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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump's effort to paint Joe Biden as corrupt — debunked by fact-checkers — fits a pattern of Trump's attacks on enemies: Raise deeply serious questions, regardless of what the facts say; hammer on those questions; never, ever seek finality.

Why it matters: Trump tries to plant seeds of suspicion and doubt, even if he doesn't actually prove a case. He incubates the attacks in perpetuity, rather than seeking an actual resolution. But in Biden's case, they've backfired in a way Trump couldn't have imagined.

How Trump does it:

  • Ask questions, raising the specter of wrongdoing.
  • Be vague and broad with accusations — specifics can be proven wrong.
  • Never seek finality. Once it's over, the innuendo is gone and the attack becomes stale.
  • The suspicions of wrongdoing are always more titillating than the real story.

This is how Trump has worked for years — and not just when there's an election opponent to beat:

1. When Trump promoted the "birther" conspiracy against Barack Obama.

  • It wasn't until Obama produced his long-form birth certificate in 2011 that Trump was forced to give it up, saying: "I was able to do something that nobody else could do."

2. When Trump leveled charges of voter fraud in the 2016 election.

3. When Trump accused Obama of tapping his phones.

  • After being continually pressed for specifics on the unfounded claim, the message from the White House evolved into broader activities of FBI surveillance on Trump campaign associates.
  • He later said the claim was based "on a little bit of a hunch."

4. When Trump cast "deep state" government workers as agents covertly working to undermine the policy aims of his administration.

  • The "deep state" has at turns been painted without evidence as a force loyal to Obama, Hillary Clinton or the "corrupt FBI" under James Comey.
  • But many of the officials who raised or supported accusations against Trump — including the inspector general in the Ukraine whistleblower story who deemed the complaint credible — were Trump appointees.

5. When Trump painted immigrants as criminals throughout his campaign and presidency.

  • Citing anecdotes and cherry-picking statistics without context, Trump has made his case against immigration by framing it as a threat to domestic safety.
  • By remaining vague, he has skirted statistics that show immigrants have lower crime rates in the United States.

6. When Trump hammered (and continues to hammer) Clinton over her emails and suggested corruption with the Clinton Foundation and the Uranium One deal.

  • All of those controversies were powered by suspicion and innuendo, rather than substantive evidence of wrongdoing. Nonetheless, Trump said repeatedly that Clinton should be jailed.
  • But when he had the opportunity to pursue full answers, he declined to do so.

Go deeper

20 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Pew: Biden to start presidency with strong performance ratings

Joe Biden. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Joe Biden will start his presidency next week with relatively strong performance ratings, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

On the other hand: President Trump will leave the the White House with his lowest approval rating ever.

Mike Allen, author of AM
2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Biden's "overwhelming force" doctrine

President-elect Biden arrives to introduce his science team in Wilmington yesterday. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President-elect Biden has ordered up a shock-and-awe campaign for his first days in office to signal, as dramatically as possible, the radical shift coming to America and global affairs, his advisers tell us. 

The plan, Part 1 ... Biden, as detailed in a "First Ten Days" memo from incoming chief of staff Ron Klain, plans to unleash executive orders, federal powers and speeches to shift to a stark, national plan for "100 million shots" in three months.

Off the Rails

Episode 2: Barbarians at the Oval

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 2: Trump stops buying what his professional staff are telling him, and increasingly turns to radical voices telling him what he wants to hear. Read episode 1.

President Trump plunked down in an armchair in the White House residence, still dressed from his golf game — navy fleece, black pants, white MAGA cap. It was Saturday, Nov. 7. The networks had just called the election for Joe Biden.

You’ve caught up. Now what?

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