The Trailer: What Trump had in 2016

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In this edition: The X-factor Trump doesn’t have in 2020, the muted reaction to the latest Obamacare lawsuit, and new diversity numbers from the presidential candidates.

Nothing worth sharing has ever been yelled from a speeding golf cart, and this is The Trailer.

President Trump is seeking reelection with the lowest approval rating of any incumbent president in 40 years. A series of events initially seen as chances for the president to shine — the coronavirus pandemic, the civil unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd — have only deepened his problems and increased support for Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

But the president has largely avoided the sort of “dead man walking” analysis that once greeted Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. The reason is the 2016 election, which humbled the president’s smuggest critics and broke the reputation of many election prognosticators. The argument against electoral despair is the same argument Trump makes about rebuilding the post-pandemic economy: He did it once, and he can do it again.

There’s a catch. Trump campaign veterans and his supporters have almost completely erased the role of two “October surprises” that damaged Hillary Clinton, in an election so close that any individual factor could have decided it. The first was a series of hacks into Clinton campaign email, culminating in the release via WikiLeaks of more than 20,000 pages from the personal account of John Podesta. The second was the decision of then-FBI Director James B. Comey to announce, in a letter to Congress, that there would be a probe of emails found on a Clinton aide’s laptop.

Polling found that both stories damaged Clinton, possibly moving the last undecided voters to Trump and sealing his win. But those stories are increasingly left out of the campaign’s theory about what happened in 2016. And neither the Biden nor Trump campaign can really plan for revelations or scandals that could come.

Either event, the hack or the Comey letter, would have been a fantastic gift to any candidate. Each was welcomed and promoted by Trump, who sometimes spent minutes of his rally speeches going over the latest revelations from Podesta’s email or latest speculation about how Clinton could go to prison.

“I think it’s the biggest story since Watergate,” Trump told the New York Times in late October 2016, the day that Comey opened his email probe and informed members of Congress. “I think this changes everything.”

The boost Trump got from both events was crucial but gets left out of arguments for how the president can patch his coalition back together. For the president and his allies, the story of 2016 was that a first-time candidate rallied the “forgotten man,” and any speculation about how the hacks or Comey affected that is sour grapes. “The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign,” Trump tweeted in March 2017, an argument he’d continue making through his term.

For Democrats, the WikiLeaks and Comey crises simply aren’t worth reliving. The party’s left viewed them as a diversion, a way of avoiding a reckoning over Clinton’s policies and ensuring that the people who lost that election would remain in power. And Clinton’s allies were queasy about the implications: that after all their work, Anthony Weiner’s sexting habit had indirectly cost them the presidency.

“If the election had been on October 27, I would be your president,” Clinton said six months after the election, referring to the day before the Comey letter.

Since then, the Trump administration has effectively fought the Russia story to a draw, with Democrats focused on beating him this year and with the president’s supporters convinced that the real 2016 scandal was that the FBI surveilled his campaign. But the voters of 2016 had no idea that the Trump campaign was being watched. To the contrary, pre-election headlines reported that the FBI found “no clear link to Russia” in the Trump campaign.

Clinton, by that time, had been repeatedly thrown off course by the theft of Podesta’s emails. The trove included at least one piece of news that Clinton had tried to conceal; the text of paid speeches she’d given after leaving the State Department. But the offhand communications between her staffers inspired waves of negative stories that Trump benefited from. They were as frivolous as a comment one Catholic adviser made about right-wing Catholics (“Her campaign staff should apologize to people of faith,said Mike Pence) and as impactful as conversations about art and Italian food that spawned the unendingPizzagate” conspiracy theory.

Questions about the stolen emails even shaped the final two presidential debates between Trump and Clinton. In the second, Clinton was asked to defend a comment about negotiating from “public and private positions,” which came from a paid speech published in the emails. When Clinton pivoted to attacking Russian hackers, Trump mocked her for shifting blame from her own behavior.

“Anything wrong happens, they like to say the Russians,” Trump said. “She doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia.”

In the third debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked Clinton to explain remarks she’d made about creating a “hemispheric Common Market with open trade and open borders.” Clinton once again followed the strategy of ruling the material out of bounds because of how it was obtained, and Trump rolled his eyes again, before citing a different hacked email before tens of millions of viewers.

WikiLeaks just actually came out,” Trump said. “John Podesta said some horrible things about you, and, boy, was he right.”

Before the election, the WikiLeaks trove and the Comey letter were universally seen as boosts to Trump. At the very least, the drumbeat of negative Clinton news helped the Republican nominee push past his own negative headlines. The first email dump came just an hour after The Washington Post first reported on a tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault, and the Comey letter came after millions of early votes were cast; Trump encouraged voters who’d already marked ballots for Clinton to get them back and vote for him. 

In Trumpworld’s revised history of the campaign, the October surprises didn’t change the outcome. “We didn’t need WikiLeaks,” White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said in a 2017 interview with ABC News. “We had Wisconsin.”

But Trump had both. At his final two pre-election rallies in Wisconsin, the Republican nominee cited stolen emails to further his case against Clinton. At an Oct. 17 stop in Green Bay, Trump touted “another series of emails” from the Clinton campaign to argue that Clinton was being controlled by “international donors” — a garbled reference to Clinton aides talking about whether to take donations from Americans registered as lobbyists for foreign countries. 

At a Nov. 1 stop in Eau Claire, his last visit to the state before the election, Trump spoke for several minutes about Podesta’s early 2015 reference to “dumping” emails and predicted a “constitutional crisis” if a candidate whose emails kept inspiring FBI probes made it to the White House.

“In a newly released email, John Podesta has been caught saying, ‘We need to dump all of these emails.’ Can you believe that?” Trump said, misrepresenting a 2015 message about making Clinton’s emails public as a message about destroying them. “It’s WikiLeaks!”

The combination of WikiLeaks and the Comey letter was crucial for Trump, syncing up with his message that Clinton was uniquely corrupt. Five days before the election, Fox News anchor Bret Baier even reported, incorrectly, that Clinton might be indicted.

Yet in the years since the election, across a series of interviews and memoirs, Trump allies have hardly mentioned the stories that helped him control the narrative for the campaign’s final stretch. Just two memoirs deal with them. In “Team of Vipers,” former White House communications aide Cliff Sims gives one line to the WikiLeaks emails trove, misidentifying them as from “Hillary Clinton’s private email account,” instead of Podesta’s. But he spends two full pages on a small scene inside Trump Tower’s war room as the Comey story breaks.

“Back in Trump Tower, the atmosphere was euphoric,” Sims writes. “For the first time since Access Hollywood, we saw an opening that might actually lead us to victory.”

In “Let Me Finish,” former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (who, like Sims, does not have any role in the current campaign) is even blunter about the Comey letter, recounting a conversation with Trump, whom he’d once said would need “a break” to win the election. 

“Is that the break you were talking about?” Trump asked Christie in a phone call.

“Yes, it is,” Christie said.

But in Christie’s telling, the WikiLeaks trove was a “running rally punchline” that got Trump into trouble when the probe of Russian hacking began, not a benefit that peeled votes from Clinton. “He was just riffing on media reporters and getting a reaction,” Christie wrote. “Most people in politics hope bad stuff will come out about their opponents.”

In “Understanding Trump,” Newt Gingrich’s quick turnaround book about the election, Comey and WikiLeaks are not mentioned at all. Trump’s victory is attributed to smart decisions he made, like a last-minute Minneapolis rally that spilled into Wisconsin media markets. “It was the smaller, less expensive, practical Trump team that figured out how to get the keys to the American political system,” Gingrich writes.

In “Let Trump be Trump,” former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and strategist David Bossie were out of the inner circle by October 2016. The only reference they make to either October surprise is a compliment to how Trump derided reports that the hackers were Russian: “The phrase ‘four-hundred-pound hacker’ immediately became an Internet meme.” In “With All Due Respect,” a memoir seen as Nikki Haley’s initial push into the 2024 presidential campaign, the former U.N. ambassador offers the company line on 2016: “Donald Trump won because he reached a culture in America that has felt ignored and voiceless,” and “the things that fueled his victory aren’t easily captured in polls or political talking points.”

Was Trump going to lose before the Comey letter? Chris Christie thought so. Were the Podesta emails crucial to shifting negative attention back from Trump to Clinton in October 2016? Roger Stone thought so. 

But the popular memory of Trump’s campaign is that he built on his base of white voters and tamed his rhetoric in the race’s final stretch, giving Clinton little to attack and swing voters a lot to like. When Republicans urge the president to change his tone, it’s because they credit him for doing so in the final stretch of the last election, and credit that for his victory.

Trump did avoid making the sort of gaffes that often capture news cycles now. It worked, in part, because of the drumbeat of negative news and revelations about Hillary Clinton, something that even traditional investigations into Joe Biden have not been able to match. 

Reading list

“Workers removed thousands of social distancing stickers before Trump’s Tulsa rally, according to video and a person familiar with the set-up,” by Joshua Partlow and Josh Dawsey

The aftermath of the president’s comeback rally continues to surprise.

“Socialists and super PACs,” by David Duhalde

A new problem for the new left: What to do about big money on their side?

“Biden campaign is 35% people of color and 53% female, new diversity data shows,” by Sean Sullivan

Answering critics, the Democrat reveals how he has staffed his war room.

“Why Biden is rejecting Black Lives Matter’s boldest proposals,” by Ryan Lizza, Laura Barrón-López and Holly Otterbein

He’s moved on from his old anti-crime agenda, but the Democratic nominee is not there on the left’s proposals.

Trump campaign scrambling to revive the president’s imperiled reelection bid,Ashley Parker, Robert Costa and Josh Dawsey

The fight to turn things around after a series of strategies came up short.

“Trump faces mounting defections from a once-loyal group: older white voters,” by Alexander Burns and Katie Glueck

The graying of the Democratic coalition.

“Kamala Harris once went after Joe Biden, but now there’s only bonhomie as the vice presidential tryouts continue,” by Sean Sullivan and Annie Linskey

The most tangled entry in the veepstakes.

In the states

The legal battle against the Affordable Care Act entered its 10th year this week, as the Trump administration and 18 state attorneys general filed their brief with the Supreme Court, arguing that the entire law be struck down. Again. 

The new lawsuit, the third to head to the highest court, argues that the 2017 tax bill invalidated the entire ACA because it reduced its mandate, an idea originally touted by conservatives, to zero. The logic, which has baffled even some attorneys who worked to overturn the law previously, is that when a 5-to-4 Supreme Court majority ruled most of the ACA valid, it found that the mandate was a legitimate use of the government’s power to collect taxes.

The timing of this lawsuit may lead to an argument in October and a decision in 2021 — or it could lead to the entire effort being deemed moot, if Democrats win the election and restore the mandate at any level. (Joe Biden has suggested that he’d do so.) In the short term, the suit has mostly energized Democrats and left Republicans promising, at some point, the ACA replacement plan they began pitching in 2010.

“We have made very clear what we’re going to do, which is protect those with preexisting conditions through mechanisms that genuinely can protect them, real insurance, and have financing that meets the needs of people the way they want them met, not with a one-size-fits-all solution,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “The exact details will be dependent on, frankly, the composition of Congress if and when the Supreme Court does strike down all or a large part of Obamacare.”

Republicans on the ballot this year are not really talking about the lawsuit unless pressed, and the brief spoke volumes. In 2019, Republicans gained or regained two state attorneys general offices, in Kentucky and Mississippi. One of the new AGs, Mississippi’s Lynn Fitch, signed on to the lawsuit. The other, Kentucky’s Daniel Cameron, did not. And the 34-year old-Cameron is seen as a potential candidate to replace Sen. Mitch McConnell if the majority leader retires in 2026. 

That was one clue about the politics of the lawsuit. Another was that Sen. Susan Collins, one of two Republicans up for reelection this year in a state Trump lost, called the suit the “wrong policy at the worst possible time as our nation is in the midst of a pandemic.” And another came from Trump himself, who did not discuss the lawsuit this week, but told his audience in Phoenix on Tuesday that he would “always protect people with preexisting conditions” — referring to policies that he is trying to undo in the courts.

Ad watch

Kris Kobach, “RINO Roger.” The former Kansas secretary of state, now running in the primary for an open Senate seat, is waging a campaign similar to the one that earned him the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination two years ago. Here he attacks Rep. Roger Marshall for opposing the Trump administration’s reduction in H1B visas. Most of the talking in the ad is given over to Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, and a narrator accuses Marshall of wanting to “let in 83,000 foreigners to take American jobs.”

Amanda Adkins, “Anti-Media.” A former state GOP chair running in Kansas’s one Democrat-held House seat, Adkins combined a soft focus with a piercing anti-liberal message. “Radical Democrats, the media and coronavirus are devastating our economy, in that order,” she says.

Timothy Hill, “Unlocking.” A Tennessee state legislator seeking a safe Republican seat in Congress, Hill goes in the exact opposition direction as Adkins: The threat to American values is as loud and brash as a video game trailer. “Timothy and Trump agree: Call antifa what it is, a terrorist group,” a narrator says. “The only place you’ll see Timothy kneeling is in church.” 

Poll watch

2020 presidential election (NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist, 1,515 registered voters)

Joe Biden: 52% ( 2) 
Donald Trump: 44% (-1)

Since the start of June, when this pollster was last in the field, Biden has improved slightly, and the cross tabs continue to show support from nontraditional Democratic voters. Among the “silent generation,” the group of Americans older than the baby boomers, Biden now leads; not coincidentally, that’s the generation he’s part of. He trails by just six points among white voters, which is stronger than any Democratic candidate has run in 24 years. That makes up for a lead among Latinos that’s still smaller than the one Hillary Clinton enjoyed in 2016 (20 points), but builds on an 86-point lead with black voters that’s comparable to Clinton. The combination of that white and black support is why the upper Midwest, which decided the last election, has become such a struggle for the president.

What is the Trump administration trying to do on coronavirus testing? (CBS, 2,009 adults)

Limit the number of people who get tests: 40%
Get tests to all who need them: 34%
Get tests to all who want them most: 26% 

News cycles come and go, but the pandemic and the government’s response have continued to reshape the electorate. This is the latest poll to find public opinion moving further away from the president, with a majority of voters now opposed to how the administration has responded, and a plurality (mostly consisting of Democrats) thinking the administration is not trying to maximize tests anymore. Presidential rhetoric can stick, and the week spent on Trump’s offhand remark that he wanted to “slow down” testing did some damage.

Candidate tracker

Joe Biden held just one public event over the weekend, but he used the AAPI Victory Fund Progressive Summit to make news: He would release a demographic breakdown of his campaign staff, revealing how many women and people of color he had on the payroll.

“The fact of the matter is, we have a very diverse staff,” Biden said during the streamed conference.

Biden then released numbers that pegged his staff at 54 percent female and 65 percent white. That’s a bit more diverse than the electorate in 2016, when 71 percent of voters were white; it’s less diverse than the base of the Democratic Party. The Trump campaign, meanwhile, said 75 percent of its staff was white and a slight majority, 52 percent, was female.

The president, who’d taken part in numerous interviews around and after last week’s Tulsa rally, had no public events over the weekend. He tweeted, then deleted, a video in which a man at the Florida retirement community The Villages, sporting Trump signs on a golf cart, shouted “white power” at a protester. (The campaign said that Trump had not seen that moment in the video, which was eight seconds in.)


… two days until primaries in Colorado, Oklahoma and Utah
… nine days until primaries in Delaware and New Jersey
… 50 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 58 days until the Republican National Convention
… 68 days until North Carolina begins sending out absentee ballots
… 128 days until the general election