The Memo: Trump startles with 2020 reelection move

The Memo: Trump startles with 2020 reelection move
© Getty Images

President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussian sanctions will boomerang States, cities rethink tax incentives after Amazon HQ2 backlash A Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press MORE startled Washington on Tuesday with the announcement that Brad Parscale, the digital media director of his 2016 campaign, would be his 2020 campaign manager.

The fact that a sitting president would run for reelection is no surprise to anyone. But the timing of the announcement raised eyebrows, as did the fact that Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report teased the announcement before it was made official.


There was widespread skepticism, for a start, that Parscale would end up leading the campaign through the election, especially given the tumult that characterizes almost everything in the president’s orbit.

“Trump has a record of chewing through campaign managers and chiefs of staff, so I’m not holding my breath that he will be campaign manager on Election Day,” said one Republican strategist.

Parscale has long been allied with Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump unleashed: President moves with a free hand post-impeachment The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Trump's former personal assistant to oversee White House personnel office MORE, and there is a belief in some parts of the president’s orbit that it is Kushner who will ultimately lead the reelection effort.

GOP voices that are critical of Trump mused as to whether the news was designed to be a distraction from other troubles, including Kushner’s.

Politico reported that Kushner was among the aides who had his level of security clearance downgraded Friday. The move was widely expected following an earlier directive from chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE about staff members like Kushner who have not received permanent security clearance.

The clearance issue has been a persistent political headache for the White House, especially with the responsibilities Trump has given his son-in-law.

Resuscitating the peace process between Israel and Palestine is just one of Kushner’s roles, and he previously had access to the highest level of classified information, including Trump’s presidential daily briefing.

The official statement announcing Parscale’s hiring included a supportive quote from Kushner, who described him as “essential” to Trump’s 2016 bid and predicted that “his leadership and expertise will help build a best-in-class campaign” for 2020.

Even that statement caused its own share of controversy, when The Associated Press raised doubts about its legality. The statement used Kushner’s official title of “assistant to the president,” a move that may run afoul of the Hatch Act, which prohibits the use of official titles by government employees doing political work.

On Tuesday evening, The Washington Post reported that foreign officials discussed using Kushner’s business interests to try to manipulate him, a story that seemed likely to cause another major storm.

Kushner was not the only White House official dealing with controversy on Tuesday.

White House communications director Hope HicksHope Charlotte HicksTrump unleashed: President moves with a free hand post-impeachment The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Trump's former personal assistant to oversee White House personnel office MORE, one of the president’s closest aides, was also testifying before the House Intelligence Committee.

GOP strategist Rick Wilson, a frequent Trump critic, was among those who think it plausible that the 2020 news was intended as a diversionary tactic from the travails of Kushner and Hicks.

“I think it might have been a distraction from Kushner, I think it might have been a distraction to pull away from Hope Hicks testifying today. That would seem a decent reason for an otherwise fairly inconsequential piece of news.”

Others took a more generous view, contending that the early announcement was yet more evidence of the ever-accelerating pace of campaign cycles.

“The one thing this indicates is the speeded-up nature of the political process, which is now essentially never-ending,” said Kevin Madden, who held senior roles in both of Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDonald Trump: Unrepentant, on the attack and still playing the victim The Hill's Campaign Report: New challenges for 2020 Dems in Nevada, South Carolina Yes, Democrats have to defend their African-American base against Trump MORE’s presidential campaigns, in 2012 and 2008. “The traditional point of preparation for a presidential election starts after the midterms, but I think this is emblematic of how advanced the process is.”

While there is widespread agreement that campaigning is now essentially a permanent feature of American political life, some Republicans complained that the president needed to focus on more immediate matters than what happens in 2020.

The president’s low approval ratings weigh heavily on Republicans, and there is widespread concern that the party could suffer significant losses in November’s midterm elections.

Even more urgently, the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, which has been in Republican hands since the 2002 election, is unexpectedly competitive. The election takes place on March 13.

One Republican operative warned, “All [the president] should be worried about is PA-18 and the midterms. 2020 doesn’t matter right now.”

There were some Beltway murmurs about whether Trump’s announcement could be intended to discourage any potential 2020 primary challengers. But the majority of Republicans contacted by The Hill disagreed with that idea.

Some moderate Republicans — Ohio Gov. John Kasich is often cited as a prime example — might well consider a primary against Trump. But Trump’s vulnerability to such a challenge appears limited for now, given his strong popularity with the party’s base.

“I would expect someone will primary him, but anyone who doesn’t think Trump is going to be the nominee is going to be disappointed,” said Alex Conant, who was director of communications for Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioPeace Corps' sudden decision to leave China stirs blowback Lawmakers raise concerns over Russia's growing influence in Venezuela USDA takes heat as Democrats seek probe into trade aid MORE’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential bid.

“There are people who will run, but it is unclear to me why a challenge will be anything more than a symbolic protest.”

Wilson made a parallel argument.

“The primary challenges will come or go, and they have nothing to do with this team or his staff,” he said. “It will have everything to do with whether his poll numbers are high or low, whether his indictment status is ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and where the Trump brand stands.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.