The Trailer: Trump looks for that 2016 email magic

On Wednesday night, President Trump was back in his element: at a rally, in a swing state, talking about emails. The New York Post said it had obtained a trove of emails that came from Joe Biden’s son Hunter, on a hard drive passed to the paper by Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani. It was up to the president to tell a Des Moines audience why this mattered.

“This is a big smoking gun,” Trump said, falsely accusing his opponent of getting a Ukrainian prosecutor fired to protect his family. 

For the next five minutes, the president attacked the media for its coverage of Russian interference in the 2016 election, said Biden was a “corrupt politician” who shouldn’t be “allowed to run,” and recounted in detail how Twitter had throttled some users who tried to tweet the story. Trump had closed out his 2016 campaign the same way, regaling audiences with descriptions of stolen emails from Clinton’s campaign chairman that were published, every day for 27 days, by WikiLeaks.

Democrats have spent four restless years worrying about a repeat of the 2016 election. This was the latest in a series of Trump efforts to try to re-create that campaign’s magic — by Thursday, it even included a donor pitch demanding that Biden release his emails. But Biden has proved more resistant than Hillary Clinton was to “smoking guns,” revelations and online rumors, and, partly because of Trump’s 2016 win, the pipeline between conservative media and the mainstream has gotten clogged. Trump, veering from story to story in hopes of something sticking to Biden, lacks both the tools and the raw material he had four years ago. 

Start with the New York Post’s story package, which did not get treated like WikiLeaks’ publication of John Podesta’s emails in October 2016. Media publishers and social media platforms have wrestled, ever since then, with how to treat information that may have been stolen, or forged, to influence an election. The solution for publishers was to run nothing that couldn’t be vetted, and the solution for social media companies was to limit how the New York Post’s coverage was shared. That transformed this at least in part into a different story — led by Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, who asked whether both Twitter and Facebook were trying to help a Democrat at the expense of a Republican and scheduled an Oct. 28 hearing.

That’s a coup for the Trump-era Republican effort to revisit the rules that govern speech online. But it has nothing to do with Biden. After nearly a whole campaign, voters have shown little interest in allegations about Ukraine that have never matched up with the descriptions from Trump or Giuliani. And unlike 2016, when WikiLeaks dumped emails for anyone to read, the involvement of a key Trump ally in determining what gets published turned this into a partisan story, with media outlets unable to verify its details.

The president and his campaign have over the past few years endorsed or signal-boosted a number of allegations designed not just to wound Biden, but to devastate him and seal the election for Trump. A federal prosecutor probed a Trump obsession — requests by Obama officials in 2017 for the identity of the Trump adviser, Michael Flynn, being monitored by intelligence agencies. That investigation wrapped up with no charges filed, and the investigation effectively folded. On Tuesday, the Trump campaign held a media call with Ronny L. Jackson, the president’s former physician and a Texas congressional candidate, who said Biden should undergo a “cognitive test,” before insisting “I am not trying to remotely diagnose him with anything.” And a few days earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that emails belonging to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton could be released before the election. 

Why hasn’t it had the impact of the stories that damaged Clinton in 2016? In the national exit poll that year, just 36 percent of voters said Clinton was “honest and trustworthy,” while 33 percent said the same of Trump. But in a Gallup poll released last week, Biden held a 12-point advantage over Trump on who voters considered “honest and trustworthy.” 

Every poll this year has found a similar gap, or larger. It has hurt Trump’s ability to make charges stick against Biden and is a reason Biden had been able to power past a series of accusations, too. Trump’s resilient support with his base has negated long-term damage from controversies — it’s now widely assumed negative stories will have little effect. Accusations against Biden have also failed to stick, with voters tuning out often baseless charges that crowd one another out.

That hasn’t stopped an energetic rumor mill from trying to spread doubts about Biden, to a limited and sometimes hermetically sealed audience. On Facebook and WhatsApp, Trump supporters have accused Biden of a range of crimes and associations, some of them lurid, often based on manipulated videos. On YouTube, Biden critics have baselessly accused him of using teleprompters to get through interviews — a charge repeatedly amplified by Trump’s campaign.

And the effort to prove that Biden is not just old, but ailing, has migrated back and forth from the fever swamps to official Trumpworld. Conservative activists tried to start pushing the story in May 2019, an effort that has continued through this week, with repeated attempts. Each time, they acted as if one more shocking claim, one more story that wouldn’t be shared by the mainstream media, could change images of Biden and move those unmovable-seeming voters.

There’s nothing new about telling voters that they are getting secret knowledge and that they’ll be the first to realize when their political opponent has been exposed. In 2016, David Pecker’s National Enquirer ran cover after cover with damaging stories about Clinton, frequently focusing on her health. The conspiracy-minded supermarket browser of the time could pick up issues with baseless stories like “Hillary: 6 Months to Live,” “Hillary Clinton’s Two Secret Strokes,” and a front page about a Clinton medical file revealing “Alzheimer’s,” “liver damage from booze,” and an upgraded “three strokes.” But in 2018, the tabloid was sold to a new buyer, and earlier this year, Pecker, a Trump ally, left the new company. This year, the National Enquirer has not run a single cover story about Biden.

Supporters of the president have an explanation for why bombshells keep fizzling and why no accusation against Biden seems to stick: the mainstream media. Conservative distrust of the media is higher than ever, egged on by the president, who in Des Moines went on a tangent about local media covering flood damage instead of his Nobel Prize nominations from a far-right Scandinavian politician. News that looks bad for Biden, but doesn’t sink him, is evidence not that the news was flimsy, but that the media is.

“You’ve got to give credit to the Australian media,” said conservative TV and radio host Mark Levin this week, after that country’s version of “60 Minutes” profiled a woman whose accusations of misconduct by Biden, which the candidate denied, fell apart under scrutiny here. “As opposed to the American media, which is clearly protecting Joe Biden.”

The mind-set stirred by all this resembles the one that gripped liberals at the end of 2016, and for much of Trump’s presidency: that there would be a revelation so damaging that it forced him from office. They fantasized about a dossier of embarrassing information about Trump (which was known to media outlets, but not published, before the election) being proved true; other fantasies were grounded in reality, but didn’t deliver, like the hope that Trump’s payoff to Stormy Daniels would collapse his presidency. 

But after Trump’s search for dirt on Biden led to Trump’s own impeachment, and then acquittal, Democrats largely gave up the fantasy of a “smoking gun.” Their reaction to the New York Times’s reporting on Trump’s tax returns, which showed him paying only small amounts of federal taxes, exemplified this: a mixture of delight, with a confidence that it wouldn’t move votes. Since February, it has been Trump and his movement casting about for the story that will end Biden, inheriting all of the hard-to-follow details and paths that seem to lead nowhere.

“Bruce Ohr is finally out of the Department of Justice,” Trump said in Des Moines. “He should be not only in the Department of Justice outbox, he should be someplace else.” The reference to a figure known only to people closely watching the investigation into a four-year-old investigation of Trump got a little applause, and the president moved on. One day later, in Greenville, N.C., Trump emphasized the curious hard drive story, promising his audience that it would contain the sort of bombshell, at last, that could swing the election.

“I hear they have stuff coming out you won’t even believe,” Trump said. “Yeah, you’ll believe it.” 

Reading list

A closing message that sounds a bit like 2016, and a lot like 2019.

How federal resources are being spent to help the president.

Inside a plan to challenge the voting status quo.

“The swamp that Trump built,” by Nicholas Confessore, Karen Yourish, Steve Eder, Ben Protess, Maggie Haberman, Grace Ashford, Michael LaForgia, Kenneth P. Vogel, Michael Rothfeld and Larry Buchanan

A very deep dive into how Trump’s properties continue to help big donors make political connections.

Why the president’s skepticism of pandemic hygiene guidelines created a Democratic opening.

Voting wars

Here’s a term you may hear plenty of in the next 19 days: the “Purcell Principle.” In 2006, 18 days before the midterm election, the Supreme Court invalidated a lower- court’s order that halted Arizona’s new voter ID law. The rationale: The lower court, which ruled eight days earlier, had changed the way elections were being conducted with too little time for voters and the state to adjust.

We’re inside that loosely defined danger zone now, and if anything, it has widened since 2006; nearly 18 million Americans have already voted, across 38 states and the District of Columbia. But the lawsuits keep coming. 

In Texas, where the conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit upheld Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) order to limit even super-populous counties to a single ballot drop spot, a judge in Travis County (Austin) tried again to open up sites, arguing that Abbott’s move would “needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden potential voters’ constitutionally protected rights to vote.” In Pennsylvania, Republicans are still suing to add a signature match requirement for validating absentee ballots. In North Carolina, a rule governing the counting of absentee ballots that lack witness signatures is on hold after a legal impasse; election officials are being told neither to count or throw out flawed ballots until it’s resolved.

In South Carolina, the confusion has more ballots in limbo. First, a lower court allowed ballots to be cast without witness signatures; then, that was reversed by a higher court, even as some information was sent to voters about the invalidated rule. That all unfolded before thousands of voters learned that they’d received inaccurate ballots — problems that also bedeviled the heavily Democratic counties of Franklin, in Ohio, and Kings, in New York. There’s no statute that specifies when the rules are final. It’s up to the courts.

Ad watch

President Trump, “Why Did Joe Biden Let Hunter Do It?” The first paid messaging from the Trump campaign in the wake of the New York Post’s Hunter Biden stories doesn’t mention anything in them. Instead, it focuses on previously reported details about the career of Biden’s surviving son, with headlines from last year about his business with Ukrainian, Chinese and Romanian business interests. The question: Why didn’t Joe Biden stop it?

Joe Biden, “Look Out.” The Democrats are running 30-second and 60-second versions of ads involving “Mike,” a steelworker in the Detroit area who has an economic gripe with Trump. The longer spot accuses Trump of misleading voters about what he could deliver on jobs, and the shorter one focuses on Social Security, a point of conflict for both campaigns: A series of Trump ads have put seniors on camera to worry that Biden’s old fondness for spending-cut deals would risk the program. Here, “Mike” just says Trump is “messing around” with Social Security (by temporarily draining payroll tax revenue) and says Biden will “fix it.”

House Majority PAC, “Hip.” Democrats hadn’t bothered to play in Texas’s 24th Congressional District until this cycle, after the vote shifts toward the party in the Dallas suburbs moved it from a district Mitt Romney won by 22 points to one Trump won by six points. The changing fortunes are on display from the first second, an image of Republican nominee Beth Van Duyne with Trump; they continue with an attack on her and Trump for “ignoring the science” and pushing for speedy reopenings during the pandemic.

Senate Leadership Fund, “More Like.” Republicans are continuing to pour money into Kansas, where Pat Roberts’s open seat has proved tougher to defend than it looked at the start of this cycle. Barbara Bollier, a Republican-turned-Democrat, is attacked here for voting with Kansas Democrats “90 percent of the time” and morphed into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for a series of familiar arguments; the accusation that the public option, which would not ban private insurance, actually would ban private insurance is a mainstay of 2020 ads. Notably, there is no attempt to link Bollier to Biden, who is polling better in the state (while still trailing) than any Democratic nominee since the 1960s.

Poll watch

Mark Kelly (D): 52% (+2) 
Martha McSally (R): 42% (-2)

Other polls have found a closer race, and this one echoes some of those findings: Kelly, who had never run for office before this year, had sky-high favorable ratings that Republicans have chipped away at. (The bulk of their negative ads go after Kelly’s sponsorship deals, accusing him of signing off on sexist ads for restaurants and ties to China.) The hurdle McSally is struggling to get over: President Trump. By a 32-point margin, independent voters say McSally is too beholden to the president, while by a 14-point margin, they say Kelly is more likely to make independent decisions than to bend to the left.

Lindsey Graham (R): 46%
Jaime Harrison (D): 40%

Both major parties agree that Harrison, the first serious Senate candidate Democrats have run in South Carolina since 2004, has forced Graham into a competitive race. Here, you can see the scale of Harrison’s challenge: He’s leading with independents by 16 points, he’s up with Black voters by 72 points, and his net favorable rating is five points, better than Joe Biden’s. It’s not enough to push him above Graham in a state where Republicans heavily outnumber Democrats and at least two-thirds of White voters stick with the GOP.

Gary Peters (D): 45% (-)
John James (R): 39% (-2
Third party: 5% (-) 

Republicans recruited John James to run for Senate this year after he surprised people by making his 2018 race so close, winning 46 percent of the vote against Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Two years and millions of dollars later, James is still hovering in the 40s: enough to induce Democratic panic but not enough to push ahead of Peters. The level of third-party support here is worth watching, as the three candidates sharing the ballot come from the Green Party, the Natural Law Party and the U.S. Taxpayers Party — one of the left, one of the right and one very hard to define. But the president remains a drag on James, with a 2-to-1 majority of voters who have an opinion on the matter blaming the president for getting covid-19.  

Money watch

Midnight is the deadline for federal campaigns to release their fundraising for the third quarter of 2020, from July 1 to Sept. 30. Some of them will beat the buzzer, filing at the last minute, so we’ll have fuller details in the next edition of The Trailer. But the clearest trend so far has been a surge of cash for the Democrats’ U.S. Senate candidates, who have set single-quarter records in much of the country.

In Alaska, Al Gross raised $9 million. In Arizona, former astronaut Mark Kelly raised $38.7 million. In Georgia, where there’s a regular Senate election and a special primary on Nov. 3, both of the candidates backed by national Democrats posted eight-digit hauls: $12.8 million for Raphael Warnock and $21.3 million for Jon Ossoff. Three failed 2018 candidates for the House running for Senate this year also blew away expectations: $28.7 million for Iowa’s Theresa Greenfield, $36.8 million for Kentucky’s Amy McGrath and $13.5 million for Texas’s MJ Hegar. Two candidates raised more than than they had for their entire 2020 presidential bids: Colorado’s John Hickenlooper raised $22.6 million, and Montana’s Steve Bullock raised $26.8 million.

Not every Republican has revealed their fundraising for the quarter yet, but so far, just one candidate in a competitive race kept pace with a Democrat: Michigan’s John James raised $14 million, and so did Democratic Sen. Gary Peters. And importantly, no candidate is being triaged or abandoned. The Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Senate Republicans, has spread its resources across the map; it is sticking with a $9 million buy in Michigan, for example, to boost James. 

In South Carolina, where Jaime Harrison’s $57 million haul set a new state record, Sen. Lindsey Graham reported what, in any other year, would have been a record: $28 million, more than he spent across all three of his previous Senate runs. And the SLF has outpaced Democratic spending in the state, putting in $14 million to just $4.4 million by the Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC.

We’ve yet to learn how much the president’s reelection campaign raised, but we know that Joe Biden’s campaign broke the record for one month of donations. The Democratic nominee will report raising $383 million for himself and the Democratic National Committee, leaving him with more than $400 million to spend in the final stretch of the election. It was more than double the $154 million that Hillary Clinton’s campaign raised in the same period of the 2016 election. 

Candidate tracker

In lieu of a presidential debate, tonight will see President Trump sit for a town hall with NBC News and its affiliates, while Joe Biden will have a town hall with ABC News and its substantially smaller list of affiliates. The existence of these town halls sparked a controversy that is too boring to get into here; suffice to say that Biden scheduled his event immediately after Trump backed out of the Miami debate, while NBC came under fire for scheduling “counterprogramming” that seemed to reward the president for being the first president in 40 years to back out of a debate with his main opponent.

“I figured, what the hell, we get a free hour on television,” Trump said Thursday, at an afternoon rally in North Carolina.

Biden made no public appearances between Tuesday and the town hall, apart from some news-free fundraisers. Kamala D. Harris, meanwhile, scrapped all travel through Sunday after a campaign press secretary and a hired pilot tested positive for the coronavirus. Harris herself tested negative, as did Biden. Mike Pence, meanwhile stumped in Miami, focusing his remarks on the Trump administration’s advocacy for liberal reformers in Central and South America.

“We will not stand by while Venezuela crumbles,” Pence said. “We will stand with the people of Venezuela until their birthright of libertad is restored.”

With Harris grounded, and Biden’s schedule not announced yet, we know where only the Republican ticket is headed next: Pence to rallies in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, Trump to rallies in Florida and Georgia.

Countdown

… seven days until the second (formerly third) presidential debate 
… 19 days until the general election 
… 60 days until the electoral college votes
… 97 days until the inauguration

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