Trump focuses on divisive messages as 2020 reelection bid takes shape

April 15 at 8:38 PM

President Trump escalated his attacks on a Muslim member of Congress and “Radical Left Democrats” on Monday ahead of a reelection campaign that is quickly taking shape around divisive messages centered on immigration and patriotism. 

Speaking Monday at an event billed as a tax and economy roundtable, Trump told a suburban Minneapolis audience “how unfairly you’ve been treated as a state” when it comes to immigration, and he rattled off a litany of grudges against the current system: The loopholes are “horrible and foolish,” the visa lottery is “insane,” and the concept of asylum is “ridiculous.”

“People come in, they read a line from a lawyer that a lawyer hands them out online,” Trump said at the event as he mimicked an asylum seeker reading from a piece of paper. “It’s a big con job. That’s what it is.”

The afternoon remarks came hours after he took a direct shot at one of the state’s members of Congress, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D) — whom Trump called “out of control” — as Omar continued to come under criticism for comments that critics view as dismissive of the tragedy of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The dueling Trumps on Tax Day highlighted a parallel dynamic at play ahead of his reelection bid: While the broader GOP apparatus is attempting to focus on the economy, the campaigner in chief is seizing on more confrontational messages that may appeal to the base but potentially turn off swing voters.

“If they’re focused on expanding his popularity and the party’s popularity, they should be talking about the economy, and they should be talking about tax cuts,” said Tony Fratto, a former White House and Treasury Department spokesman during the George W. Bush administration. “Every time they choose to double down and talk about immigration, they lose an opportunity.” 

The Trump campaign, the White House and the Republican National Committee were all following the same playbook Monday, the first Tax Day to reflect the full impact of the GOP’s 2017 tax cuts, with a messaging effort reminding voters that the law had saved most Americans money. 

“American Workers Are Thriving Thanks To President Donald J. Trump’s Middle Class Tax Cuts,” the White House said in a news release Monday morning. That statement came about 30 minutes after another release titled “Secretary Mnuchin: “The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act Is Working,” which linked to a CNN opinion piece by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Meanwhile, officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee released a colorful video set to peppy music that touted the benefits of the GOP tax law, while the group’s chairman, Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), co-wrote an op-ed that celebrated “higher wages, record economic optimism, record low unemployment” thanks to Republican policies. 

Trump, on the other hand, fired off several morning tweets that veered far off topic.

He began his day with a 6:29 a.m. tweet advising Boeing to “REBRAND” its troubled 737 Max planes, then followed that with a stream of tweets that included attacks on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a demand for Congress to return to Washington to “FIX THE IMMIGRATION LAWS!” and a call to “INVESTIGATE THE INVESTIGATORS!” behind special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report. 

In one tweet, Trump accused Omar of making “anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and ungrateful U.S. HATE statements.” In another, he complained: “The Radical Left Democrats will never be satisfied with anything we give them. They will always Resist and Obstruct!”

At one point, Trump posted a tweet saying he agreed with the singer Cher, who had said she didn’t support Los Angeles taking in thousands of Central American migrants while the city faced poverty and homelessness. 

Later in Burnsville, Minn., Trump spent the better part of an hour promoting the economic gains prompted by the tax cuts while listening to several small-business owners tell him how the 2017 law had improved their paychecks and their bottom lines. 

But then the president returned to one of his favorite topics. 

“Congress has to get smart” on immigration, he said. “And honestly, when I say Congress, I can’t blame the Republicans. The Republicans want to do it. But you need the votes of the Democrats.” 

The president added: “We can retake the House, I think, over this issue . . . As soon as we do, we’re going to get this straightened out.” 

A number of GOP veterans of House campaigns disagreed that Trump could carry House Republicans to victory next fall on a hard-line immigration message.

“As we saw in 2018, immigration will inflame both sides. Those folks will never be moved,” said Matt Gorman, who served as communications director for the House GOP campaign arm in the 2018 cycle. “However, in swing districts in Texas, Florida and California, that debate hurt us.” 

But Trump aides say the president has a knack for driving key messages in unorthodox ways.

Tim Murtaugh, the campaign’s communication director, said that “Trump’s political and communications instincts are always sharp, and the campaign follows his lead.” 

“As the president shows, it is entirely possible to carry more than one message at a time. Immigration issues will always be key, as will be the booming economy,” he said. “The Russia hoax is also a frequent topic for the campaign, as we remind Americans that they were lied to for two years.

Murtaugh added, “Like millions of Americans, the president found Rep. Omar’s comments on Jews and remarks belittling the 9/11 attacks to be offensive.”

Other Republicans rationalized Trump’s use of 9/11 imagery by saying that Omar’s remarks from a March speech — in which she emphasized the discrimination that Muslims in the United States faced after the 2001 attacks, when “some people did something” — were deeply offensive. On Friday, Trump had tweeted a video that included footage of the burning twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, mixed with clips from Omar’s speech before the Council on American-Islamic Relations — which triggered an outcry from Democrats that he was politicizing the terrorist attacks.

“I think what she did was absolutely disgraceful,” Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said Monday. Though King said he himself tries to avoid using images of the attacks in political conversations, he added, “I think the president’s trying to make a point . . . in this case, I would allow it.” 

Many Republicans have been frustrated by Trump’s unwillingness to drive a consistent message promoting the GOP tax cuts, both while the legislation was being written and after it was enacted into law. The legislation is still largely unpopular with the public, and only 17 percent of voters believed they got a tax cut, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last week. 

That runs counter to independent analyses, such as one from the conservative Tax Foundation, which found that more than 65 percent of taxpayers will have their tax liabilities reduced by at least $100. Just 5.5 percent of taxpayers will see a tax increase this year, according to the think tank, which used a report on the tax law produced by the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation. 

Trump’s inability to focus on a single message — last year during a tax event, he threw his prepared remarks in the air, calling them “boring” — is a key reason some of his accomplishments haven’t gained traction with the public, said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a history of White House chiefs of staff. 

“He can’t even focus on the few things that he’s accomplished,” Whipple said. “He goes for the jugular, he throws raw meat to the base. That’s his comfort zone. It’s not talking about accomplishments.”

Still, some Republican allies said Trump’s willingness to depart from political orthodoxy keeps his 2020 Democratic opponents off-kilter and forces them to spend time responding to him rather than defining themselves. Many Democratic presidential candidates spent much of the past weekend figuring out how to respond to an earlier Trump tweet attacking Omar. 

Sarah Dolan, executive director of the conservative super PAC America Rising, said Democratic presidential candidates will struggle to present a positive message as long as Trump is influencing the primary.

“The other benefit for us is that each of them is trying to roll out positive policy initiatives or introduce themselves to voters, and instead they are having to deal with negative stories about them or negative stories about other candidates in the field and react,” said Dolan, whose group compiles opposition research on Democrats. “All of those things are helpful for us because that becomes the only thing that voters associate with them.”

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