President Donald Trump and his allies have zeroed-in on an attack against Joe Biden, going after the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s mental fitness in a coordinated effort using smears and innuendo to paint him as ill-quipped for the presidency.
The attacks are an early demonstration of how Trump will use the full Republican Party apparatus to run a scorched-earth campaign based on personal insults and baseless insinuations – an intensified version of his playbook from 2016, when Trump and his allies, without evidence, cast doubt on Hillary Clinton’s health. They have become a daily occurrence from Trump’s campaign, aides and Republican allies across every medium possible – on social media, in campaign email blasts and videos and on Trump-aligned media organizations like Fox News.
Trump for months has questioned the mental acuity of the opponent he calls “Sleepy Joe.” Trump last week referred to Biden as “a sleepy guy in a basement of a house,” and he has repeatedly suggested that Biden did not personally write statements issued by his campaign criticizing Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
But his campaign and the Republican National Committee have increasingly focused its attacks on Biden’s propensity for on-camera verbal stumbles in recent weeks, as it seeks to define Biden after he emerged victorious from the Democratic primary.
One example came earlier this month, when Trump’s campaign released an advertisement comparing Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, which closed with the line: “At least Bernie remembers his positions.”
Biden’s advisers and Democratic allies point out that Trump is guilty of many of the same verbal tics he is attacking Biden over, and frequently lies and embraces conspiracy theories, with one adviser pointing to Trump’s suggestion at a White House briefing that ingesting disinfectant could possibly be used to treat people who have coronavirus. Trump later falsely said he was being sarcastic.
The attacks from Trump and his allies weaponize Biden’s tendency to stumble over words, use the wrong word or interrupt himself in the middle of long answers by saying, “anyway,” and changing course. To supporters of a former vice president who in December 2018 called himself a “gaffe machine,” those long-time verbal tics have always been part of Biden’s public persona. They are made even more forgivable to his supporters by Biden’s openness about overcoming a stutter.
Aside from occasional jousts among aides on Twitter, Biden’s campaign has largely ignored the Trump campaign’s attacks.
Biden-world’s view is that the political and media landscape has shifted since 2016, when every Trump attack on a rival was treated as novel and took command of the campaign narrative on social media and cable news.
His advisers pointed to Trump’s failed efforts to steer the political conversation in the 2017 Virginia governor’s race, when he and his GOP allies warned of the MS-13 gang, as well as the 2018 midterms, when Trump’s message focused on caravans of refugees approaching the US-Mexico border.
“The misapprehension that whatever Trump wants to talk about is inherently effective and that he gets to act as the media’s at-large assignment editor has been put to bed,” a Biden adviser said.
As Biden has adapted to campaigning in the age of coronavirus – knocked off the campaign trail and instead broadcasting events and interviews from a converted rec room in his basement in Delaware – Trump’s campaign is seizing on every on-camera miscue, with right-wing Trump allies such as Fox News host Sean Hannity then amplifying them.
“His sharpness, or lack thereof is on display every day, every time he talks,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh told CNN in response to questions about the strategy. “His inability to keep a train of thought going is apparent.”
Biden often looks down at his notes, which Trump’s allies have mischaracterized as Biden falling asleep. Trump’s son Eric Trump tweeted a seven-second video from Biden’s online broadcast with Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, along with the hashtag “#SleepyJoe.”
Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager, said Trump “always projects his greatest weakness on his opponent in an attempt to deflect criticism from himself.”
“What is very clear is the White House thinks his presidency will be judged on how competently he is managing coronavirus, so it makes perfect sense that he is now trying to accuse his opponent of incompetence, which is absurd.”
The attacks are similar to how Trump’s campaign went after Clinton in 2016, Mook noted. Trump and his campaign often cast the former secretary of state as sick or unwell, a strategy that was further elevated after Clinton stumbled after a September 11 event in New York due to undisclosed pneumonia.
“I just see a pattern consistently from 2016 all the way through now, which is, he tries to project his biggest problems onto his opponents so he gives the media a false equivalence to try to muddy the water,” Mook said. “Part of the reason he was so obsessed with calling Hillary Clinton dishonest is because he is probably the most dishonest person to win the White House.”
Biden advisers argue that Trump’s attempts to caricature Biden won’t overcome the same qualities that insulated him in the Democratic primary: After five decades in the public eye and eight years as President Barack Obama’s No. 2, voters feel like they know him.
Biden often expresses distaste for attacks on his rivals’ character. But his aides say that by questioning Biden’s mental capacity, the President is steering the campaign toward questions of character and fitness.
“This is asinine to tee up – because it’s 10,000 times worse for him,” a Biden adviser said.
As an example of how easily Trump could be parodied, Biden’s aides pointed to a video from The Daily Show in which Fox News hosts and commentators’ comments about Biden’s mental acuity were interspersed with videos of Trump’s own verbal flubs.
Biden spokesman Andrew Bates tweeted The Daily Show’s video, which has been viewed 3.6 million times on Twitter, on March 25, in response to Trump spokesman Matt Wolking tweeting: “When is the last time Joe Biden was lucid?”
“Prompting voters to evaluate candidates’ mental states is a catastrophic proposition for Donald Trump, so we’re never going to discourage him from going there,” Bates said.