President Donald Trump is methodically building a 2020 reelection campaign machine, shunting aside doubts about his viability for a second term as controversy consumes the early months of his administration.
Trump is mapping out a fall fundraising tour that is expected to fill his campaign bank account with tens of millions of dollars. His team has tracked dozens of potential Democratic rivals, a list of names that ranges from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. And his administration has received political advice from a top campaign pollster from his 2016 campaign, who has urged the president to keep up his attacks on the mainstream media.
On Tuesday, Trump heads to the swing state of Arizona for a campaign-style rally organized by his political operation.
The preparations, described by 10 people — White House staffers, Republican National Committee officials and Trump campaign aides —come at a perilous time for the president, who has seen his approval rating plummet to historic lows and is facing mounting criticism from senior Republicans. Trump is under fire for going easy on white supremacists and has failed to sign a major piece of legislation, while a special counsel is bearing down on his campaign’s dealings with Russia. His chief strategist and main conduit to the activist right, Steve Bannon, left the White House on Friday, and Trump’s advisers say the president is increasingly isolated from his own party.
Yet Trump’s team — rankled by reports that other Republicans are preparing to run in 2020 if the president falters — is proceeding on the assumption the 71-year-old president will seek reelection. The work commenced in January when Trump filed federal papers declaring himself a 2020 candidate.
“We’re already engaging voters and volunteers in key battleground states to defend our majorities in 2018 and to ensure we keep the White House in 2020,” said RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, who has overseen the deployment of over 100 staffers to key states on the president’s behalf.
Trump’s 2020 focus will take on greater clarity this fall. He is slated to visit a handful of states, including New York and Texas, for fundraisers that will benefit a joint account for Trump’s reelection and the RNC, according to two people familiar with the plans. He is also expected to travel to Nevada, a swing state also filled with powerful Republican donors.
Trump held his first reelection fundraiser in June at his Washington hotel. The proceeds from that event contributed to the $86.5 million the RNC has raised since the start of the year, more than double what the Democratic National Committee has taken in.
Behind the scenes, White House aides have begun informally monitoring the political activities of an ever-expanding group of Democrats who are considering 2020 campaigns — a roster that includes veteran officeholders like Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, newcomers like Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, and outsiders like former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. The attention that would come with running against Trump will be irresistible to Democrats, his aides predict, ensuring that scores take the plunge.
With Trump’s support declining among Republicans, his aides are also keeping an eye on possible GOP opponents, namely John Kasich. The Ohio governor and 2016 rival has kept up his criticism of the president and recently published a book, “Two Paths,” laying out his differences with the president. The attacks, two administration officials said, have drawn notice within the White House.
With prospective rivals visiting key primary states and conducting preliminary outreach to donors, the administration has taken early steps to undermine them. Bannon recently floated the idea of regulating Facebook as a public utility, which would give the government greater control over the social media giant. Internally, the move was regarded as an effort to troll Zuckerberg, who recently brought on former Hillary Clinton pollster Joel Benenson. Zuckerberg has embarked on a listening tour of the country to learn about how “people are living, working and thinking about the future.”
The nerve center of the emerging Trump-2020 campaign is RNC headquarters on Capitol Hill. The committee has begun conducting rapid-response against prospective Democratic rivals, casting them as hell-bent on preventing Trump from advancing his platform. Last week, it sent out a news release attacking New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, California Sen. Kamala Harris, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
“The 2020 Democrat field is trying to stand out by obstructing the president’s agenda,” the release said.
The cash-flush committee, which has been meeting roughly once a month with the Trump campaign and members of the president’s family, has also begun placing field staffers, communications directors, and state directors in over a dozen battlegrounds to direct political operations and drive pro-Trump messaging. Among the states to which the RNC has begun deployment is North Carolina, which doesn’t have a Senate or gubernatorial race in 2018 but is seen as a key 2020 battleground.
Committee officials are set to gather later this week in Nashville, where they will outline their preparations for the 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential election. Eric Trump, the president’s son, and Michael Glassner, who has been leading the Trump campaign’s reelection efforts, are expected to be on hand.
Shortly before the inauguration, the Trump campaign announced that it would be keeping open its headquarters in Trump Tower. The office, which has organized seven rallies since the inauguration, is staffed by a handful of Trump aides, including Glassner, a longtime loyalist of the president, and John Pence, a nephew of Vice President Mike Pence. George Gigicos, a longtime Trump advance aide, recently left the White House to join the reelection campaign.
“While we maintain a small and lean operation, our mission is to support President Trump’s agenda by maintaining contact with our millions of supporters around the country, leveraging social media to overcome the filter of the biased mainstream media, and by hosting rallies around the country to help the president to stay connected to the people he proudly serves,” said Glassner.
Much of the campaign’s preparations involve building out its data program, an effort being overseen by Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2016 digital director. Parscale recently moved from San Antonio to Florida in part because he wanted easier access to New York City and Washington, where most of the Trump political work takes place.
Parscale, who recently joined the board of Data Trust, a firm that works closely with the RNC and other GOP groups, has plunged into a number of projects, including expanding the number of supporters Trump can reach by text message. His staff has been working to broaden the campaign’s email list, with a goal of banking between 20 million and 30 million addresses by the time the 2020 campaign arrives. They want to enable the president’s political website to better target individual visitors.
“We are wasting no time to prepare for the future,” Glassner said.
Trump’s 2016 staffers have begun to discuss who will serve as campaign manager on a 2020 effort. While some suggest Parscale or Pence chief of staff Nick Ayers, much of the speculation has centered on White House political director Bill Stepien, a favorite of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner who has kept a low profile since joining the administration.
The White House also has been receiving political guidance from pollster John McLaughlin, a veteran of GOP presidential campaigns who served on the Trump 2016 effort. In late May, as the president’s political fortunes declined, McLaughlin provided the administration with the results of a lengthy survey that tested the national political environment.
In a summary of the results, according to two people who reviewed it, he advised Trump that his conservative base remained intact, but that he needed to renew the message of his campaign — that Trump was a change figure who offered a break from the disappointments of the Obama era.
McLaughlin also highlighted voters most concerned with the economy — a group that Trump focused on relentlessly during the campaign — and advised that more of them needed to feel that the country was headed in the right direction.
And he offered some counsel that Trump didn’t need. “Keep pointing out unfair biased media,” the pollster wrote, “whenever possible.”
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