NEW YORK, NY – Impeachment, immigration and Iran have filled the White House agenda as the year begins.
But with the first votes of this year’s presidential campaign to be cast in just weeks, President Donald Trump is increasingly focused on his reelection bid. He has revved up his criticism of the Democrats vying to replace him, and his team looks at both foreign and domestic matters through the lens of the 2020 campaign.
Trump, who announced his reelection bid the same day he took the oath of office, has long been an unabashedly political president. The president's focus on his reelection effort — the ultimate arbiter of his legacy, in his estimation — has not wavered in the midst of his biggest crises at home and abroad.
The White House has been exploring a number of policy proposals meant to shore up support in Trump's conservative base, including an expansion of the president’s travel ban. The president’s decision to authorize a drone strike that killed Iran's top general has become a staple in his stump speech. And his team has mobilized to paint the upcoming impeachment trial as a partisan witch hunt it hopes will energize his supporters.
It is impeachment itself that stands as the best example of Trump’s consuming focus on reelection: The House of Representatives charged him with pushing a foreign government to investigate a potential 2020 foe.
“All presidents think about reelection. The extent of this may vary, but every occupant of the Oval Office considers how to maintain power,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “But what we have seen from Trump is that he takes it much further than any other president. He was impeached for that very reason, and everything he says or tweets is political."
Trump stepped out of a campaign meeting at Mar-a-Lago earlier this month to authorize the drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani. But he has largely invited politics into his decision-making process, frequently questioning aides about how policy decisions would play during the campaign and demanding polling data.
Not facing a substantial primary challenger, Trump has been able to carefully watch the winnowing process play out on the Democratic side.
For months, he and his advisers have gamed out who they hope to face in November, according to five campaign aides, White House officials and Republicans close to the West Wing interviewed for this story under the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Trump has stuck to mostly trying to sow chaos in the Democratic field, believing that the list of candidates is too long to fully influence and confident that the eventual nominee can be painted as a socialist for embracing liberal proposals.
But at times he has tried to wade into the process, most notably last July in a call with Ukraine’s president. He urged Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden and his family, triggering a chain of events that led to his impeachment last month and a trial set to begin in the coming days.
But Trump has reveled in the Democrats’ recent internal squabbling and has taken to Twitter to offer real-time commentary on the candidates’ debates, interviews and controversies.
“ Bernie Sander’s volunteers are trashing Elizabeth “Pocahontus” Warren. Everybody knows her campaign is dead and want her potential voters. Mini Mike B is also trying, but getting tiny crowds which are all leaving fast. Elizabeth is very angry at Bernie. Do I see a feud brewing?” Trump tweeted Monday, just one of several recent observations about the Democrats.
At a rally Tuesday night, Trump waded into a feud between the Warren and Sanders camps about a 2018 conversation in which Warren said Sanders told her a woman wouldn't be able to win the presidency. “I don't believe that Bernie said that. I really don't," Trump said. "It's not the kind of thing he'd say.”
Biden has long been Trump’s No. 1 target. The president has confided that he believes the former vice president is the Democrat who poses the biggest threat to siphon off some of his working-class support in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
But Trump and his allies have also taken note of Sanders’ fundraising prowess and recent polling surge. Trump's team has hammered Sanders in the wake of the drone strike that killed Soleimani, believing it can be used to tarnish the Vermont senator’s foreign policy credentials and commander in chief appeal.
Trump has told advisers that he's not been certain how to approach Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. The president has largely spared Buttigieg from attacks, save for digs on his lack of experience and difficult-to-pronounce last name.
Trump has been happy to mark the moment when candidates drop out, particularly with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke. And he took to Twitter on Monday to sarcastically salute the departure of Sen. Cory Booker, writing: “Now I can rest easy tonight. I was sooo concerned that I would someday have to go head to head with him!”
The Trump campaign has been given pause by the money at the disposal of one other Democrat, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. The two men had uneasily co-existed in Manhattan, with Bloomberg’s wealth and social status dwarfing the reality TV star’s own standing, fueling a one-sided rivalry.
Though Bloomberg’s lavish campaign spending has yet to translate to much movement in the polls, Trump has begun attacking him on Twitter and his team opted to match his $10 million Super Bowl ad buy.
Trump has harshly criticized the process that led to his impeachment, believing it is a permanent stain on his legacy. But he has embraced its political side effects, pointing to an increase in campaign contributions and supporter enthusiasm while also mulling a series of rallies timed to his expected acquittal in the Republican-controlled Senate.
He has also refused to allow the Democrats to capture the media spotlight during the primary process.
He hosted a rally in the battleground state of Wisconsin on Tuesday during the Democrats’ last debate before the Iowa caucuses. And later this month, just days before the caucuses, the president will host two more rallies: one in the New Jersey district of a congressman who switched parties to become a Republican out of protest about impeachment, the other in Iowa itself.
The president is in frequent contact with his campaign, political advisers and late-night telephone confidants to gauge their feelings on the Democratic field. Brad Parscale, his campaign manager, spent days at Mar-a-Lago during the winter break. And one of Trump's top aides, son-in-law Jared Kushner, has shifted more of his focus to the president’s reelection effort.
Some Democrats feel that Trump has sabotaged himself by only focusing on the portion of the electorate that already supports him.
“Every policy, every speech, every tweet has been about his reelection,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, senior adviser at the liberal group MoveOn.org. “But the problem for Trump is that in his three years of running for reelection he has done nothing to expand his base. Nothing to reach out to people who didn’t vote for him."
Republicans say Trump has a keen sense of how to motivate his supporters in a base election.
“He’s making sure the Democrats don’t get free shots at messaging," said Jason Miller, former communications director for Trump's 2016 campaign. "Both of his political fists are up and he’s ready to fight.”
Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed to this report from Washington.
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