Jun 7, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Inside the room: Trump's top aides plot new theme

Animated illustration of White House Twitter message with a blinking cursor

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President Trump's top political advisers, in a private meeting last week, said their boss needs to add more hopeful, optimistic and unifying messages to balance his harsh law-and-order rhetoric.

Why it matters: They're deeply concerned about "brutal" internal polling for the president in the aftermath of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and George Floyd's killing.

Behind the scenes: During a meeting of top political advisers at campaign headquarters on Thursday afternoon, the president's 2016 campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, raised a question that many close to the campaign have been asking themselves recently: "What's our message?"

  • Lewandowski, who called in on Zoom, later clarified in the meeting that he was asking specifically about the messaging to communicate Trump's second-term priorities.
  • But the original — very basic — question sounded relevant to some of the president's senior advisers, who worry about the president's political position.
  • Advisers settled on a theme of the "Great American Comeback" underpinned by words like "renewing," "recovering," "restoring" and "rebuilding."
  • Friday's surprisingly good jobs report gave them a chance to road test the theme with a new ad: "The great American comeback has begun. ... Renewing. Restoring. Rebuilding. Together, we'll make America great again."

Between the lines: Right now Trump is at a low point in his presidency and re-election campaign.

  • A source briefed on his internal polls called them "brutal," showing a significant drop-off in independent support.
  • He has a "woman problem" in the words of another adviser.
  • And Trump's more incendiary rhetoric and actions — "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" and his calls for the military to enter cities — trouble some of his top aides.

What they're saying: "There's a thought that we need to shift to be much more cohesive in terms of a message of healing, rebuilding, restoring, recovering ... a theme that goes with COVID and the economy and the race stuff," said a senior adviser to Trump.

  • "The messaging that works for the red-MAGA-hat base doesn't resonate with independents."
  • "He has to tone down the most incendiary rhetoric, talk about law and order in the context of riots, and at the same time say the country's united that what happened to George Floyd can never happen again," a second adviser familiar with the internal discussion said.
  • "He's starting to hear from a lot of people, political people, who are saying, ‘Simmer down. ... You are not helping the situation by talking about only sending the military in.’"
  • "We need to say police are an integral part of society, but we've gotta dial it down a bit," the adviser added.
  • But a third adviser familiar with the conversation cautioned: "Nobody would have been invited to that meeting who truly thinks they can stop Trump from saying anything."

Campaign response: Asked about the internal polling, Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told Axios, "In our internal data, the president remains strong against a defined Joe Biden."

Be smart: A "defined Joe Biden" means when pollsters tell voters about Biden's record and proposals using the Trump campaign’s negative frame.

  • Look for the Trump campaign to put Biden on the spot about whether he supports language around "defunding" the police, a potential wedge issue.

Inside the room: The president's top 2020 strategists were seated around a table at the Trump campaign’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters — the first time they've all been together for a meeting like this, per two people involved, who described it as a kickoff of sorts.

  • Around the table were campaign manager Brad Parscale and deputy campaign manager Bill Stepien; senior campaign officials Justin Clark, Michael Glassner, Jason Miller and Bob Paduchik; pollsters John McLaughlin and Tony Fabrizio; and 2016 deputy campaign manager David Bossie.
  • Calling in by Zoom were Lewandowski, Nick Ayers and David Urban.
  • One dynamic stood out to insiders: Over the last three years, Parscale has skirmished with the Lewandowski/Bossie duo, before coming to a somewhat negotiated ceasefire. People involved said the meeting attendees were warm to each other. A year ago, that would have been unthinkable.

Toward the end of Thursday's meeting, Bossie cracked a joke that seemed intended to reassure, as described by two sources familiar with his private comments: "Don't worry guys, we've still got plenty of time," he said. "Corey hadn't even been fired by this point in the last campaign."

What's next: The group agreed they needed to build some goodwill with the African American community.

  • They plan to emphasize policies Trump has approved that may appeal to African Americans, including support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, opportunity zones (tax incentives for low-income communities), and criminal justice reform.
  • To that end, on Friday, Mike Pence participated in a "listening session" with African American faith and community leaders.
  • The Trump campaign also plans to try to go on the offense — tagging Biden with progressives' emerging "defund the police" rhetoric, per a campaign official.
  • Yes, but: Biden has not called to defund the police, but the Trump campaign will press him to denounce the idea, assuming he will alienate some of his base. (See a crowd of activists boo and reject Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey after he refused to commit to defunding his city's police force.)
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