January 9, 2020 / Politico
For more than a year, Donald Trump’s campaign aides convened focus groups and conducted internal polls to fine-tune their message — devising phrases such as “promises made, promises kept” and “big government socialism” — as they readied for reelection.
The campaign expected to open the year proclaiming the creation of 7 million new jobs, construction of a new wall on the southern border and fairer trade deals — but instead found itself saddled with an impeachment trial and a dangerous confrontation with Iran.
It's a challenge many members of the president’s reelection team relish in the unpredictable era of Trump.
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The Trump campaign spent the past week beating the drums of war, blasting critics and defending a hard-line approach to Iran. Then on Wednesday, when the president yanked back on his threats, the aides rushed to praise his softer approach and frame him as an agent of peace.
“You never know what tomorrow will bring,” said a campaign aide.
While the White House regularly responds late or releases conflicting messages on the issue of the day, the Trump campaign quietly and swiftly falls in line behind a famously shape-shifting president — pushing out new talking points, debuting new items on the Trump campaign’s web store and buying Facebook ads — in their quest to defend any decision the president makes in whichever direction it goes.
In recent days, after Trump ordered the killing of Iran military leader Qassem Soleimani and Tehran retaliated with a missile strike against air bases housing U.S. troops, the campaign sent out fundraising texts and emails, released two new videos, began airing hundreds of ads on Facebook and spread the president’s message to millions on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
“As Commander-in-Chief, Pres. Trump just eliminated terrorist Qassem Soleimani,” the campaign claimed in a text. “ANOTHER dead terrorist,” it touted an email.
“America is sending a clear message to bloodthirsty savages around the world: You don’t stand a chance against the righteous might of the United States military,” it boasted in a tweet.
Their message: Trump is protecting Americans — and his Democrats rivals won’t — by fighting terrorists all over the world, including Soleimani and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died in a U.S. raid in northwestern Syria in October.
“President Trump has sent an unmistakable message: Terrorists will pay a heavy price for attacking Americans,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said. “Gone are the days of appeasing terrorists and murderous regimes. American strength has been restored under the leadership of President Trump.”
It doesn’t hurt that Trump allies believe both issues — impeachment and Iran — will help Trump’s reelection efforts.
Impeachment has helped energize people in Trump‘s base who consider it a witch hunt to reverse the 2016 election — bringing in more donations and supporters, according to campaign officials.
And Trump allies, who acknowledge that Trump could be breaking his pledge to end America’s “endless wars,” said supporters back his efforts in Iran because he killed a man who threatened Americans.
The approach carries risks of reminding voters about unsettling issues rather than domestic concerns that were on many of their minds in 2016.
A former administration official said the campaign should try to shift the conversation back to other issues as quickly as possible once impeachment and Iran subside.
“They should stick to bread and butter issues,” the person said. “They should pound away at the economy, safety, immigration. People eventually vote on what impacts them and what they feel.”
Trump filed for reelection on Inauguration Day — earlier than any incumbent presidential candidate in modern history — allowing him to immediately raise money, hire staff and air TV ads.
Already, the campaign has opened 180 field offices in 17 states, recruited two million volunteers across the country and hired 110 staffers at its Virginia headquarters. Together, the campaign and the Republican National Committee raised a combined $463 million in 2019 and had nearly $200 million on hand.
“Since the end of the campaign, we never really shut down the last campaign,” said a senior campaign official. “We’re on offense everywhere and we’re very very excited about that.”
The Trump team has been stockpiling research on Democratic presidential candidates for later this year and working on messages centered around creating a robust economy, curbing the tide of illegal immigration and implementing fairer trade deals with Mexico, Canada and China.
But of late, the campaign has been pushing Iran and impeachment messages. Trump will feature both Iran and impeachment prominently in coming rallies, which will occur more frequently in 2020. He already has three scheduled in Ohio, Wisconsin and New Jersey and is expected to headline more in the coming weeks.
The Senate is expected to hold an impeachment trial this month, though the timing remains uncertain after the House delayed sending over the articles of impeachment to the Senate. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell plans to move forward on a set of trial rules without Democratic support.
Before the holidays, the House approved two articles of impeachment in a mostly party-line vote — charging Trump with abuse of power for soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 election and obstruction of Congress for blocking the House’s efforts to investigate him — making Trump the first president to face an impeachment trial and then reelection.
Trump’s campaign and the RNC spent more than $11 million on impeachment-related ads since the inquiry began on Sept. 24, according to the RNC. They have engaged in calls, texts and hundreds of Facebook ads featuring a personalized “Impeachment Defense Membership Card” and “Impeachment Polls,” even selling new apparel at Trump’s online store.
Democrats blame Trump for engaging in a confrontation with Iran as a way to distract from Trump’s impeachment.
Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor and CEO of the drilling services company Canary LLC, said the killing of a terrorist plays well with conservatives and Trump’s base who are tired of what they see as American power being ignored by rogue nations. But he admits that moderate Republicans and swing voters may be turned off, especially if it leads to higher oil prices. “If Tehran reacts rationally and curbs its aggressive actions against the U.S., then this will be a feather in Trump’s cap going into November,” he said.
The campaign purchased hundreds of ads on Facebook that tout Trump’s leadership as commander-in-chief and ask people to fill out a military survey that directs them to the campaign website. The ads are being used both to raise small-dollar donations for the reelection effort and collect information about potential voters. The campaign didn’t respond to questions about the ads.
On Friday, just after the strike on Soleimani, the campaign pushed a message of strength. “Through his bold leadership and decisive action, President Trump once again delivered a lesson for our enemies — if you mess with America, you will be held accountable,” according to RNC talking points obtained by POLITICO.
On Wednesday, when Trump sought to de-escalate the crisis with Iran in a White House address with sanctions rather than military retaliation, the campaign pushed a message of peace. “When President Trump took the Oath of Office, he swore to Keep America Safe by putting AMERICA FIRST, no matter what,” the campaign sent in an email to supporters.
And over the last week, the campaign has criticized Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden for his handling of Iran and the Islamic State while he served as vice president. The RNC has also targeted Elizabeth Warren, who along with Bernie Sanders called the Soleimani killing an assassination.
“Dems bow to Iran. Trump bows to no one,” according to a former campaign aide. “ Easy contrast.”
On Thursday, Trump holds his first 2020 campaign rally in Toledo in a battleground state vital to the president's reelection in November. His speech, coming days after Soleimani’s killing and days before his impeachment trial, is expected to include plenty of references to the economy and immigration. But there will be plenty of talk about Iran and impeachment, too.
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