The Memo: Trump's risky bid for attention

Back in 2013, a longtime friend of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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, Thunberg, Rapinoe make BBC's 100 most inspiring women of 2019 Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey endorses Biden Democratic strategist on Sanders debate performance: 'I just think he might've topped out' MORE (N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarKrystal Ball on Sanders debate performance: 'He absolutely hit it out of the park' Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey endorses Biden Democratic strategist on Sanders debate performance: 'I just think he might've topped out' MORE (Minn.), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyOmar endorses Sanders presidential bid Ocasio-Cortez to endorse Sanders for president Pennsylvania candidate would be first autistic woman elected to a state legislature MORE (Mass.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibKrystal Ball on Sanders debate performance: 'He absolutely hit it out of the park' Omar endorses Sanders presidential bid Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio 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 PelosiLawmakers, social media users praise photo of Pelosi confronting Trump Trump turns Pelosi's 'meltdown' criticism around: 'She is a very sick person' Trump threat lacks teeth to block impeachment witnesses 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 MuellerFox News legal analyst says Trump call with Ukraine leader could be 'more serious' than what Mueller 'dragged up' Lewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Fox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network 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 SandersOvernight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — House Dems change drug pricing bill to address progressive concerns | Top Republican rejects Dem proposal on surprise medical bills | Vaping group launches Fox News ad blitz Democrats have reason to worry after the last presidential debate Krystal Ball on Sanders debate performance: 'He absolutely hit it out of the park' MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenButtigieg tweeted support for 'Medicare for All' in 2018 Overnight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — House Dems change drug pricing bill to address progressive concerns | Top Republican rejects Dem proposal on surprise medical bills | Vaping group launches Fox News ad blitz Hillicon Valley: FCC approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Dems wrangle over breaking up Big Tech at debate | Critics pounce as Facebook's Libra stumbles | Zuckerberg to be interviewed by Fox News | Twitter details rules for political figures' tweets 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.”

ADVERTISEMENT

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.