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Trump's Republican convention challenge: Overcoming the trust gap

Analysis: To win re-election, the president will try to sell the story that he's been a shining success and Joe Biden has failed — if his credibility problem doesn't get in the way.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on July 31, 2020.
The story Trump will tell this week is one of domestic and international success mitigated only by a series of visible and invisible enemies bent on denying him the credit he deserves.Carlos Barria / Reuters file

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump heads into the Republican National Convention needing to make the greatest sales pitch of his life.

He trails Democratic nominee Joe Biden in national and swing-state polling, voters give him low marks for his handling of a coronavirus pandemic that has taken more than 170,000 American lives and led tens of millions to file for unemployment insurance this year, and his lofty plans for a major international peace accord — like a nuclear deal with North Korea — have disintegrated.

His onetime aces in the hole have vanished, one by one. His plot to pressure Ukraine into announcing an investigation into Biden resulted in his own impeachment. The economy, his strongest political asset just six months ago, has been roughed up by his response to the coronavirus. And, rather than strengthening the nation's global position, his trade war with China has pummeled elements of his still-loyal base.

Democrats spent four days last week declaring that he lacks the competence, character and compassion necessary to defend the U.S. in a time of crisis, as well as any interest in the economy beyond its power to reward him politically and wealthy Americans like him financially.

But the story Trump will tell is one of domestic and international success mitigated only by a series of visible and invisible enemies bent on denying him the credit he deserves — and his voters the leader they want. At a time when most voters say they don't trust what he's said about the coronavirus, and his own sister is on tape lamenting his broader pattern of "lying," he and his surrogates will also focus on their latest line of attack on Biden: that he didn't solve the country's problems during six terms in the Senate and two terms as vice president.

"Part progress report of the first four years: '47 months of Donald Trump's presidency versus the 47 years of Joe Biden in Washington,'" counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway said Friday. "And then the vision piece. You know, why four more years? What will we be building upon? What will you be tackling? What we'll be doing? What do we hope to do with Congress if they get to it, but in the absence of congressional leadership how [does he] continue to take executive action?"

Trump's expansive use of that executive power, with critics and courts often excoriating him for what they say are abuses of the authority the Constitution vested in his office, is a significant part of his argument for re-election.

Democrats appear to be in no danger of losing their control of the House in November's election, and professional prognosticators say it's possible they could wrest control of the Senate from Trump's GOP. In other words, it would probably be impossible for him to move forward on any controversial portions of his agenda in a second term without pushing Congress aside.

Republicans plan to highlight a series of "ordinary" Americans who say they have benefited from Trump's presidency, just as Democrats reserved time for a similar set to explain how they believe they have been harmed by his actions.

"There are going to be some breakout stars, some people that you would not expect to be supporters of the president," Trump senior campaign adviser Jason Miller said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "And it's going to tell a very beautiful story."

But much as Trump advisers consistently say the Republican convention will be "upbeat" and "optimistic," there are signs that the prime-time hours from Monday through Thursday will be used in large part to hammer away at what Biden and Democrats said and didn't say during their convention.

"Last week, it was a massive grievance fest," Miller said. "We didn't hear about the vision for the future, how their policies would help people. And there's a reason for that. The reason is because they didn't want to talk about the $4 trillion in tax hikes, a Green New Deal. At a time when we can't afford to stop our economy and our economic growth, they want to throw it in reverse and go back to the policies of the past."

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While Democrats homed in on a contrast of personal traits between the two candidates, Biden specifically addressed those issues in his acceptance speech Thursday night.

"We can, and we will, deal with climate change. It's not only a crisis, it's an enormous opportunity: an opportunity for America to lead the world in clean energy and create millions of new good-paying jobs in the process," Biden said. "And we can pay for these investments by ending loopholes and the president's $1.3 trillion tax giveaway to the wealthiest 1 percent and the biggest, most profitable corporations, some of which pay no tax at all."

Trump's credibility is more at issue than ever on the eve of his party's convention, as partial transcripts of secretly recorded tapes of his sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, 83, were published by the Washington Post on Saturday.

"His goddamned tweet and lying, oh my God,” Barry said, according to recordings made by the Trump siblings' niece, Mary L. Trump. “I’m talking too freely, but you know. The change of stories. The lack of preparation. The lying. Holy s---."

The release comes at a time when two-thirds of registered voters, including 71 percent of independents, say they don't trust what the president is saying about coronavirus at all, or trust it very little, according to a PBS NewsHour/Marist survey published in mid-August.

It's a number that speaks to Trump's larger, high-stakes challenge heading into this week: overcoming his overall credibility gap to persuade swing voters that when he speaks about himself and Biden, he's telling the truth.