LAS VEGAS — Past presidents running for reelection have built entire campaigns around their incumbency: Events in the Rose Garden. Signing ceremonies in the Oval Office. Cross-country campaign swings on Air Force One.
President Donald Trump has used this tactic to his advantage in recent weeks — parking the iconic presidential jet behind the stage at his rallies, turning the executive complex into a high-production venue for the Republican National Convention and unveiling an updated list of potential Supreme Court nominees against the elegant backdrop of the White House Diplomatic Reception Room.
But for the wildly unpredictable president, it’s not enough.
As Trump sprints toward the finish line in his race against Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, he is waging a campaign with dual personalities. There is the concerned commander in chief, who will spend Monday assessing the wildfires that have devastated California — a state that is bound to hand all 55 of its electoral votes to Biden on Election Day — and who recently initiated a drawdown of American troops in the Middle East and took unilateral action on Sunday to lower drug prices. And there is Trump the perpetual outsider — combative and vicious as ever — who spent the weekend baselessly accusing his opponent of drug abuse, praising the fatal shooting of a murder suspect with antifa ties as “retribution,” and assuring voters that the coronavirus pandemic had “rounded a corner” even as the U.S. death toll from Covid-19 creeps toward 200,000.
The outcome is a reelection campaign caught between two worlds in the two months left before voters decide Trump’s fate. For as often as Trump has shown a desire to use the trappings of the presidency in a conventional way, he has muddled, upstaged and at times completely derailed those efforts with profoundly unorthodox tactics that most of his supporters adore.
The jarring contrast was on full display most recently as the president, in a span of 24 hours, went from commending the “courage and resolve” of Flight 93 passengers in a 9/11 anniversary speech from the site of their death in Shanksville, Pa., to claiming that Biden is on performance-enhancing drugs.
“I think there’s probably — possibly — drugs involved,” Trump told Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro in an interview that aired Saturday night. “That’s what I hear. I mean, there’s possibly drugs.”
The president’s unfounded claim about his opponent aired after his campaign rally in nearby Minden, Nev., where he vowed to become “vicious” in the remaining weeks before the November election. “I don’t have to be nice anymore,” he declared.
One Trump campaign official said it was unclear where the drug abuse charges against Biden, whom the president has accused of lacking the mental acuity to hold office, originated. The same official described Trump’s comments as counterproductive ahead of the first presidential debate, on Sept. 29. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
“What you see is the president elevating Biden to a cartoonish level to distract from the naked, cartoonish failure of presidential leadership that is still unfolding,” said Roger Fisk, a former top campaign aide to President Barack Obama.
Many Trump allies don’t seem to mind the split approach he’s taken to campaigning for reelection. In their view, it’s a brilliant way to furnish the sound bites and insults that will boost turnout among his core supporters on Election Day, while also giving campaign aides the material they need to craft messages that are tailored to demographics he’s struggling with — including women and suburban and senior voters.
For example, just as the president was gloating about withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord during his Saturday rally in Minden, his aides were locking in plans for his Monday visit to Sacramento, Calif., where he will meet with local and federal personnel and likely highlight the disaster declaration he issued for the state in late August.
“It’s crazy what’s going on,” Trump said of the California wildfires during his Sunday night rally in Henderson, Nev. “I’m going there tomorrow. You want forest management.”
The president’s campaign event here in Clark County underscored the defiance that remains at the center of his political career and that is complicating his bid for reelection. The indoor rally, which was held at a manufacturing facility just outside Vegas, featured thousands of maskless supporters crowded together — a likely violation of Nevada’s Covid-19 rules against large gatherings.
On Tuesday, Trump will host a signing at the White House for the Abraham Accords, a pair of peace agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Israel and Bahrain. Though he is likely to wear his presidential hat for the historic diplomatic occasion, Trump will be back in campaign mode later that evening for a televised ABC News town hall with undecided voters in Philadelphia. (At a town hall in June, the president claimed that Chicago’s crime rate was “worse than Afghanistan” and teased out a potential pardon for his former associate Roger Stone.)
The Tuesday town hall could become a distraction from the signing ceremony that Trump will preside over hours before he arrives in Pennsylvania. A near fatal ambush of two police deputies in Compton, Calif., by a lone gunman over the weekend has given the president fresh fodder for his tough-on-crime campaign message. Trump has put the protection of law enforcement at the center of his reelection bid in the wake of nationwide demonstrations over police brutality and systemic racism.