Trump and allies grapple with how to target Harris
President Trump and his campaign team are grasping for the most effective strategy to target Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), hitting the presumptive Democratic vice presidential nominee with a number of scattered and sometimes contradictory attacks.
In the 24 hours since Joe Biden announced Harris as his running mate, Trump’s campaign has decried her as “weak on crime” but also played up her self-described role as a “top cop” when she served as California’s attorney general.
Trump described her as “just about the most liberal person in the U.S. Senate,” while some progressive Democrats have voiced frustration with her record and lobbied for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to get the job.
And the president has blasted her as “nasty” for her questioning of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, even as the campaign worries such rhetoric could turn off the suburban voters needed for Trump to secure reelection.
The initially scattered lines of attack reflect how the president and his aides are still working out what criticisms of the Democratic ticket will resonate most with voters less than three months before election day.
“Trump is really — unlike Hillary Clinton, who he successfully branded from day one as a crook — he has not been able to brand Biden in the same way,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who has worked on multiple Republican campaigns. “He risks having the same problem with Harris in part because she doesn’t fit into an obvious box.”
The Trump campaign had a video ad and prepared statement at the ready when Biden announced Harris was the pick. In both, the campaign labeled the senator as “phony,” attempting to portray her as an opportunist willing to shift her positions.
But that same tendency has also made it harder to pin Harris down on some issues.
The president and his allies initially struggled with how best to zero in on Harris’s record, particularly when it comes to law and order, an issue Trump has made a hallmark of his campaign.
A statement from senior campaign adviser Katrina Pierson in the same sentence accused Harris of appeasing “anti-police extremists” and brought up her record as a prosecutor, accusing her of “burying” it.
While Harris has embraced calls for police reform in the wake of nationwide protests this summer, she had previously labeled herself a “top cop” and faced attacks over her prosecutorial record during the Democratic primaries, including when Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) tore into Harris during a Democratic debate last year and said the senator should apologize.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters Tuesday that Harris “left nobody happy” on the issue of law and order.
Harris’s record as attorney general is separate from her time as a senator, Conway added, where she has been “hard left” with her views on abortion and health care.
Conway’s descriptions echo one strategy from the campaign, which has worked to brand Harris as part of the “radical left” and described her as Biden’s “liberal handler.”
But it’s Trump who has been the least consistent in his messaging on Harris, testing out a series of attacks in the 24 hours since the senator was added to the Democratic ticket.
“She’s also known, from what I understand, as being just about the most liberal person in the U.S. Senate, and I would have thought that Biden would have tried to stay away from that a little bit,” Trump said Tuesday, despite Harris being more centrist than the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Warren.
The president has also resorted to a familiar trope when attacking Harris, calling her “nasty” for her exchanges with Kavanaugh during Senate Judiciary Committee hearings in 2018. He’s used the same term to describe women throughout his presidency, applying it to Clinton and Meghan Markle, among others.
“It’s no surprise because whining is what Donald Trump does best, better than any president in American history,” Biden said Wednesday, responding to the president’s attacks. “Is anyone surprised Donald Trump has a problem with a strong woman or strong women across the board?”
Trump is on perilous terrain should he be seen using racist or sexist tropes to go after Harris, some Republicans cautioned, given she is the first woman of color on a major party’s presidential ticket. They warned that calling her “nasty” or using other derisive comments about her tone risked further alienating suburban voters, and suburban women in particular, when Trump is already losing ground with that demographic.
The president’s barrage of criticisms are further complicated by his own history with Harris. Trump donated $6,000 to Harris’s campaign for California attorney general between 2011 and 2013, and his daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump also donated.
Just last week, Trump told reporters she would be a “fine choice” for Biden’s running mate.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel dismissed the idea that Trump’s donations made it hypocritical to now criticize the senator, saying, “She has lurched so far to the left.” She also rejected the idea that Trump should be limited in going on the offensive against Harris.
“This is what we hear every four years. Republicans are racist. They’re going to say he’s sexist,” McDaniel said. “His policies speak for themselves.”
The campaign has tried a similar tactic with Biden, casting him as a puppet of the far left and his unity platform with Sanders. But those arguments have yet to gain significant traction among voters, given his lengthy record as a senator and vice president.
Republican strategists and Trump allies acknowledged that the vice presidential nominee typically does not move the needle significantly among voters. Though Harris’s case is different since Biden views himself as a “transition candidate,” they maintained that the general election will be decided by the top of the ticket.
“I think we can stand up and take a moment to applaud when history is made and then take a moment to say why somebody who seems forward-looking would actually bring us backwards as a nation through her record and her policies and her beliefs,” Conway said. “But she’s part of a ticket that has that problem. Sen. Harris cannot cure the flaws and the inadequacies at the top of the ticket.”