The Memo: Trump's risky bid for attention

Back in 2013, a longtime friend of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSenators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House Georgia secretary of state withholds support for 'reactionary' GOP voting bills 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-CortezMore than 700 migrant children in Border Patrol custody: report Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House Budowsky: Cruz goes to Cancun, AOC goes to Texas MORE (N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarSix ways to visualize a divided America Jamaal Bowman's mother dies of COVID-19: 'I share her legacy with all of you' To address global fragility, we must start locally MORE (Minn.), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyPressley says image of Black custodial staff cleaning up Capitol after Jan. 6 riot 'haunts' her DeJoy apologizes for mail delays while defending Postal Service changes DeJoy set for grilling by House Oversight panel MORE (Mass.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibSix ways to visualize a divided America Jamaal Bowman's mother dies of COVID-19: 'I share her legacy with all of you' Democrats urge Biden FDA to drop in-person rule for abortion pill 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 PelosiSenators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House House Republican attempts to appeal fine for bypassing metal detector outside chamber 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) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened 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 SandersKlain says Harris would not overrule parliamentarian on minimum wage increase Romney-Cotton, a Cancun cabbie and the minimum wage debate On The Money: Senate panels postpone Tanden meetings in negative sign | Biden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBecerra says he wants to 'build on' ObamaCare when pressed on Medicare for All Yellen deputy Adeyemo on track for quick confirmation Menendez reintroduces corporate diversity bill 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.