Inside the Trump campaign's struggle to land a punch on Biden

President Donald Trump's lengthy attacks on Joe Biden on Tuesday may not have been all his political advisers envisioned.
Image: President Trump Holds A Press Conference At The White House
President Donald Trump arrives to speak to the media in the Rose Garden of the White House on Tuesday.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Carol E. Lee, Kristen Welker, Monica Alba and Peter Alexander

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's political advisers have bluntly told him he can't win the November election if the campaign is about him, and for weeks they unsuccessfully urged him to pivot to a new strategy focused on his general election opponent, Joe Biden.

Trump finally appeared to heed the advice Tuesday, although the setting and the tone of the political broadside may not have been what his advisers had envisioned. Trump's remarks, which mentioned Biden 31 times, were monotone, and the backdrop — the White House Rose Garden — was a break from longtime presidential efforts to separate official and re-election business.

And while the president delivered the criticism his aides had been hoping for, he also reminded voters of his impeachment by throwing in attacks on the former vice president's family and the Ukrainian company at the center of the investigation.

"Biden was here 47 years," Trump said in a hastily arranged news conference that followed a televised appearance by the Democrat before he pivoted to Biden's son, Hunter, and Burisma. "Hunter, where's Hunter? Where is Hunter, by the way?"

Trump's advisers have been encouraging him to zero in on Biden's long public record to deflect any focus on his own 3½ years in office.

But the president has insisted on pushing back against anything he perceives as a slight — including rising numbers of cases of the coronavirus — while airing old grievances and nursing new ones. In recent days he has criticized NASCAR, the media and the NFL, defended the Confederate battle flag and escalated fights with his former attorney general and his top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, even though, Trump's advisers said, he recognizes he's on a potential course to be unseated by Biden.

"He knows he could lose," a White House official said.

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics

Still, allies say, Trump — rightly or wrongly — sees everything as personal. And his penchant for giving his opponents nicknames and pointing out what he sees as their physical faults has kept him from landing a real punch on Biden. He has tried tagging Biden as untrustworthy — "Corrupt Joe" — and lethargic — "Sleepy Joe" — but it hasn't dragged Biden down with voters as Trump had hoped.

"Sleepy sounds pretty good when you've had four years of exhaustion," a White House official quipped.

Another person close to the president echoed the argument that the strategy hasn't worked, "given the chaos" of the administration.

The strategy Trump's advisers hope he'll embrace includes reviving controversial statements Biden has made over the years on race, gay rights and women, as well as drawing attention to Biden's record in ways that put him at odds with the white working-class voters he and Trump are vying to win over in November.

The plan is to sharpen criticism of Biden's position on trade, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the continued loss of manufacturing jobs while he was vice president, despite an overall slump in recent decades reaching into the current administration.

"We have to make this a contrast. It has to be a choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden," a person close to the president said. "It's not just gaffes — we are always going to focus on what he said — but you are starting to see more of an attempt to highlight his record."

Trump said Tuesday that "Biden was a leading advocate of the Paris Climate Accord, which was unbelievably expensive to our country, would've crushed America's manufacturers, while allowing China to pollute the atmosphere with impunity."

The president has falsely accused Biden of being a criminal who, with former President Barack Obama, "spied" on his campaign, seeking to attach the same implication of corruption and wrongdoing to Biden that he did to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Part of the challenge is that the president himself — while acutely aware that his campaign's internal polling mirrors public polls that show him trailing Biden in key battleground states and by double digits nationally — isn't fighting as hard this time as he did in 2016.

A source familiar with the president's campaign said there's a growing perception that "he's not trying" and that it seems like "his heart is not in it." The notion seemed to manifest itself in his uninspired delivery in the Rose Garden, where the audience was a few dozen seated reporters, not cheering supporters at a rally.

"There's probably never been a time when the candidates are so different," Trump said, making a clear electoral pitch from the White House complex.

The president's aides and allies are concerned that a lack of rallies and normal campaign activities this summer will contribute to his inability to land a punch. Those events are usually the best way for Trump to test new material, but the lack of consistent events with his followers due to the pandemic makes that all the more challenging.

Further complicating the president's approach is that Biden is so well known to voters, who view him much more favorably than they did Clinton.

The Trump team is still struggling to figure out how to define and campaign against Biden less than four months before the election.

By contrast, in 2012, Obama's campaign launched a targeted effort, including the spending of millions of dollars on ads, to define his opponent, Mitt Romney, six months before the election.

Trump has tried to tether Biden to the "radical left," but that hasn't stuck, either. The adviser involved with the campaign said Trump has been advised to mount more "traditional attacks," such as the accusation that Biden would raise taxes, while Trump would bring business back.

Trump, instead, has latched onto the culture wars, including defending Confederate monuments, but some of his advisers worry that that's the wrong message when voters are so concerned about the economy.

Trump and his advisers believe the debates will be an opportunity to draw a contrast with Biden, and he is already preparing.

That was partly why his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani recently visited the White House. The two met for about 45 minutes discussing the debates and the campaign, Giuliani said, as well as some legal matters he wouldn't disclose.

Giuliani said he wants at least two of the debates to be in a format in which Trump and Biden question each other, which he suggested would be aimed at showing any cognitive deficiencies on Biden's part.

"That's much harder," Giuliani said of the format. "You've got to think up the subject."