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Republicans fret over Trump team's reaction to Harris pick

Despite plenty of time to prepare, the president's reaction to Biden's running mate is raising concerns among Republicans.
President Donald Trump in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on Aug. 11, 2020.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Just one day after Kamala Harris was named the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Trump campaign advisers and allies are expressing concern that the GOP’s initial fumbling response to her selection signals there is no clear strategy to define the historic pick in the weeks ahead, according to several people involved in the discussions.

Despite having months to prepare for the probable outcome that Harris would be chosen, the Trump re-election effort countered with a series of contradictory and at times confusing messages about the California senator, from her record as a California prosecutor to her positioning in the party.

Some allies of the president said they were stunned that the rejoinder appeared to be so flat-footed and incongruous, reiterating that President Donald Trump and his campaign have had trouble landing a punch on the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, and expressing concern that the same issue could take place with Harris.

“They struggled to attack her when she was running and will struggle now,” one former Trump campaign official said.

At the same time as Trump's allies labeled Harris as being too tough on crime, she was also lumped in with anti-police leftists.

She was repeatedly painted by the GOP as a “tool of the radical left,” but then the Republican National Committee argued liberals were “revolting” against the pick.

And Trump himself didn’t seem to know the plan of attack against Harris, even though it was increasingly obvious Biden was going to select a woman of color for the role. At a news conference Tuesday evening, Trump had to ask a reporter to repeat the nickname his own campaign used in advertising and fundraising appeals released minutes after the announcement.

The president failed to mention the historic nature of the decision but speaking with reporters Wednesday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway acknowledged Harris' significance. Then she slammed Harris both for being “very much part of the radical left” and too hard on crime, arguing “she left nobody happy on law and order when it was the number-one job she had.”

Conway called her a “safe and unsurprising pick,” while Trump said Tuesday he was “surprised” that Biden chose her. And Vice President Mike Pence told an Arizona audience it was “no surprise” Harris was added to the ticket.

The president also reverted to sexist attacks against Harris, describing her as “nasty” at least four times in as many minutes. That’s a familiar position for Trump, according to one outside adviser, who said he has been comfortable launching those kinds of attacks though it’s unclear how effective it will be.

A top Republican official bluntly said the president has handled the reaction “all wrong” and suggested he should stay away from personal attacks.

Trump ignored shouted questions about why he and his daughter Ivanka donated a combined $8,000 to Harris when she was running for California attorney general. But his campaign responded later Tuesday evening, emphasizing they were private citizens when they gave the money and suggesting the financial gift should show Trump is not a racist.

“I’ll note that Kamala Harris is a Black woman and he donated to her campaign, so I hope we can squash this racism argument now,” senior adviser Katrina Pierson said on a call with reporters, organized specifically to slam the Harris pick.

In the same conversation, Pierson and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., had difficulty differentiating between the notions that Harris was both too overzealous as a prosecutor and also not tough enough on crime.

Blackburn pointed to “security moms that are all across this nation who are going to say, ‘You know what, law and order is important to me and I don't want a vice president who is out there, marching in the streets with the BLM organization.’”

Pierson, meanwhile, said Harris “fought to keep inmates locked up in overcrowded prisons” when she was the California attorney general, calling her record “abysmal.”

The Biden campaign took note.

“By our count, the Trump campaign and their allies have already cycled through over 20 separate lines of attack against Sen. Harris — some of them conflict with others, and even more have disgusting undertones of sexism and racism, but at the end of the day, none of them will be effective,” said spokesman Mike Gwin.

Others in the Trump campaign, however, maintain the person in the number-two spot won’t have much impact on voters in November.

“The media is trying to sell this narrative that it's this historic pick, that it's going to matter. As we know, vice presidential picks, for the most part, yeah, don't matter,” Trump 2020 spokeswoman Mercedes Schlapp said on a recent livestream. “You got to look at who is the one at the top of the ticket.”