The Memo: Trump's risky bid for attention

Back in 2013, a longtime friend of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrumps light 97th annual National Christmas Tree Trump to hold campaign rally in Michigan 'Don't mess with Mama': Pelosi's daughter tweets support following press conference comments MORE’s, Michael Caputo, sought to persuade the real estate mogul and reality TV star to run for governor of New York the following year.

Trump, Caputo told The Hill, said he preferred to aim for “the big thing” — the presidency.


When the discussion turned to how Trump would stand out from other candidates who would likely seek the GOP’s 2016 nomination for the White House, Trump had a simple answer.

“He saw how to manipulate the media better than any potential opponent,” Caputo recalled. “And later, as I watched him eliminate his opponents one by one, his expertise was completely clear.”

Trump’s compulsion to dominate the media agenda has driven him to more and more inflammatory tactics.

On Monday, Trump ratcheted up the heat again.

He renewed the feud on Twitter with the four Democratic congresswomen known as “the squad” that has seen him widely accused of racism, including by some GOP lawmakers.

Seeking to reverse that charge, the president accused the four Democrats — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez on food assistance cuts: 'If this happened then, we might've just starved' Youth climate activists grade top 2020 Democrats on Green New Deal commitment Sanders to join youth climate strikers in Iowa MORE (N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarAl Green calls for including Trump's 'racism' in impeachment articles Republicans disavow GOP candidate who said 'we should hang' Omar Hillicon Valley: Trump officials propose retaliatory tariffs over French digital tax | FBI classifies FaceApp as threat | Twitter revamps policies to comply with privacy laws | Zuckerberg defends political ads policy MORE (Minn.), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyAl Green calls for including Trump's 'racism' in impeachment articles Warren adds Ayanna Pressley as campaign co-chair Warren speech in Georgia interrupted by pro-charter school protesters MORE (Mass.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibHouse moves ahead on long-stalled resolution supporting two states for Israelis and Palestinians GOP leader says he had 'a hard time' believing Pelosi Al Green calls for including Trump's 'racism' in impeachment articles MORE (Mich.) — of being “a very racist group of troublemakers.”

Old allies like Caputo retain their faith in the president’s touch, arguing that he is forcing the Democratic Party onto his preferred territory. But others, including some in the GOP, are much more skeptical.

Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, said he believed Trump had been on the right track at the very outset of the furor, when the president defended Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Pelosi 'Don't mess with Mama': Pelosi's daughter tweets support following press conference comments Bloomberg: Trump should be impeached On The Money: Congress races to beat deadline on shutdown | Trump asks Supreme Court to shield financial records from House Democrats | House passes bill to explicitly ban insider trading MORE (D-Calif.) from the four progressive congresswomen in a way that seemed designed to deepen rifts among Democrats.

“I thought that was a very shrewd way to get in and blow that fight up even bigger. If he’d stopped there, that would have been very smart,” Heye said. “But this is now taking the country into a very negative place, where it didn’t need to go.”

The “racist group of troublemakers” jab came at the end of a string of other controversial tweets, with the president lashing out against the Federal Reserve (“misguided”), The Washington Post (“fake news”), the mainstream media (“bonkers”) and former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTrump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts House impeachment hearings: The witch hunt continues Speier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump MORE (“highly conflicted”).

Later, during a visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Trump insisted it was only the fact that he didn’t want to “kill 10 million people” that prevented him from winning “that war [in Afghanistan] in a week.”

Virtually no one on any part of the political spectrum believes Trump is going to change his political behavior at this point.

Any sense that he would moderate the tone heard on the 2016 campaign trail had mostly evaporated within weeks of his taking office.

The idea that he would build a reelection strategy aimed at broadening his support toward the middle ground has come to seem equally risible.

Trump allies adamantly deny the charge of racism and insist that he is successfully baiting the media and Democrats.

Members of the media often repeat his central charges even as they criticize or dispute them. Democrats, meanwhile, can get baited into debating on Trump’s terms.

In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s first tweets against “the squad,” the four Democratic congresswomen held a news conference at the Capitol, warning against allowing Trump’s words to become a distraction.

Yet that’s exactly what has happened.

Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio host and longtime Trump critic, said that as he watched the news conference, “I was thinking, this is exactly what Donald Trump wants. He wants the focus on these four, and as long as they are the focus, he thinks he has accomplished what he wants. He thinks he is winning.”

Sykes made clear his distaste for Trump’s politics — he said it was “obvious” to him that Trump’s attacks were racist, given how he attacked four nonwhite congresswomen for their supposed radical beliefs rather than white left-wingers such as Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump to hold campaign rally in Michigan Castro hits fundraising threshold for December debate Buttigieg draws fresh scrutiny, attacks in sprint to Iowa MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump to hold campaign rally in Michigan Castro hits fundraising threshold for December debate Buttigieg: Harris 'deserves to be under anybody's consideration' for vice president MORE (D-Mass.), both of whom are prominent 2020 presidential candidates.

At the same time, Sykes said, Trump’s approach could work.

“He is pursuing a strategy, not of broadening his base, but of stoking loyalty and energy among his base. So maybe he will lose California by an additional 5 percentage points, but he is hoping to maximize the white working-class voter turnout” in states that could ultimately be more electorally important.

Another “Never Trump” conservative, GOP strategist and author Rick Wilson, agreed, with a similar focus on the Electoral College.

“In 35 states, the election is already over,” Wilson said, referring to states that are safely in the Republican or Democratic column. “But in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona, there is still very much an election.”

“The demographic character of those places has not changed all that much,” Wilson added. “It has not become particularly diverse, or hip or young or Hispanic. In those places, old white dudes are a big part of the vote.”


Still, it is an open question whether Trump’s willingness to ignite controversy on some of the most delicate topics in American life will deliver the same kind of electoral success as in 2016.

Skepticism is built on poll findings that suggest widespread concern about his tactics. 

A new CBS News/YouGov poll found that 55 percent of adults surveyed disliked Trump’s tweets about “the squad,” while only 26 percent liked them.

That, in turn, goes to a bigger point: the possibility that Americans might finally be beginning to tire of Trump’s antics, and his relentless need to be at the center of every story.

“The exhaustion level he causes with Americans is constantly rising, because he doesn’t care about anything beyond winning the headline, winning the minute,” said Wilson.

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