense July sun during an impromptu Monday press conference. The reporter had agitated the president by asking if he was “OK” with people viewing his tweets about four Democratic freshmen — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts — as “racist.”

Then another reporter asked if Trump was worried that “white nationalist groups are finding common cause with you on that point?” For the second time in his term, the president opted against distancing himself from those racist groups, saying: “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me.”

Trump’s racially charged comments about the women, known colloquially as “the squad,” and his aggressive reaction to the ensuing political firestorm signals a no-holds-barred reelection fight for the bombastic Republican president that will be anything but quiet. 

“He’s hitting on the rawest nerve in American politics and American history,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist who advises Trump’s Republican allies such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Florida  Gov. Ron DeSantis. “It shows he’s willing to go as far as he wants and needs to go to get reelected.”

All in the squad

Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist and adjunct professor at The George Washington University, said the White House had been searching for a way to tie members of “the squad” to the 2020 campaign.

“Frankly, they didn’t really know how to do it. But recent events changed that, and President Trump saw an opening,” O’Connell said. “What he’s really trying to do here is make [Ocasio-Cortez] and Omar the face of the 2020 Democratic Party. They don’t know who the nominee will be, so they become a placeholder in the meantime. And the election, barring some unforeseen event, will probably come down to seven states — and ‘the squad’ doesn’t exactly do well in those places.”

[Trump suggests Rep. Omar, other Dems cheered 9/11 attacks and ‘should leave’]

In an answer to a single question, the president laid out the two planks of his emerging reelection message.

“All I’m saying — they want to leave, they can leave. Now, it doesn’t say, ‘Leave forever.’ It says, ‘Leave, if you want,’” Trump said sharply on the White House’s South Lawn on Monday.

That was plank No. 1 — Trump telling voters that people he or they view as outsiders are a threat.

A few seconds later, he laid out plank No. 2.

“We just hit the highest stock market in history. All of these incredible manufacturers … employ many people, and we have workers with us, too,” he said, presumably referring to blue-collar white males. “They’re having the best year they’ve ever had. Can I say that? Is that a correct statement?”

Those kind of comments, yet again, transformed an official policy event into a mini-reelection rally.

North Carolina next

His next campaign stop: Pitt County, North Carolina, where Trump will hold a rally in Greenville on Wednesday night. Trump lost that county — home to young voter-heavy East Carolina University — by 8 points in 2016.

The president will likely use both messages Wednesday in what is a key 2020 battleground state. Expect him to play up the state of the economy, which White House and campaign aides say he wants to make a big part of his reelection pitch.

Democratic lawmakers and that party’s 2020 presidential candidates have for months accused Trump of consistently mischaracterizing the economy, which they say is giving the most help to the wealthiest individuals and largest corporations.

“Let’s be clear: President Trump inherited a growing economy from the Obama-Biden administration. And now, he’s in the process of squandering it,” former Vice President Joe Biden, the current Democratic front-runner, tweeted last month. “Just look at his tax plan. As president, Biden will reverse Trump’s tax cuts for the super wealthy. It’s time we reward work, not just wealth.”

One Democratic strategist, granted anonymity to be candid, said the current brawl between Trump and the four House freshmen has “helped move the conversation off the Democratic circular firing squad.” That was a reference to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the four “squad” members with whom she traded barbs last week after Ocasio-Cortez suggested the speaker singles out female members of color for criticism.

“But, overall, it’s a distraction from the arguments we know hurt Trump: [migrant] kids separated at border, horrific detention centers, economy, health care, etc,” the Democratic strategist said in an email. “Those are the issues our candidates and Hill leaders should be pounding — everything else is just noise.”

Ayres, the GOP operative, disagreed.

“I can’t call it just noise because it goes so deeply to our national history,” he said, referring to racial tensions. “But it also doesn’t provide us any new information about Donald Trump or who he is.

“Nothing in these tweets or what he said [Monday] is different. … This just says that he is ready to run the same kind of campaign he did in 2016,” Ayres said. “It was successful then. So, to him, there’s no reason to change. So, for the rest of us, there’s no reason to think he would do anything differently while trying to win reelection.”

But there are reasons to doubt whether the tweets and other comments that mainstream media outlets, including CQ Roll Call, are flatly calling racist will matter that much come Election Day 2020. That’s because, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll, 49 percent of Americans already believe the president is a racist — but only 11 percent of Republicans, who strategists on both sides say will be energized by his attacks on Omar and her “squad” mates.

[House orders Pentagon to say if it weaponized ticks and released them]

A CNN/SSRS poll conducted in late April found that 56 percent of those surveyed disapproved of the way the president was handling race relations. 

Energizing the base

Ayres disagreed with speculation that Trump’s hard-line message might further erode his support with suburban female voters.

“They voted overwhelmingly for Democratic congressional candidates in the 2018 midterms,” he said. “They aren’t part of the Trump coalition. … His approval rating doesn’t really change, and it wasn’t hurt by his comments about white nationalists after Charlottesville. … It probably energizes his core supporters, but it doesn’t change the balance of the pro-Trump and anti-Trump groups.”

O’Connell said what matters isn’t whether those women vote for the president. Rather, it is whether they will “actually go vote for the other guy or gal?”

The president on Tuesday kept alive his calls for the four Democratic freshman members to leave the country, first on Twitter, then during a Cabinet meeting at the White House. Asked where they should go instead, he shot back: “It’s up to them. Wherever they want — or they can stay.”

“But they should love our country. They shouldn’t hate our country. I have clips right here. The most vile, horrible statements about our country. About Israel. About others. … It’s my opinion they hate our country. And that’s not good. It’s not acceptable.”

Another reporter asked Trump whether U.S. citizens should be able to “criticize this country” as a “core American value.” Trump sat with his arms crossed on the dark brown table. Rather than answering, he dismissed the media from the room.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.