The president hopes to shape the images — and psychology — of his would-be challengers just as he did to his 2016 GOP rivals. But some may welcome the attention.
“Crazy Bernie.” “Pocahontas.” “One Percent Biden.”
President Donald Trump, who humiliated his 2016 Republican opponents with sticky monikers like “Lyin Ted” Cruz, “Lil Marco” Rubio and “low energy” Jeb Bush, is already salting the earth for Democrats lining up to run in 2020.
Even as he stumps for Republican midterm candidates, Trump is increasingly training fire at his own potential Democratic opponents: assigning them nicknames and mocking them at rallies, handicapping their prospects — and even trying to reshape the Democratic field.
“They got some real beauties going,” Trump said at a Monday rally in Johnson City, Tenn., after slamming several potential Democratic contenders by name.
It’s an unusual approach: Sitting presidents rarely seek to play a spoiler role in the opposing party’s nominating contests. But Trump has never been deterred by historical codes of conduct.
“He is a man who charges into the arena and dictates the terms of the contest,” said Brian O. Walsh, president of the pro-Trump group America First Action. “I would expect the same in 2020 across the board.”
Trump considers himself the main attraction in the coming presidential contest — he has often talked about his 2016 campaign as a TV ratings smash — and believes he can wield the same verbal weapons he used to demolish rivals like Rubio and Bush against his would-be Democratic challengers, according to a half-dozen White House aides and outside advisers familiar with his thinking.
In Trump’s parlance, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who challenged Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries, is “Crazy Bernie.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is “Pocahontas,” a reference to a decades-old claim she made to partial Native-American heritage. And “One percent Biden” refers to former Vice President Joe Biden’s ill-fated bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
The early talk already has some Democrats contemplating runs guessing at how Trump will go after them: Two people close to 2020 Democrats who have yet to get a Trump nickname privately speculated to POLITICO about what he might come up with.
Trump allies — projecting buoyancy about a race the president approaches with historically weak approval ratings — say the bombast reflects his confidence: Trump privately claims to be unimpressed with the Democratic crop, calling its major figures grossly unprepared for prime time and too liberal for the general electorate. Aides and allies said they expect the smattering of public broadsides to pick up significantly after the midterms.
Stoking Trump’s interest is the gathering momentum on the Democratic side. Warren told a town hall this weekend that she plans to “take a hard look” at running for president after the midterm elections, Biden has conspicuously raised his public profile of late, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), is making high profile appearances in key primary states, along with using his Senate Judiciary post to jab at Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Since then Trump has mocked Booker several times, including twice at rallies and once in his Monday Rose Garden appearance to tout a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada.
“Take a look at Cory Booker. He ran Newark, New Jersey into the ground. He was a horrible mayor,” Trump said.
He followed up hours later at his rally in Tennessee, pointing to a column Booker wrote in college confessing that, as a 15-year-old in 1984, he groped a woman’s breast after they kissed on New Year’s Eve. “See some of the things he wrote when he was young about women,” Trump said.
Trump this summer defied New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to challenge him in 2020. “Oh, please do it. Please. Please,” Trump said at an August fundraiser, adding: “Anybody that runs against Trump suffers.”
Trump also attacked Warren on Monday, as well as at his Saturday event. “They have been taken so far left where Pocahontas is now considered a conservative in the Democrat Party,” Trump said.
“Oh, I dream of these people every night,” the president confided to his West Virginia audience. “The only thing I worry about is that some total unknown that nobody ever heard of comes along,” Trump added.
Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian and former director of the Richard Nixon Library, said there is no precedent for a sitting president to so early on wade into their next campaign while publicly handicapping the other party’s primary race. Yet Trump was swept into office believing in the power of branding, and his time in the White House has only reinforced the feeling.
“We can expect middle schoolish labels for all Democratic contenders,” Naftali said. “And, if past practice is a guide, the more threatening he perceives the political opponent, the more often he will repeat the label.”
People close to Trump say he’s convinced the nicknames and other public ridicule he employed against the likes of Bush and Rubio both shaped public opinion against them and — maybe more important —got inside their heads and rattled their confidence as candidates.
With no Republicans emerging — yet — to challenge him, Trump is hoping to do the same to Democrats.
Trump rolled out a new nickname for Biden in Tennessee Monday, apparently referring to the former senator and vice president’s dismal 2008 performance, when Biden dropped out of the Democratic primaries after winning just under one percent in the Iowa caucuses.
“We call him ‘1 percent Biden’ until Obama took him off the trash heap he couldn’t do anything,” Trump said. “Now, he’s thinking about running. Tough guy.”
Trump had gone after Biden before, in a March tweet boasting that in a fight between the men, Biden “would go down fast and hard, crying all the way.” (Trump was responding to a Biden claim that he would “beat the hell out of Trump” for his treatment of women if they were still in high school.)
At a stop this summer in New York, Trump shredded the state’s Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand for flip-flopping on gun control, highlighting the once-flawless score she earned from the National Rifle Association as a Congresswoman representing a pro-gun upstate New York district.
After a round of speculation about whether former Secretary of State and 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry might join the 2020 fray, a storyline he has refused to knock down while promoting his new book, Trump lampooned the idea, tweeting that he “should only be so lucky” to face Kerry.“[A]lthough the field that is currently assembling looks really good – FOR ME!” Trump added.
In July, Trump said he would challenge Warren to an ancestry test on the debate stage, offering $1 million to charity if it “showed you are an Indian.”
As campaign and political aides try to keep him focused on the upcoming midterms, Trump keeps turning the focus of his speeches at rallies to 2020. He went after Warren and Sanders at his August event in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., saying he’s been watching them closely suggesting he favors drawing a progressive challenger.
“I’ll tell you, I gotta hand it to Bernie. I saw him up there the other day, that hair getting whiter and whiter and he’s getting crazier and crazier,” Trump said to roaring laughter.
At Saturday’s rally, Trump intimated that the Democratic field was simply too boring, arguing that every major media outlet which issues endorsements would back his 2020 candidacy, if only to ensure continued ratings and readers.
“If they don’t, and if for some reason I didn’t win, every single media outlet goes bankrupt,” Trump boasted. “Can you imagine if they had to cover ‘Crazy Bernie?’ Who the hell is going to watch for any of them?”
Trump’s continued focus on Sanders recalls his efforts to influence how he tried to play in the 2016 Democratic primary, when he sought to exploit the resentment of Sanders voters by saying the Democratic process was “rigged” in favor of Hillary Clinton.
Trump allies say that the size of Trump’s media megaphone makes Democrats highly vulnerable to his insults — particularly the ones relatively unknown to a national audience.
“This is politics 101: define your opponents before they can define themselves,” Jason Miller, a former top aide to Trump’s 2016 campaign, said in a recent interview. “For many of these top-flight Democratic presidential contenders, voters will learn far more about them from what president Trump says than what they have to say for the next year to 18 months.”
“His track record has shown that his unorthodox style worked quite well for him,” Miller added.
Meanwhile, Democrats concede the potency of nicknames like “Pocahontas,” meant to raise doubts about Warren’s honesty — an angle of attack the president often uses against his adversaries.
But some say the name-calling could turn into a plus for Democrats trying to break out in a crowded field. Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic consultant not working for any of the would-be candidates, referred to it as Trump’s “Darth Vader problem,” which leaves those he tries to strike down, including former White House aide and “Apprentice” star Omarosa Manigault Newman “more powerful than they can imagine.”
After the White House this summer claimed that Sen. Kamala Harris is “supporting the animals of MS-13,” Harris — widely considered a potential 2020 contender — very quickly fired back, tweeting that she actually had fought gangs and transnational criminal organizations as a prosecutor before her election to the Senate. “That’s being a leader on public safety. What is not, is ripping babies from their mothers,” she said, using a second tweet to enlist supporters.
Trump has even gone after Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stephanie Clifford, who makes porn movies under the name Stormy Daniels, and says she was paid off to remain silent about a sexual encounter with Trump. Avenatti says he is exploring a 2020 Democratic bid generally viewed as a huge longshot. After Avenatti announced last week that he is representing a woman who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct, Trump banded him a “third-rate lawyer” and “total lowlife.”