A reporter's stunning look inside Trump's chaotic, meandering 2020 reboot proves he's running his re-election campaign into the ground

A reporter's stunning look inside Trump's chaotic, meandering 2020 reboot proves he's running his re-election campaign into the ground
President Donald J. Trump is escorted by Col. Stephen Snelson, Commander of the 89th Airlift Wing, as he walks from Marine One at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Saturday, June 20, 2020, to Air Force One to begin his trip to Tulsa, Okla. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)
Election '20

Olivia Nuzzi’s stunning look inside the Trump presidential campaign confirms everything we’ve been saying, for so long—that it’s a disorganized disaster of a mess, riven by internal discord and rival factions, with no guiding strategy that could plausibly give the incumbent president a path to reelection.

We’ve seen and discussed it before, but Nuzzi offers new insight. About the nepotism and grift that infects the campaign?

“The campaign was spending all this money on silly things. Brad’s businesses kept making money,” the first senior White House official told me. “Everyone was like, What does he even do? He’s just milking the family, basically. And nobody could understand why Jared and the family were putting up with it. That was the talk all the time. Why? Why Brad? He’s not some genius. And I guess people just came to the conclusion that, well, who else would be campaign manager? We’re kind of stuck with this guy.”

Note, the campaign is still spending money in silly things, like TV ads in the Washington DC market so that Donald Trump can see himself as he wastes entire days staring slack jawed at the TV screen. And are the partners of the two Trump siblings still making $15,000 every month in a nepotistic fleecing of campaign donors? There are no indications that has changed.

We know that the campaign has no message, and continues to have no message, comically fumbling the response to the Kamala Harris VP rollout. Indeed, this is the campaign that expended serious resources to build a case against Hunter Biden’s work in the Ukraine—an effort that led to a historic impeachment of the president, only to see a bored Trump toss it aside with little use. Also, remember Obamagate, the single most horrible scandal in the history of America? That one lasted like three days. Meanwhile, Trump can’t pivot away from “the best economy in the history of the world” (it wasn’t), even after his mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic drove it into a ditch.

So, having “rebooted” the campaign by ditching Brad Parscale and installing Bill Stepien instead as campaign manager, how has that campaign message changed? Nuzzi asked:

But while replacing Parscale with Stepien has the look of a reboot, at the strategy level it does not seem much has changed or is likely to. Asked how the campaign can formulate a coherent message, given what life is like for most people across the country today, senior adviser Jason Miller said, “It’s very direct: President Trump built the greatest economy in the history of the world, and he’s doing it again.”

Oh well.

Finally, we’ve seen how Trump’s actual actions only serve to shrink his potential base of support, further alienating key demographic groups that have abandoned him, like those suburban college-educated white women who delivered the House to Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats in 2018. (38 of the Democrats’ 41 House pickups were in suburban districts.)

This is an ongoing Trump feature, from attacking Supreme Court decisions popular with those suburban swing voters (like protecting abortion rights, protecting young immigrants, and defending LGBTQ rights), to demonizing the Black Lives Matter movement, to defending Confederate monuments. So, what is the campaign doing to expand its base and win? Reading the Nuzzi piece, apparently nothing more than engage in wishful thinking. Take this passage, for example:

“I don’t think we’re gonna lose this campaign,” said Bob Paduchik, Trump’s 2016 Ohio state director and a senior adviser to the 2020 campaign. “I don’t think we’re losing this campaign.” He told me the polling averages didn’t show Biden winning Ohio. I said that was wrong. Well, Paduchik said, the RealClearPolitics average didn’t show Biden winning. I told him that was wrong too — that I happened to be looking at that particular website as we spoke. Even Rasmussen, Trump’s preferred polling outfit, had Trump down by five, I said. “No,” Paduchik said, Rasmussen didn’t have a poll like that. When I said it sure did, that I was looking right at it, Paduchik said he couldn’t speak to that poll since he hadn’t reviewed it himself. Either way, he said, the polls were silly, based as they are on the premise that they measure how people would vote if the election were held today. “Well, the election is not today!” he said. “We haven’t had our debates and our convention yet. It’s sort of a fantasy guess.”

This newfound belief that the debates will bail Trump out is a new level of wishful thinking. Debates don’t mean shit. Hillary Clinton wiped the floor with Trump, for all the good it did. Conventions also don’t do much to move the numbers in any lasting way, but they’ll be even less relevant in this year’s online format. But when you don’t have a message or an organization or a viable strategy to win back lost support, then wishful thinking is the final fallback.

There’s one final fascinating piece of news in Nuzzi’s piece, one that we hadn’t really seen before, and that is whether the Trump campaign is truly as organized as it claimed it is. We saw a hint of this during the hilariously botched Tulsa rally, when the campaign claimed it had 1 million people clamoring to attend. In the end, about 6,000 did. The expected overflow area outside the convention hall was dismantled even before Trump took the stage. (Herman Cain, one of Trump’s few Black friends, died because of that rally.)

But that failure could easily be placed at the feet the pandemic. The campaign could be as organized as it claimed to be, and yet still fail to get a crowd because death is quite the demotivator, right? In Pennsylvania, a must-win battleground state for Trump, and one he won by a sliver in 2016, the Trump campaign claims 1.4 million volunteers and an unprecedented ground game. As Nuzzi summarizes it, “The campaign says it’s the greatest ground game to ever exist, that while you don’t see enthusiasm for the president reflected in the rigged polls, you do see it when you talk to his real supporters where they live in Real America. In fact, they talk about surveys of enthusiasm not just as though they are more reliable than real polls but as though they are the polls — as though the traditional kind simply don’t exist, or matter.”

Nuzzi sets out to find this ground game in action, attending trainings and gatherings advertised by the state’s campaign. It’s a hilarious stream of empty rooms, closed doors, and puzzled campaign staff. Like this vignette:

“What event?,” Kevin Tatulyan, an Allegheny County Republican official, asked as he waved me into the room.

“What event?,” Dallas McClintock, the regional Trump-Pence field director, asked.

One of the women, with lilac-colored hair, whipped her head toward McClintock.

“It’s your email here!” she told him, pointing to the advertisement I’d mentioned.

“My email?,” McClintock said in disbelief.

“Yeah!” she said.

He scrunched up his face.

For the next several minutes, the staffers tried to sort out how, with fewer than 100 days until the election, they had unknowingly advertised official campaign events that didn’t exist to potential campaign volunteers in the most important swing state in the country.

They squinted at their screens and asked questions.

“What time?”

“Where did you learn about it?”

“What was the address?”

The second event had been listed with an apparent misspelling in the street name, a detail that prompted the girl with the lilac hair to laugh.

“Sounds right,” she said dryly.

Trump thrives on good news and rose-colored information. Like a typical despot, he doesn’t want to hear the truth, so his staff tells him what he wants to hear. And they tell him those things were he’s sure to consume them—in the media.

So is the Trump’s campaign entire narrative about its massive ground game a fiction, designed to appease their boss? Nuzzi’s dive into this little slice of Pennsylvania certainly suggests so. Of course, we can’t and shouldn't assume that’s the case anywhere. And in any case, is anyone really staying home this November? I doubt it’s possible to suppress this vote with “good news”.

And even if Pennsylvania’s Trump operation is a mirage, that doesn’t mean it’s equally ineffective elsewhere. Remember, we’re not playing to win the presidency anymore. This is another 2018—we’re playing to deliver maximum electoral pain to the Republican Party.

What this does suggest is that a Republican Party that has surrendered to Trump, both out of fear of his tantrums, and hope that his rabid foot soldiers can bail them out, may have miscalculated to a degree that we hadn’t even dare consider. If the vaunted Trump ground game is a fiction, our down ballot opportunities may be even greater than we hoped.

I’ve said before, we are lucky that Trump is as stupid and ineffective as he is. The dumbass even admitted to gutting the USPS for electoral gain last week, like a cliche movie villain’s monologue. Now no one can pretend that Trump’s efforts aren’t nefarious, even those who wanted to like Fact Check. His penchant for surrounding himself with morons and refusal to follow federal law when making decisions has ensured that the damage he could cause was limited at best. (A quote in Nuzzi’s piece illustrates this perfectly: “What Trump does is take people who are mediocre talent at best, who know they could never have the position they have if it were not for Trump, and it creates this instant loyalty to Trump.”)

Among those unqualified people? Jared Kushner reigns supreme (of course).

Trump has epically messed up the country, but it could’ve been worse. And now he’s bringing his special kind of incompetence, the kind that bankrupts a casino,  to his reelection campaign.

That incompetence is a silver lining in what has been among the bleakest four years in our lives. It means we are on path to ridding ourselves of Trump and his party. Because at this point, we’re not fighting for November, we’re fighting for the next generation.

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