WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump spent the week of the Democratic National Convention forsaking what has historically been an incumbent’s greatest advantage: He's in the job his challenger wants.
Traditionally, an incumbent would devote the week of his rival’s convention to bolstering his own credentials as a leader. But rather than focusing on his command of the job or using its power, Trump hit the campaign trail, where he flouted his own administration’s pandemic safety guidance and expressed gratitude for support from adherents to an extremist conspiracy theory, QAnon.
It was a consequence of Trump’s unwillingness to share the limelight, but also a necessary attempt to shift the November campaign from a referendum on his job performance to a choice between himself and Joe Biden. Ten weeks out from Election Day, as the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged Trump’s reelection chances, aides have recognized that a vote on his presidency is not one he is likely to win.
Acting “presidential” — holding briefings and leading negotiations — won’t suit him, in the view of many aides, if his presidency is what is holding him back.
Trump is not hoping to win over converts. Instead his reelection strategy hinges on his ability to animate his most loyal supporters with fears of a Democratic administration, motivating them to show up at the polls and attempting to turn away moderates who might be leaning toward voting for Joe Biden.
“Where is it written that you have to stay home and let your opponent attack you for a week?” said Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh. “The president is a fighter and one who fights back, and that’s what he was doing.”
The dynamic will be on display next week as Trump prepares for his own convention. While he is set to rely on the trappings of the office – including the unprecedented use of the South Lawn as the backdrop for his acceptance speech – the crux of his message is expected to be sounding the alarm over the consequences of a Biden victory.
“No one will be safe in our country, and no one will be spared,” he said Friday.
Sensing vulnerability, Democrats spent their convention hammering Trump’s fitness for the job he currently occupies, with former President Barack Obama declaring that Trump has “no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.”
“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t,” Obama said bluntly.
In appearances this week, Trump at times seemed to be trying to prove their point.
“I heard that these are people that love our country,” Trump said Wednesday of supporters of QAnon, the baseless theory that centers on an alleged anonymous, high-ranking government official known as “Q” who shares information about an anti-Trump “deep state” often tied to satanism and child sex trafficking.
Trump, who has retweeted QAnon-promoting accounts, insisted he hadn’t heard much about the movement — the subject of an FBI extremist warning — “other than I understand they like me very much” and “it is gaining in popularity.”
“This is the definition of walking into a punch,” said Democratic strategist and former Biden aide Scott Mulhauser. “Trump has the job already, and rather than rising above the fray to embrace a Rose Garden strategy touting his leadership, he’s campaigning and flailing away at every convention punch Democrats throw."
But to Trump aides and allies, the aggressive approach was tried and true, an attempt at repeating his scorched earth campaign from 2016, just at a new target.
As Biden laid out an appeal for national unity and cast himself as an “ally of the light, not the darkness,” Trump delivered his sharpest broadsides yet at Biden, casting him as a “radical” and “socialist” whose victory would bring about “left-wing fascism.”
Focusing on his rival's economic and immigration agenda, Trump repeatedly exaggerated Biden’s positions for greatest effect.
“Every election is a binary choice, and this one is no different,” Murtaugh said.
Terry Sullivan, the campaign manager for the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio, who found himself on the receiving end of similar attacks, said Trump "only knows one way to campaign.”
“He floods the zone with his message via events and Twitter attacking his opponents," he said. "It’s worked for him in the past so, in his mind, there is no reason it won’t work again.”
Trump has torn up other norms in politics, so abandoning the traditional calendar is hardly a surprise — and could help him as he tries to overcome his deficit with voters.
“The Trump team wisely chose to take an aggressive approach to the Dems' big week and dominated local news by traveling to secondary markets in key battleground states,” said Scott Reed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s political strategist. “Now that we are within 100 days, every day is a battle to win the day, the small sliver of undecided voters. Time is the one thing you cannot buy in national politics.”