Updated May 10, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The next front in Trump's Biden attacks

Illustrated collage of Joe Biden and President Trump.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Mandel Ngan/AFP

After weeks of holding back, President Trump's re-election campaign will unleash a series of tailored, swing-state attacks against Joe Biden, targeting him in Florida, Pennsylvania and the industrial Midwest, campaign officials tell Axios.

Why it matters: The pandemic forced a pause, and a lighter touch, on Trump's original attack plan against his presumed general election opponent, according to people familiar with internal conversations.

  • Advisers warned against too much overt negative campaigning at a time when thousands of Americans are dying and voters want the president focused on running the country.
  • "A lot of people have told the president to be careful, or risk seeming tone deaf to the needs of the country right now," a Trump administration official told Alayna.
  • But a few factors have informed the campaign's attack plans: Some states are reopening, Biden's poll numbers are strong, the economy is awful, and the U.S. has the world's worst reported coronavirus death toll. So the campaign is looking to change the subject.

Details: The campaign plans to launch state-specific attacks targeting Biden's record on three areas: Cuba, fracking and trade.

  • Extensive polling has shaped the strategy.
  • It’s unclear what form these attacks will take.

In Florida, the campaign will hammer Biden's recent comments saying he would restore Obama-era relations with Cuba.

  • "That would only make it easier for Cuba to help prop up [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro if they were able to refill their coffers with American money," one official said. "You try to sell that idea to Cuban Americans and Venezuelan Americans in Florida. Go ahead and try!"
  • Biden told CBS Miami that Cuba is "having great difficulty propping up Maduro" and added that the U.S. could still sanction Cuba.
  • Reality check: The Maduro government has proved quite durable, despite a failed attempt to overthrow him in April 2019 and a battery of sanctions from the Trump administration. Its staying power is thanks in large part to support from the Kremlin.

In Pennsylvania, the campaign plans to attack Biden for what it calls "his embrace of the Green New Deal," which they will argue "piles endless regulations" on small businesses and stunts job creation, the officials told Axios.

  • "Tell that to people in Pennsylvania, with regard to the natural gas and fracking industry in the state, and how many jobs they depend on for that," an official said.
  • Reality check: While the Biden campaign calls the GND "a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face," he hasn't actually endorsed it. Biden has said that as president, he would end subsidies for fossil fuels.

In the industrial Midwest: Trump's campaign will highlight Biden's support for the North American Free Trade Agreement as a senator and backing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as Obama's vice president.

  • "He is going to try to campaign as 'Joe Lunchbox from Scranton, Pa.' But he will be exposed as 'NAFTA Joe,'" one official said.
  • Many voters throughout the Midwest and in rural America feel free-trade deals have hurt the U.S. and contributed to factory closings and overseas competition. This issue was a core part of Trump's 2016 victories in the Rust Belt.
  • Yes, but: Bernie Sanders also attacked Biden's trade record during the Michigan primary election, and he lost by a wide margin.

The big picture: This targeted approach comes on top of a national strategy, as Axios has reported, to brand Biden as soft on China.

  • The campaign dropped its first anti-Biden China ad earlier this week, and one official told Axios that Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale had "flipped the switch." "It's go-time," the official said.

The other side: None of this surprises Biden's campaign, which argues that Trump is vulnerable for mishandling the coronavirus pandemic and weakened because he can no longer brag about the economy.

  • Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates tells Axios: "Donald Trump so abysmally failed our nation on the coronavirus that almost 80,000 Americans have lost their lives, and the historic economic recovery Trump inherited from the Obama-Biden Administration is now spiraling toward a depression."
  • "There's no desperate ad Trump can dream up that's more horrifying than what his failed leadership is putting the American people through."

The bottom line: The offensive comes as new polls show Trump trailing Biden in key swing states, including Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

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