WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign released two new ads in recent days that take aim at apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden for defending China and for lying about his achievements in the 1980s.
Of course, Trump himself has also defended China and lied about his achievements in the 1980s.
The new spots are part of a pattern by the Trump campaign of hitting Biden on issues where the president is also notably vulnerable, from China to his resume, from nepotism to allegations of sexual assault to verbal blunders.
In some cases, the strategy appears aimed at neutralizing weaknesses by muddying the waters. But it risks backfiring by drawing attention to Trump's equal or larger vulnerabilities. As the coronavirus crisis reshapes the political landscape, the president's campaign is throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks to his rival, who leads in recent national and battleground state polls.
A new Trump campaign ad says "Biden stands up for China," playing footage of the former vice president last year downplaying China’s economic threat to the U.S. and saying "they're not bad folks.” It's designed to capitalize on public sentiment turning negative on China, where the virus is said to have originated.
But Trump repeatedly praised China, including offering plaudits for their response to the virus outbreak. On January 24, he tweeted, “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well.” On February 23, he told reporters that "President Xi is working very, very hard" and "doing a very good job."
Lies and mental fitness
The second new Trump ad plays footage of Biden in his 1988 presidential campaign telling voters he graduated in the top half of his class at law school, had three college degrees, and was named “outstanding political science student.” The ad then cut to TV reporters who said none of those claims were true.
A damning indictment — from an odd messenger.
Trump has been caught embellishing his own achievements dating back to the same era. A former reporter for Forbes 400 revealed that Trump, using the alter ego John Barron, lied about his wealth in the 1980s as part of an “elaborate farce” to make it on the magazine's list of America's richest people. A Washington Post investigation found that inflating his net worth would become a pattern.
As president, he has exaggerated his approval ratings and crowd sizes and made easily disprovable claims about his achievements. For example, he often says he enacted the “biggest tax cut in U.S. history” (it’s actually the fourth or eight largest since 1918, depending on the metric used) and recently took credit for “confirming 448 federal judges” (the real number is 193).
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The Trump campaign has gone all-in on a portrayal of Biden, 77, as old and mentally deteriorating. Video clips shared online feature Biden mangling his words or losing his train of thought. Trump tweeted in March, "Sleepy Joe doesn’t know where he is, or what he’s doing. Honestly, I don’t think he even knows what office he's running for!"
While age is a real vulnerability for Biden, Trump, who is not much younger at 73, would be better-positioned to capitalize if he didn't have his own history of meandering remarks and verbal blunders, from calling Apple CEO Tim Cook "Tim Apple" to mixing up 9/11 and 7-Eleven to confusing FEMA with the world soccer governing body "FIFA."
So far, the issue appears to be a wash. A recent Republican National Committee poll of 17 swing states found that voters were torn on which of the two candidates was more "weak or confused," with 45 percent picking Biden and 44 percent seeing Trump that way, according to the Washington Post.
Nepotism, pandemics and sexual assault
A common Trump critique involves Hunter Biden, who his campaign describes as the beneficiary of nepotism by gaining a well-paying position on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company while his father was vice president. “Biden and his son are stone-cold crooked,” Trump said last fall, declaring that the younger Biden “knows nothing” about the industry.
It is an awkward criticism from a president who has given senior White House positions to his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, neither of whom had government experience, while entrusting the latter with a vast portfolio that includes making peace in the Middle East, solving the opioid epidemic and bolstering the medial supply chain during the coronavirus crisis.
The pushback led a Trump campaign aide to publish an op-ed headlined, "Dear Democrats: Hunter Biden Is No Ivanka Trump."
More recently, Biden has landed in hot water after allegations of sexual assault from former Senate staffer Tara Reade in 1993, which the Democrat says “never, never happened.” Although Trump himself has refrained from attacking his rival over the accusations, his campaign has aggressively highlighted them to embarrass Biden and charge him with hypocrisy.
Those attempts have reactivated the relatively dormant national conversation about the many women who have accused Trump of sexual harassment or assault. Before the 2016 election, a tape from 2005 was unearthed that featured him boasting about grabbing women's genitalia.
In other cases, Trump’s attacks on Biden are an apparent attempt to deflect criticism of his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, taking a page from Republican strategist Karl Rove's playbook of attacking an opponent's strengths. Trump slammed Biden's handling of the H1N1 swine flu outbreak in 2009, while falsely saying he was “in charge” of the Obama administration's response.
Still, Trump may not want the 2020 election to become a referendum on pandemic management. Surveys show voters trust Biden over Trump to handle a crisis. The initial "rally around the flag" boost he enjoyed has dissipated and new polls by Reuters/Ipsos and the Economist/YouGov show that more Americans disapprove than approve of his handling of COVID-19.