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Trump's 2020 pitch: A powerless presidency

Analysis: The most powerful man in the world would like voters to know he is beset on all sides by sinister forces that deprive him of the authority he needs to deliver on his vision for America.
President Donald Trump
Trump's twin re-election narratives: painting himself as both a commanding force, and a besieged martyr.Leah Millis / Reuters file

WASHINGTON — The most powerful man in the world prefers to portray himself as a martyr.

President Donald Trump says he's been beset on all sides by sinister forces that are oppressing him and depriving him of the authority he needs to deliver on his vision for America.

Often, the villains in his narratives work for him.

First, it was the CIA and the FBI, then Democrats, members of his Cabinet and Robert Mueller. Lately, his enemies list includes his hand-picked Federal Reserve chairman, Jay Powell, and Fox News. The cable network "isn't working for us anymore," Trump declared in a tweet last week, a few days after calling Powell an "enemy" of the United States.

Trump's persecution complex is an essential part of his brand — one that resonates deeply with a political base that believes anti-Trump liberals run the federal government and the news media. But as he seeks re-election in 2020, Trump is banking heavily on his ability to blend it into a coherent narrative with a version of his presidency in which he's been a commanding force, steamrolling adversaries to get things done.

"This election is not merely a verdict on the amazing progress we've made," Trump said when he kicked off his re-election campaign in Orlando, Florida, in June. "It's a verdict on the un-American conduct of those who tried to undermine our great democracy, and undermine you."

When he's less scripted, Trump sometimes speaks or tweets in terms that are more personal, such as when he describes himself as the target of "presidential harassment."

These two halves of Trump — victim and conqueror — fit together snugly for his campaign.

"It definitely is something that he and the campaign talk about," said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for Trump's re-election campaign. "There is no question he can still run against Washington based on the outspoken and unprecedented obstruction he has faced. And despite all of this, he has still accomplished everything that he has on behalf of the country."

Trump's supporters have mirrored the messaging.

Conservative commentator Bill Mitchell, for example, has cast Silicon Valley and the Drudge Report as anti-Trump forces tilting the world unfairly against him in recent days while also praising those — implicitly Trump — who overcome such challenges.

"Big Tech doesn't even care any more. They are all in to steal this election from President Trump. The days of appearing fair are over. They are just daring Trump to stop them at this point," he wrote in a tweet just hours after posting, "Let's start here: Life ain't fair. Proceed as if you know it. Be a champion, not a victim. Victims see roadblocks, champions see opportunities. #Trump2020."

Democrats say Trump's case requires a cognitive dissonance that is too much to bear.

"Playing the victim card in politics is pretty tough when you're president of the United States," said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist and message-testing expert who has worked on presidential campaigns. "You can’t have it both ways. You either have control over the destiny of the country or you don’t. I think it’s that simple."

The Washington Trump is running against, critics note, is filled with people he appointed to run agencies that are under his control. The Senate has been in Republican hands throughout his presidency. And the Supreme Court has a conservative majority featuring two justices he appointed.

To the extent he's been frustrated by what he calls "the swamp," it has arguably been as much a result of his inability to get people in his own administration and in his own party to go along with policies that sometimes cross the border of seriousness — like nuking hurricanes — as it has been from an opposition Democratic Party that has held very little formal power since he swept into office in January 2017.

While Trump surely has racked up significant policy and political victories — a major tax cut, two Supreme Court appointments and deregulation of an array of industries — his trade war with China has caused economic pain for producers and consumers in the U.S., he's demonstrated no progress in dealing with the regimes in North Korea and Iran despite his focus on those countries, and the massive influx of immigrants from Latin America on his watch has resulted in a humanitarian crisis.

Democrats say swing voters will see these outcomes as proof that he delivers more calamity than calm when he resorts to his own devices to make policy.

Both Trump's allies and Democrats agree that the sentiments of the relative handful of persuadable voters will be critical to determining his fate.

"They look at him as the architect of destruction and dysfunction, and they are going to be negative toward any leader, whether it's Trump or anyone else who makes excuses about their actions," Kofinis said.

But Michael Caputo, a Republican strategist and Trump ally who worked on the president's 2016 campaign, said that there is a clear "connective tissue" between the two elements of Trump's argument and that he needs those swing voters not only to regard him as effective but as embattled.

"You'd have to be dead or near dead not to understand that Donald Trump has been attacked at every turn of his presidency like no president in modern times," Caputo said. "Part of victory for Donald Trump will be convincing the middle that he hasn’t gotten fairly treated by Washington."

Democrats say that the premise of Trump being uniquely under siege — despite long investigations into his campaign's ties to Russia and possible obstruction of justice — is faulty.

"It’s an absurd argument," Joe Lockhart, who served as press secretary for President Bill Clinton, said in a direct message exchange. "Trump has had no congressional oversight for the majority of his term. His administration has repeatedly violated the law and had courts stop him. And let’s not forget Clinton had dozens of investigations and was impeached."

For now, Trump appears to be set on proving how much he can do with executive power, particularly on the immigration issue that was central to his first campaign.

In just the past week, he's vowed to finish building a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border before next November's election — a project that required him to execute an end-run around Congress by diverting funds appropriated for military construction — shifted money from disaster aid to immigration control and rewritten the citizenship rules for the foreign-born children of American soldiers and diplomats serving abroad.

While Trump continues to target his own appointees and allies at times, his campaign tends to keep a sharper focus on Democrats — a more traditional path to keeping Republicans united.

Murtaugh, who declined to discuss any polling the campaign might have done on its messaging, said the opposition is casting about for a strategy to counter the president.

"First they had the Russia hoax, which fell apart. Then they moved on white supremacy, and now they have moved on to rooting on recession," he said. "Never before has the opposition party taken on rooting against American success because it would be good for them if America faltered."

None of the Democratic candidates for president have cheered on a recession. But, like Trump did in the past, some have warned that one may be on the way because of the policies of the incumbent president.

Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, said Trump isn't likely to change the way he approaches describing his own shortcomings.

"For anything he hasn’t done, he always has a scapegoat," she said. "It’s someone else’s fault."

In implementing his agenda, Trump backers counter, that's because he has been fought, undermined and investigated at every turn.

"He’s not going to have a problem delivering the message of him being beset by the resistance to his base," Caputo said. "The question is going to be whether he can make the case to the middle."