Trump and allies struggle to find a focused attack on Harris

August 12, 2020

The Washington Post: Trump and allies struggle to find a focused attack on Harris
By Philip Rucker and Isaac Stanley-Becker

In her first 24 hours as the presumptive Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Kamala D. Harris was labeled “nasty” by President Trump, “phony” by his reelection campaign and “a far-left radical” by his surrogates.

The messages emanating from Trump and his allies about the senator from California varied wildly — casting her as both an overzealous prosecutor too tough on crime and an advocate for defunding the police, and as being so far to the left she would institute socialism as well as too moderate to satisfy her party’s progressive base.

Meanwhile, Trump’s allies in conservative media road-tested an assault on Harris as soft on crime, an avatar of political correctness and a danger to the safety and security of American families. Some argued that she was not African American because her father emigrated from Jamaica and her mother from India, and repeatedly mispronounced her first name. And in the darker corners of social media, some of the attacks were more overtly misogynistic and racist.

All that was before Harris made her first public appearance on Wednesday afternoon alongside presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who made history Tuesday by selecting her as the nation’s first Black and Asian American major-party candidate for vice president.

The blizzard of attacks against Harris from the political right illustrated the urgency Republicans feel to demonize her as a way for Trump to recover some of the ground he lost this spring and summer over his handling of the novel coronavirus. The scattershot nature of the intersecting lines of attack also underscored the lack of consensus within the GOP about how best to take on Harris.

“It’s clear that they don’t have a message on Kamala Harris, much like they haven’t on Joe Biden. They are flailing,” said Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications for Emily’s List, a group that helps elect women who support abortion rights and is among a coalition of political organizations forcefully defending Harris. “The sad news is I assume Trump will fall back to racist and sexist tropes that have nothing to do with Kamala Harris. The good news is that won’t work on suburban voters, and it will energize Democrats.”

It took Trump only a few minutes into lobbing his first attacks on Harris at a White House news conference Tuesday to reach for one of his go-to labels, accusing her of having been “exceptionally nasty” in her questioning of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh during his 2018 confirmation hearing.

He continued his assault on Harris during a White House news briefing on Wednesday, maligning Harris for performing poorly in the Democratic presidential primary and claiming that she left the race “angry” after being “insulting” to Biden.

“Is anyone surprised Donald Trump has a problem with a strong woman, or strong women across the board?” Biden said at his Wednesday event with Harris. “Kamala Harris has had your back, and now we have to have her back. She’s going to stand with me in this campaign. And all of us are going to stand up for her.”

Considering Trump’s long history of misogynistic comments and his declining popularity among female voters, some Republican strategists suggested that he proceed with more caution when talking about Harris — and, better yet, leave it to surrogates who might deliver criticism on his behalf with more discipline and less personal baggage.

“If I were advising the Trump campaign, I would not have Donald Trump attacking Kamala Harris,” longtime Republican pollster Frank Luntz said. “He’s doing poorly among women with school-age children. Attacking her will not help that deficit. Other people in the White House and in the campaign should be responsible for that effort.”

On Tuesday evening, Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity teed up an opportunity for Trump to make the case against Harris on his 9 p.m. show, but the president’s answers to Hannity’s questions veered from attacking Hillary Clinton, his 2016 opponent, to pontificating about “windmills.”

By Wednesday, the official Trump campaign had settled on a tighter, two-pronged argument: that Harris is a phony and that her liberal voting record would pull a Biden administration to the left. The campaign seized upon an analysis last year by GovTrack that rated Harris as the most liberal U.S. senator based on her voting record in 2019.

“Kamala Harris was rated the most liberal U.S. senator in 2019 and completes the radical, leftist takeover of Joe Biden and the entire Democrat Party,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said. “She pushes Biden even further to the left than he had already moved. Biden and Harris together make up the most extreme liberal ticket in American major party history.”

Cliff Sims, a former Trump White House official who is helping to lead messaging and speechwriting for the upcoming Republican National Convention, said of Harris: “She has an air of inauthenticity, which is a major problem at a time when plastic politicians just aren’t connecting with voters. That’s why the ‘phony’ line of attack really hits. It rings true.”

“Phony Kamala is Joe Biden’s living political will, and her radical leftist beliefs should cause every American to worry about her being just one heartbeat away from becoming president,” Stacy Washington, one of the Trump campaign’s more prominent Black supporters, said during a conference call with reporters.

But Biden campaign advisers characterized Team Trump’s opening assault on Harris as ham-handed and contradictory and said that the absence of a consistent and coherent message underscored the president’s weak standing and desperation to improve his reelection hopes.

“Senator Harris is tested and ready to lead on Day One,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said. “The Trump campaign certainly wasn’t ready on Day One, as their response to her nomination has been an incoherent, self-defeating train wreck.”

Outside of the Biden campaign, an army of Democratic leaders and operatives are prepared to defend Harris and attempt to inoculate her against whatever attacks come her way.

“Donald Trump has no idea what he’s going up against if he’s going to try to mess with Black women,” Democratic strategist Karen Finney said. “We’re mobilized to have Kamala Harris’s back, to have Joe Biden’s back. We’re not going to let him get away with this, and we’re going to call it out when we see it.”

Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of the feminist group Ultraviolet who is helping run a war room to monitor disinformation and hate speech surrounding the presidential campaign, said, “There are immediately, out of the gate, sexist and misogynistic and racist attacks having absolutely nothing to do with her record or the substance of her leadership.”

The subtext of Team Trump’s critique of Harris is that Biden, who has referred to himself as a “transitional” candidate, will not really be at the helm, instead relinquishing the work of governance to Harris.

Figures from One America News, the far-right channel welcomed by Trump into the White House, quipped that Harris herself would need to pick a second-in-command.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham made the subtext explicit in signing onto a meme from pro-Trump media that Biden is enfeebled and incapable of wielding executive power. “Even Joe is witted enough to understand that he’s not really going to be running the show if he wins in November,” Ingraham said.

Another Fox host, Tucker Carlson, repeatedly mangled Harris’s first name (which is pronounced “comma-la”) and scoffed when a guest, Democratic operative Richard Goodstein, corrected him on air.

Attacks lobbed online drew more explicitly on sexism and racial bigotry. Harris’s family members were also put in the crosshairs. In entries on right-wing blogs and in images posted to pro-Trump groups on Facebook, attacks on Harris that gained viral popularity during her primary campaign resurfaced.

Pro-Trump personalities with thousands of followers on Twitter boosted the false claim that Harris is not eligible to run for president because of her foreign-born parents. The erroneous smear, which Donald Trump Jr. amplified last summer, carries echoes of the birther conspiracy theory directed at former president Barack Obama that was popularized by Trump.

Purported news articles airing the baseless accusation, from sites such as the American Thinker and AIM Truth Bits known to traffic in conspiracy theories, gained thousands of shares on Facebook. Some were marked for containing false information; others were not.

In similar pro-Trump spaces online, Harris was ridiculed for a past relationship with Willie Brown, the former mayor of San Francisco and former California State Assembly speaker. One meme that circulated widely referred to her as a “high-end call girl.” Others used wordplay to describe sexual acts. This emphasis on the relationship played into sexist tropes about opportunistic female politicians.

Some of the figures who went on the offensive have an online audience with Trump and his family members. The conservative author Paul Sperry — who helped precipitate a quest last fall to unmask the Ukraine whistleblower that culminated in the president’s eldest son tweeting out the presumed name — went after Harris’s sister Maya, posting that she takes hydroxychloroquine. The 53-year-old recently documented her struggle with lupus, which some patients manage with the antimalarial drug touted by the president as effective against the novel coronavirus.

There was substantial overlap between the themes and images circulating in right-wing echo chambers and those promoted by top campaign officials. Biden is regularly depicted in far-right communities online as handsy, especially with women. Brad Parscale, Trump’s recently deposed campaign manager who is now a senior adviser to the campaign, on Tuesday night tweeted a manipulated video of Biden coming up behind Harris, grasping her shoulders and sniffing her hair.

Ian Sams, who worked for Harris as national press secretary on her primary campaign, said “Trump is clearly flummoxed by her,” and predicted that attacks on Harris by the president and his allies would get uglier.

“It’s going to get nasty,” Sams said, noting that the president’s eldest son shared a variety of personal and at times racist attacks on Harris during the primary campaign. “The far-right ecosystem that they love to play in is firing up bottom-barrel attacks that I think are really going to turn off a lot of voters.”