Trump's campaign is in tatters — but his administration is trying to pick up the pieces

Trump's campaign is in tatters — but his administration is trying to pick up the pieces
President Donald J. Trump gestures with a fist pump and waves as he boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Md. Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, en route to Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, N.C. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

The Trump campaign, facing a cash crunch, has gone off the air in a number of swing states in the final weeks of the election. They're playing defense in states they didn't expect to have to defend, like Texas and Georgia, and are spread thin. And they're competing against a Democratic challenger who has raised a record amount of campaign cash this cycle and entered the home stretch with an $118 million advantage over the incumbent.

Trump has compensated by using taxpayer dollars to supplement his campaign's efforts, most prominently with a planned $300 million advertising blitz by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to "defeat despair" about Covid-19. According to Politico, the hyper-partisan political appointee responsible for the campaign, Michael Caputo, pitched it internally with the theme, "Helping the President will Help the Country."

That campaign appears to have fallen apart--or at least been pushed past the election--after Caputo suffered a high-profile meltdown and then took a leave of absence, and internal resistance from within the agency spilled into the press.

But HHS wasn't the only agency pushing Trump's message. In the closing weeks of the campaign, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have launched an unprecedented, coordinated campaign to advance Trump's demagoguery of immigrants and refugees "in key battleground states where President Donald Trump is trailing his opponent Joe Biden in the polls," according to Time Magazine.

As part of this push, top DHS and ICE leaders have traveled across the country to hold at least four press conferences this month in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Minnesota, shadowing the path of Trump's rallies as he makes a last-minute appeal to voters there. These public announcements by senior leaders ahead of the election, which former officials tell TIME are abnormal, if not unprecedented, have been held to publicize mostly routine immigration enforcement operations that would usually have been revealed with little fanfare.
Instead, DHS and ICE officials have used them as a platform to aggressively make the case for the president's immigration policies, often taking on a markedly Trumpian tone and echoing parts of his stump speech. At multiple events, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and his deputy Ken Cuccinelli have talked about immigrants taking American jobs, blasted Democrat-run sanctuary cities, touted "America First" and warned of "evil people who seek to travel to the United States with the intent of harming and killing Americans."

Even more blatant are the billboards. CNN reports:

When the idea of erecting billboards of immigration violators initially came up at least a year ago, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials didn't think much of it. The proposal was considered to be a low priority, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.

But just weeks from the presidential election, billboards picturing immigrants who were previously arrested or convicted of crimes are up in six locations in Pennsylvania, a critical swing state.

Buzzfeed News reported that "current ICE employees, speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said they were also concerned at the effort and what it meant for their agency and its reputation. One ICE employee said the billboards were clearly an attempt to 'pander' to Trump's base: 'It's appalling, but so much about immigration enforcement under this administration has been for that purpose alone.'"

This follows an ICE enforcement campaign this month targeting "sanctuary cities," a frequent target of Trump's mendacious attacks. The Washington Post reported in September that "two officials with knowledge of plans for the sanctuary op described it as more of a political messaging campaign than a major ICE operation, noting that the agency already concentrates on immigration violators with criminal records and routinely arrests them without much fanfare."

Absent some internal memo or emails emerging in which officials explicitly say that this effort is designed to help re-elect Trump, this is probably all technically legal. The Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from participating in campaign activities--and the use of public resources for partisan activities--is about explicit electioneering and doesn't cover acts that indirectly help a campaign advance its messaging. But it is hard to imagine a more brazen violation of the spirit of that law.

If Democrats win unified control next week, one hopes that they'll remember that these authoritarian agencies that have embraced Trump's xenophobic worldview like no others went all-in for his re-election.

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