WASHINGTON — In 2016, Donald Trump blew through the guardrails of American politics. In his bid for reelection, he’s poised to blow them up.
This time around, he’s aided by the power of the presidency, with its unmatched megaphone and resources. And his latest provocation — prodding a foreign leader to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden — suggests he sees little issue using his office for his personal political interests.
His actions foreshadow a no-holds-barred 2020 campaign, regardless of who Democrats select as their nominee in the coming months. If the lesson of Trump’s 2016 victory was that deeply personal attacks and factually inaccurate innuendo are a pathway to victory, his 2020 playbook appears to include more of the same.
Democrats are more clear-eyed about the effectiveness of those tactics, but still deeply uncertain over the best approach — and the best candidate — to blunt them. Fight back against Trump and they risk running a campaign on his terms and elevating his baseless attacks. Ignore him and they allow his arguments to percolate unchecked through the conservative media ecosystem.
Democrats concede he is jarringly effective at dictating the terms of the political debate and throwing his opponents off stride.
“Donald Trump’s greatest political skill is the ability to pull people into his vortex of terribleness where you spend all day every day responding to Trump’s outrage du jour and defending yourself from absurd, baseless accusations,” said Dan Pfeiffer, an Obama campaign and White House adviser.
That’s where Biden finds himself at the moment, answering questions about his son Hunter’s work for a Ukrainian gas company at the same time his father was leading American diplomatic efforts to help the country’s fledgling government.
There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either man, and Hunter Biden is no longer working for the company. Yet Joe Biden still spent a weekend of campaigning in Iowa deflecting questions about the matter and urging reporters to focus their attention back on Trump.
“Ask the right questions,” he bellowed when asked by a reporter how many times he had spoken to his son about his overseas business dealings.
To be sure, Trump’s appeal to Ukraine’s president may ultimately create political problems for the president. The matter is part of a whistleblower complaint the administration is withholding from Congress, citing presidential privilege. Congressional Democrats, who have already been stymied by the White House in numerous investigations, are outraged, and many members are renewing calls for impeachment.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the intelligence committee chairman who has so far resisted impeachment efforts, said Sunday that Trump’s actions “may very well have crossed the Rubicon here.”
Trump and his allies have spent months laying the groundwork for the questions about Biden and his son, well aware that the former vice president would make for a formidable general election opponent given his ties to the working class voters who abandoned Democrats for Trump in 2016. Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, has publicly acknowledged pitching Ukrainian politicians on investigating the Bidens.
Trump is now alleged to have repeatedly asked Ukraine’s president to help with that effort. His request for a foreign leader’s help in the 2020 election came in a July 25 phone call — one day after special counsel Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony effectively quashed Democratic hopes of impeaching Trump over Russian election interference in the 2016 campaign.
Mueller’s investigation did little to dissuade Trump about the impropriety of accepting election help from a foreign government. Earlier this year, he said in an interview with ABC News that if another country had negative information about a political rival, he would have no problem accepting it.
“I think you might want to listen, there isn’t anything wrong with listening,” Trump said in the June interview. “If somebody called from a country, Norway, (and said) ‘we have information on your opponent’ — oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”
Following revelations that Trump appeared to follow through on those words in his conversation with the Ukrainian president, Democratic presidential candidates called his behavior un-democratic.
“It’s beyond laughing or crying,” said Pete Buttigieg, a White House hopeful and mayor of South Bend, Ind. “It is a betrayal of the United States.”
California Sen. Kamala Harris told The Associated Press that Trump’s actions were “inexcusable and an act against the people of the United States.”
But Harris, who has hit Biden during recent debates, also subtly reflected the ways in which the accusations Trump unearths can begin to take hold, no matter how accurate they are.
Asked by the AP if this in any way casts aspersions on Vice President Biden’s “campaign or his character,” Harris declined to comment.
“I’ll leave that up to the pundits. I don’t have a comment on that,” she said.