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The Memo: Trump's risky bid for attention

Back in 2013, a longtime friend of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden team wants to understand Trump effort to 'hollow out government agencies' Trump's remaking of the judicial system Overnight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit 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.

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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-CortezBiden names John Kerry as 'climate czar' in new administration Maloney vows to overhaul a House Democratic campaign machine 'stuck in the past' Ocasio-Cortez defends Harry Styles wearing dress on Vogue cover: 'It looks wonderful' MORE (N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarGOP congresswoman-elect wants to form Republican 'Squad' called 'The Force' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally MORE (Minn.), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyGOP congresswoman-elect wants to form Republican 'Squad' called 'The Force' Pelosi faces caucus divisions in Biden era Record number of Black women elected to Congress in 2020 MORE (Mass.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks GOP congresswoman-elect wants to form Republican 'Squad' called 'The Force' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations 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 PelosiVoters want a strong economy and leadership, Democrats should listen On The Money: Biden to nominate Yellen for Treasury secretary | 'COVID cliff' looms | Democrats face pressure to back smaller stimulus Democrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus 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) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout 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 SandersFive House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet Biden names John Kerry as 'climate czar' in new administration In the final chapter of 2020, we must recommit to repairing our democracy MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOn The Money: Biden to nominate Yellen for Treasury secretary | 'COVID cliff' looms | Democrats face pressure to back smaller stimulus Biden to nominate Janet Yellen as Treasury secretary: report Bottom line 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.”

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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.