WASHINGTON — Opening an ugly new chapter in the 2020 campaign, President Donald Trump and allies in the Republican Party and on Fox News have swiftly gone all-in on sexist and personal attacks against Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, from Trump demeaning her as “angry” and “horrible” to commentators mocking her first name to comparing her to “payday lenders.”
Hours after Harris was announced, Trump described her as “nasty” or “nastier” four times — terms he often uses for female opponents — and complained that her tough questioning was disrespectful to Brett Kavanaugh during Supreme Court confirmation hearings. And on Wednesday, after Joe Biden and Harris held their first joint appearance, Trump claimed without evidence that Harris was furious when she left the Democratic primary race after falling in the polls.
“She left angry, she left mad,” he said. “There was nobody more insulting to Biden than she was.”
One right-wing commentator, Dinesh D’Souza, appeared on Fox News to question whether Harris, the junior senator from California and a child of immigrants from Jamaica and India, could truly claim she was Black. And on Tuesday night, Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, mispronounced her first name, even growing angry when corrected.
“So what?” he said, when a guest told him it was pronounced “Comma-la.” (Fox News declined to comment on the exchange.)
On Twitter, Eric Trump, one of the president’s sons, favorited a tweet, which was later deleted, that referred to Harris as a “whorendous pick.” Jenna Ellis, a senior legal adviser to the Trump campaign, posted during Harris’ first speech as Biden’s running mate Wednesday, “Kamala sounds like Marge Simpson.”
Donald Trump added to the barrage with a racist tweet Wednesday morning claiming that Biden would put another Black leader, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, in charge of low-income housing in the suburbs. That tweet did not mention Harris, but it continued Trump’s tactic of playing into white racist fears about integration efforts as he declared, “The ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me.”
“They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood,” Trump wrote. “Biden would reinstall it, in a bigger form, with Corey Booker in charge!” The president did not explain why he referred to Booker, whose first name he misspelled.
But the harsh personal criticisms, and a fixation on Harris’ race, reflected a serious problem for the Trump campaign — its inability to launch a clear attack on the Biden-Harris ticket. The lack of a frame to respond to the significance of the Harris selection underscored how the president and his campaign, without any senior strategist, are floundering as they try to decipher what their own reelection message should be.
Standing in the White House briefing room Tuesday, Trump read from some prepared notes, assailing Harris for being against fracking and “very big into raising taxes.” At another point, Trump appeared unfamiliar with his own campaign’s line of attack. When a reporter with The New York Post asked the president about his own campaign ad calling Harris a “phony,” the president asked for clarification.
“She was a what?” Trump said.
And hours after the campaign and the Republican National Committee called Harris the “most liberal” member of the Senate, the RNC sent out an email blast saying that progressives hated her because she was not progressive enough.
Harris ran her own presidential campaign last year, and was widely seen as the most obvious pick for Biden: at once a conventional and groundbreaking choice. Despite plenty of time to prepare for her, Trump and his allies appeared to be caught without a coordinated game plan, lurching from one attack to another, when the Democrats finally announced their ticket Tuesday.
Trump’s high-profile female surrogates like former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota were notably absent from any coordinated response to the announcement, choosing to remain silent.
“Steve Bannon offered a populist North Star for them in the 2016 campaign, and Hillary Clinton gave them a lot of fodder for populist attacks,” said Tim Miller, a former top strategist for former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. Bannon was the strategist who worked for Trump in 2016 and helped frame him as the populist candidate on the right.
A 2016 version of Trump might have attacked Harris as a Wall Street-funded coastal elite and a former cop, in an attempt to undermine the Democratic ticket with working-class voters, while also trying to suppress the Black vote. Sam Nunberg, an adviser to Trump’s campaign early on in 2015, noted that Trump donated twice to Harris when she was a candidate for attorney general in California, where he has business interests. Trump, he said, could have argued that “he knew how to play the game and he played her,” Nunberg said. “You can’t trust her because she was there at Trump Tower groveling for cash, just like Hillary.”
Instead, the campaign and the RNC were trying to make the argument that the Biden-Harris ticket is both a tool of the far left and despised by it. “They wanted Bernie and Warren,” Miller said, referring to Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. “That would have made the attack that the party is enthralled by the left easier. It’s a hard sell to say Joe Biden is a puppet for Kamala Harris, who is a puppet for the Squad.”
Tim Murtaugh, the communications director for the Trump campaign, disputed there was any confusion about what the selection of Harris represented. “She pushes Biden further to the left than he had already moved by himself,” Murtaugh said, noting her support for sanctuary cities, her opposition to the death penalty even for MS-13 gang members, and her decision as a prosecutor to hand out plea deals while homicides in her city were on the rise.
He said the campaign was not responsible for news releases from the RNC or for commentary on Fox News. “We are focused strictly on talking about how she completes the radical leftist takeover of Joe Biden,” he said.
In an email on Wednesday night, the campaign sought to fundraise off Harris’ selection, calling her “the meanest, most horrible, most disrespectful, MOST LIBERAL of anyone in the U.S. Senate,” saying she and Biden wanted to “DESTROY America.”
A new ad released by the campaign ran through a list of accusations against Harris, several of them false, saying she wanted to “confiscate your guns by force” and “give cop killers a pass” — more conventional Republican attempts to stir passions on public safety and social change.
But that flag was not being waved by the campaign’s usual echo chambers. Instead, there were disparate messages. On Tuesday night, Carlson said that there were “time-share salesmen you could trust more” than Harris and “payday lenders who are more sincere,” alluding to an institution long accused of exploiting poor communities of color.
On Fox News, D’Souza said that because Harris’ Jamaican father had traced his ancestry to a slave owner, her racial identity as a Black woman was in question.
The Fox News host Sean Hannity, meanwhile, called Harris a senator with a “radical extremist record” whose selection “solidifies what’s the most extreme radical far-left out-of-the-mainstream ticket of any major political party in American history.”
Some Trump allies even praised her, in an attempt to raise expectations ahead of the fall campaign. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is one of the president’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, called Harris “smart” and “aggressive” and predicted she would be a “formidable opponent.”
But some Republicans, including ones often critical of the president, cautioned that presidential tweets and pundit chatter would not have nearly the impact on voters that advertising would. And the Trump campaign’s ability to be more focused and consistent in its messaging online and on television is where it can do the most potential damage by defining an opposing running mate.
“They can’t control Trump,” said Mike Murphy, a media adviser to several Republican presidential candidates. “He’ll be tweeting, name calling — and the difference between this time and last time is that Trump has half a billion dollars in resources at his disposal from the RNC.”
Murphy said that Harris, and her support for certain policies, would be easier for conservatives to attack than their initial, disjointed, response suggests. “The machinery under the Trump campaign knows how to do the mediocre, standard version of this,” he said. “Kamala Harris is the pick. Here’s the résumé: As attorney general she opposed the death penalty, even for cop killers; as senator, she supported reparations for slavery and said she would take away private health insurance. She is the future.”
On Wednesday, Biden made it clear he expected the campaign to go in the opposite direction, and become more personal.
“Donald Trump has already started his attacks, calling Kamala ‘nasty,’ whining about how she’s ‘mean’ to his appointees,” he said. “Is anyone surprised Donald Trump has a problem with strong women across the board? We know that more is to come.”
But Trump has struggled to define Harris with that kind of precision since the Democratic primary, when he failed to land on a quick-hit way to undermine her candidacy. The president reveled in battering Warren as “Pocahontas” and making fun of Biden’s mental acuity by referring to him as “Sleepy Joe.”
Harris never earned a nickname — in part, because she never managed to break out, for long, as a serious threat. Instead, Trump complimented the large crowd size at her kickoff rally. And his few attempts to criticize her were vague. “She’s got a little bit of a nasty wit,” Trump told Hannity in an interview during the primary, a comment that could be taken as a criticism or a compliment.
If Haley and Noem were not available as surrogates Tuesday, at least one prominent Republican woman was ready to defend Trump.
On Wednesday, Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the RNC, tried to dampen critiques of sexism by defending Trump’s use of the word “nasty” to describe a woman in power.
“If not ‘nasty,’ what is the politically correct term for calling your opponent a racist on national TV for having the same view as you on busing so you can hawk campaign T-shirts,” McDaniel tweeted, drawing attention to the most heated debate exchange between Biden and Harris, when she confronted him about his record on busing and segregation.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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