The Memo: Trump tries to steal Democrats’ thunder in Iowa
DES MOINES — President Trump almost ignored the impeachment trial playing out in Washington while rallying supporters here on Thursday night, focusing instead on his own reelection effort in nine months and the Democratic caucuses taking place on Monday.
Trump’s rally, held at a packed 7,000-capacity arena at Drake University, was a clear piece of counterprogramming, aimed at ensuring that Democrats “just down the street” cannot drown out the president’s voice in Iowa as the climax of their highly competitive contest looms.
Such an effort could be important.
Even though Trump carried the state against Democrat Hillary Clinton by almost 10 points in 2016, its voters twice backed President Obama over Republican nominees, in 2008 and 2012. Trump’s approval rating here is also 9 points underwater, according to polling from Morning Consult.
While there are GOP caucuses in the state on Monday, they are largely meaningless because Trump has no serious opposition.
Trump used his speech Thursday night to assail the Democrats as “socialists” and leapt right into attacks on a number of leading candidates at the beginning of his remarks.
He lambasted former Vice President Joe Biden, questioning his memory; he hit out at Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), once again calling him “Crazy Bernie”; and he mocked former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) over his last name.
Trump also blasted former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as “Mini Mike” and attacked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who is too young to run for president, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for once escaped his wrath.
The president returned again to Biden toward the end of the speech: “That poor guy is so lost,” he said with faux concern. “It was over for him a long time ago, now it’s really over.
Trump’s willingness to buck convention was apparent with the attendance of some high-profile administration officials at the overtly political event.
Trade adviser Peter Navarro was visible in the crowd for much of Trump’s speech and the president noted from the stage that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer was also present.
The event also served as something of a “MAGA” reunion. Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made a cameo appearance, 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale was one of the warmup speakers and Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk posed for photos with admiring attendees.
Impeachment barely intruded on the Team Trump world. The president made some allusions to events in Washington, but his attacks on a “witch hunt hoax” were brief and somewhat perfunctory.
Trump also insisted that “this is a happy period for us” — an incongruous claim in the wake of him becoming the third president in American history to be impeached. But his bullishness may reflect growing GOP confidence that the Senate trial is almost at an end.
In the past 48 hours, the chances of witnesses being called has diminished, especially with Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R-Tenn.) announcement late Thursday that he will vote against such a move. No one expects the GOP-led Senate to vote to convict Trump.
Seeking to bolster his fortunes in Iowa specifically, Trump spent a good deal of his speech claiming he had improved the lives of the farmers in this predominantly rural state. He boasted about increasing farm incomes and also sought to attack Democrats in typically idiosyncratic terms: “Your tractors will be old” under Democratic policies, he warned at one point.
The president also looked back, as he loves to do, on his 2016 election victory. He again made reference to the margin of his Electoral College victory and hankered after the opportunity to run against Clinton again.
“Maybe we take another crack” at Clinton, he said at one point. Elsewhere he gloated, “How is she taking her defeat? OK?,” as the crowd laughed.
There were other flashbacks to 2016, including extremely hard-line rhetoric on immigration, with Trump referring to some immigrants in the country illegally as “stone-cold rapists and murders” and renewing his pledge to build the southern border wall.
That effort has so far resulted only in the refurbishment of some existing barriers, not the construction of any new stretches of wall.
Trump is already framing this year’s election in stark cultural terms.
On Thursday, he cast the Democrats as promising “chaos” while Republicans, in his telling, “stand for law, order and justice.”
At another point he insisted that “this election is a choice between American freedom and democratic socialism.”
But no one was really mistaken about the purpose of Trump’s Hawkeye State swing: to wrest the spotlight away from what he called “the radical socialist Democrats” campaigning nearby.
Toward the end of Trump’s extended remarks, a small but noticeable trickle of supporters began leaving the arena.
But for Trump, he was at least showing he was not complacent about his Iowa fortunes.
“I worked my ass off up here!” he said.
The crowd that remained cheered loudly.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
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