Donald Trump’s campaign is entering the darkest days of his presidency — as House Democrats begin a formal impeachment inquiry 13 months out from the 2020 election — with a singular strategy: convince voters the most powerful man in the world is now a powerless victim of partisan politics.
With impeachment, campaign officials and White House allies believe Trump has gained a formidable advantage in his bid for reelection: one that energizes his core supporters, places a segment of independent voters at odds with his opponents and potentially imperils swing-state Democrats whose constituents adamantly oppose his early removal from office.
To the Trump team, it’s the perfect opportunity to make Americans feel sorry for a president who has rarely pitied anyone but himself.
“Democrats overreaching has been such a political gift to Trump, over and over again. They’ve been screaming ‘treason!’ and ‘impeachment!’ after nearly everything that happens,” said former Trump adviser Cliff Sims. “Middle America is mostly numb to it and now the latest impeachment gambit is helping galvanize moderate voters — the same ones who punished Republicans for overreaching on Clinton — especially in suburban areas.”
The campaign’s strategy is hardly foolproof. There’s little evidence that Trump’s repeated claims of “presidential harassment” during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation moved the needle with voters outside his base, and no guarantee the same daily assertions would have a different impact this time around.
And those endeavoring to portray him as a political martyr face a tall order, if recent voter attitudes are any indication. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released just days before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signed off on a House-led impeachment inquiry found that 69 percent of voters personally dislike the president.
“When he’s losing in most polling data that we see to every Democratic potential nominee and his reelect numbers are anywhere from 38 to 42 on average, you have to wonder what the campaign is doing,” said a Republican close to the White House, who said Trump’s 2020 team “seems to be more focused on selling straws than having a reelection strategy.” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh disputed the claim and said the president is “on track for a landslide reelection.”
Trump’s grievance politics have also left his political opponents hyper-aware of the stakes of this moment. Pelosi, who spent months urging restraint against calls for impeachment from her party’s progressive flank, was calm and methodical as she announced her change of heart on Tuesday.
It was a sign that partisan theatrics and histrionic outbursts — which the Trump campaign is counting on as part of its 2020 strategy — could be squashed by the top Democrat as she and her colleagues build their case against Trump.
“History will be the ultimate judge of how everyone behaves in the coming weeks and months,” said Roger Fisk, a Democratic strategist and longtime aide to former President Barack Obama. “The president and his team have the reverse chore of their Mueller response: in that situation, they had to take the complex and simplify it, and now they have to take a simple narrative and complicate it.”
“The Speaker is right to keep her caucus’s emotions from getting in the way,” Fisk added.
But allies of the president claim Pelosi has already “lost control” and is leading Democrats into an election year that is unlikely to yield any major legislative achievements, while pursuing an impeachment investigation the Republican-controlled Senate has already scoffed at. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told POLITICO in a statement Wednesday it is “laughable” to consider Trump’s overtures to his Ukrainian counterpart “an impeachable offense.”
Pelosi “has aligned herself with the radical left to appease them. She knows this is a bad move, she’s only been saying that for the past year,” said Kelly Sadler, a spokeswoman for the pro-Trump super PAC America First.
Impeaching Trump has been met with apprehension among voters, including those who detest the president. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in late July — after Mueller concluded his investigation into Russian election interference, but before it became public that Trump implored his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate 2020 Democratic hopeful Joe Biden — found that 60 percent of voters opposed congressional action on impeachment, even as a majority of respondents in the same poll said they believed Trump is racist.
“This will turn off a lot of voters who … maybe they don’t love the president, but also don’t love Washington and politics in general. It makes what was already going to be a tough election for Democrats even tougher,” said a former senior Trump administration official.
Trump and his allies say they will continue to use public polling on the issue of impeachment as a cudgel against Democrats as long as it fits their narrative that voters care more about pocketbook issues than they do about whether Trump violated the norms of presidential behavior, or abused the powers of his office.
“The logical thing for the average voter to say is, this has nothing to do with my life,” said Larry Sabato, a political analyst and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Sabato suggested that Democrats proceed expeditiously by making Feb. 3, the day of the Iowa caucuses, their “informal deadline” for an impeachment vote in the lower chamber.
“If Democrats don’t handle this well, they will end up doing the near impossible: creating sympathy for Donald Trump,” he said.
A person close to the Trump campaign went further, saying Democrats would be “better off” focusing on kitchen table issues like healthcare and income inequality between now and the general election, rather than barreling toward impeachment.
“How can any Democrat run for office saying ‘Hey, I want compromise. Hey, I’ve been trying to get stuff done?’ They can’t say that now. Now their party is literally trying to impeach this guy, and so it takes that talking point away from them.”
Trump aides have already been hard at work trying to cast the president as a victim of partisan zeal. On Wednesday, the White House distributed talking points describing impeachment as “just another example of the ‘Deep State,’ the media, and Democrats damaging our national security for political gain.” The document was accidentally sent to some House Democrats.
“Democrats launching impeachment over a fake scandal nobody cares about has to be one of the dumbest political moves of all time — so bad it should be reported as an in-kind contribution to the president’s 2020 reelect,” said former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.
They’ve also claimed the impeachment effort — which was prompted by a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s overtures to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, among other actions Democrats have long considered egregious — has benefited the president in another way: by subjecting Biden to an onslaught of news coverage about his son’s overseas business dealings when he was serving as vice president. Biden told reporters over the weekend he’s “never” spoken to his son, Hunter, about the matter.
Some members of the president’s inner circle believe the attention paid to the whistleblower complaint has made it look as though Democrats sacrificed Biden to boost Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s chances of becoming their party’s nominee. Party officials and other primary candidates have publicly and privately expressed concern in recent months about the 76-year-old former vice president’s age and propensity to misspeak in debates and on the campaign trail.
“Elizabeth Warren has already killed Joe Biden in the presidential race,” said a person close to Trump, referring to recent polls that have shown the progressive senator eclipsing Biden in the earliest two voting states, New Hampshire and Iowa. “This just makes it more difficult for him to come out of the grave.”
Some Republicans close to the president consider Biden to be the most fearsome Democratic candidate in a general election match-up, citing polls that have shown him trouncing Trump in both swing states and reliably red parts of the country.
But others close to Trump think it’s far too early to predict winners and losers from the latest development surrounding impeachment, and they warn the optics of Trump’s phone call with Zelensky can harm his campaign.
“The problem with the call is it’s muddy,” said the former senior White House official, adding that Trump can do further damage by going “nuts” in the face of a looming House impeachment vote.
Another Republican strategist said “playing the victim is off-brand for Trump, who exudes strength as a leader.”
“The first time Trump sees himself portrayed as weak, he will go in another direction,” this person said.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine