Dems plot ‘constant campaign’ against Trump in war room

Dems plot ‘constant campaign’ against Trump in war room
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It’s been nearly three months since Election Day. But as far as the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is concerned, the campaign against President TrumpDonald John TrumpCould Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be this generation's Reagan-Thatcher? Merkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump How China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade MORE is far from over.

While the party hashes out who will be its next leader, a group of two dozen operatives has assembled a party “war room” singularly focused on taking on Trump.

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Zac Petkanas, the former Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPoll: Majority of Democratic voters happy with their choices among 2020 contenders No presidential candidate can unite the country GOP lawmakers speak out against 'send her back' chants MORE campaign rapid response director who leads the project, told The Hill before Trump’s inauguration that he plans to wage a “constant campaign” to keep up the pressure during the early days of Trump’s administration. 

“That’s what it is going to take — a campaign mindset, a campaign effort, campaign operatives who are looking at this administration the same way they would be as if they were still running against him,” he said.

“That is the mindset that is required right now … to be able to break through in a meaningful way.”

Donna Brazile, the party's interim chair, revealed the plans to start its war room in early January in the hope of putting the trove of information compiled during the Clinton campaign to good use as part of the Trump opposition.

The four initial goals are targeting Trump’s conflicts of interest, researching possible connections to Russia, vetting the incoming administration and protecting former President Obama’s legacy.

There, campaign veterans who lived and breathed Trump opposition research could reuse that institutional knowledge as the DNC positions itself at the front line of the anti-Trump forces. The war room’s roughly two dozen staffers worked with the DNC during the 2016 campaign, either in Clinton’s camp or for the party itself.

War room staffers include Petkanas, former Clinton spokeswoman Adrienne Watson, DNC digital director Tessa Simonds and DNC research director Lauren Dillon.

The general strategy isn’t new: The DNC devoted significant resources to rapid response for the George W. Bush administration, while Republicans hammered President Obama over the past eight years.

Mo Elleithee, the former DNC spokesman who now leads Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service, told The Hill that the key to the Democrats’ success will be whether they can use their efforts to push forward a message, instead of just pushing damaging information about Trump without a strategy — “constantly chasing a shiny object.”

Elleithee offered one potential narrative: Trump isn’t really looking out for you. That, he added, could include accusations of corruption, conflicts of interest and “falsehoods.” 

“Reporters’ inboxes are inundated with every group and its own rapid response document. Being able to tie that together is going to be incredibly important.”

Trump’s victory caught many Democrats flat-footed. Polls and forecasts claiming an almost-certain Clinton victory meant Democrats were already measuring the drapes at the White House.

Now, the party is reshuffling its artillery pieces to prepare for the new reality.

Leading Democratic operative David Brock met with high-dollar donors and prominent Democrats this past weekend in Florida to chart the course forward.

Brock’s American Bridge super PAC has its own war room staffed with campaign veterans. Brock is also raising money to create an online platform he touts as a “Breitbart of the left.”

Outside of Brock’s orbit, groups like the Center for American Progress, Priorities USA and liberal issue groups are also gearing up for the new challenge.

Petkanas sees the war room as a way for the party to start now as other groups chart their path forward, as well as serving as a “clearinghouse of information” to help other groups, too.

Having all of these various opposition efforts on the same page is important, Elleithee said.

“If they are not singing the same song, they will sound out of tune. As long as there’s an agreed-upon narrative, they can do their own thing.”

The firsthand knowledge gleaned from months of brutal campaigning will certainly be an important tool for the party’s fight against Trump. But Democrats lost the 2016 presidential election despite near-constant reports of damaging revelations about Trump that would have derailed any other candidate.

Petkanas argued that the strategy could still be effective and pointed to Trump’s historic unfavorable rating as proof. Trump is the first president in Gallup polling history to take office with his favorability rating under 50 percent, even after Clinton’s own scandals in the campaign helped keep the full spotlight from Trump.

Trump’s low approval rating is due “in large part because of the work that people in this building, and many who were not, did to expose so many of the things people know about him,” he said.

“What’s going to work on Donald Trump now is that every day is a referendum on him.”

The administration’s confirmation hearings presented the DNC with its dry run, giving war room staffers a chance to pore over hours of testimony. Instead of a full-court press on every single nominee, the DNC decided to pick its battles, looking to Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTop Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties Lawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens Trump administration denies temporary immigrant status to Venezuelans in US MORE’s (D-N.Y.) public list of top targets.

“There’s a desire and a tendency — because so many things are so awful — that you want to engage on everything,” Petkanas said.

“What we’ve seen, both on the campaign and now, is if you engage on everything, you engage on nothing. We’ve been very deliberate on which Cabinet nominees to go all-in on.”

Democrats haven’t yet claimed a Cabinet victory.

And while others such as Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos and Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Tom Price have had rocky stretches, Republicans are still pressing on with their nominations.

But Elleithee argued that Democrats don’t need a win just for a win’s sake. Instead, the nomination hearings offer a chance to push the message even if no nominations are derailed.

So far, the DNC messaging to reporters has sought to highlight missteps and moments where candidates break with Trump and prosecute the case that those top targets are either too corrupt or unqualified to serve in government.

But uncertainty runs through the DNC’s operation. Once the party elects a chair next month, that new leader will direct the party’s messaging moving forward. And while all of the seven candidates have signaled their interest in keeping up the pressure on Trump if elected, the exact nature of the war room’s future operations won’t be clear until those elections.

Democrats have been pleased with Brazile's role as interim chair—she stepped in just months before the election after Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) resigned under pressure. Now, with her term ending, Petkanas said they are excited for the party's work to confront Trump under the new chair. 

“What this is doing in this intermediary period is to fill an immediate emergency need as this admin is setting up to ensure that nothing gets left along the sidelines,” he said.

“My own personal goal is to ensure it is a program worth continuing.”

 

--This story was updated at 8:05 a.m.