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Trump's plan to make Biden into Clinton

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

President Trump is reviving his 2016 playbook, trying to sully or smear the Biden family reputation, like he did with the Clintons during his last campaign.

The big picture: When Trump was running against Hillary Clinton, he seized on her email servers and past scandals. He hammered her on the issue, and used it to define her with many voters. Clinton couldn't put it to rest early, and it dragged her down through the end.

  • Now, Trump wants to use questions about Hunter Biden's work in Ukraine, and any alleged involvement by his father, Joe Biden, as the 2020 sequel to the email servers. In both cases, he twists reality to make it seem like everyone’s dirty.
  • Once again, Trump is trying to paint his opponent as shady, hoping it will be an early, definitional wound. 

Here's Trump's six-part playbook to make Ukraine 2016's sequel:

  1. Argue that your opponent is guilty of something as bad or worse than the accusations against you. 
  2. Create constant fog, amplified by Twitter. Allege the media is guilty, too.
  3. Convince party leaders and Fox News to fall instantly in line, focused solely on your opponent's supposed transgressions.
  4. Demand documents and testimony, fostering an "everyone's dirty and hiding something" atmosphere.
  5. Stymie anyone on your side who's thinking of dissenting by torching them on Twitter, like he did to Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).
  6. Bet that your own standing, while getting no better, gets no worse.

The state of play: Biden's team decided it was important to respond aggressively to avoid a Trump trap. One campaign official said they looked less at how Clinton had responded to the private email server controversy and more at how the media had covered it.

  • "There are no guard rails anymore" and they couldn't assume the truth would prevail on its own, the official said, so the campaign immediately began pressing journalists to give context to Trump's accusations by talking about independent reporting that has found neither the former vice president nor his son had acted in a corrupt fashion, and that in fact Biden had been pushing to fight corruption in Ukraine.
  • The official rejected assumptions that Trump's actions will hurt Biden and help Warren no matter what. They said the coverage of Biden became noticeably fairer within days of their approach with journalists, and that last Saturday, when Biden spoke out about Trump smearing him, he tripled his average per-day fundraising.

What's next: Biden seems determined to continue not to let Trump pin him into a corner.

  • He put out a statement saying Congress should do its thing, and he will focus on campaigning. He also tried to go after Trump on health care, to shift back to a policy argument.  
  • Biden said last night on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!": "It's such a blatant abuse of power that I don't think it can stand. Based on the material that they acknowledged today, it seems to me it's awfully hard to avoid the conclusion that it is an impeachable offense and a violation of constitutional responsibility."

Go deeper: The call heard 'round the world