Trump 'going with his gut' in fanning racism, frustrating some White House aides

Aides prefer him to focus on his wins and offer sharp criticism of his opponent, Joe Biden.
Image: President Trump Returns To The White House From Wisconsin Trip
Some of the president’s allies worry he is out of step with public sentiment during this moment of national reckoning over racial justice.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

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By Geoff Bennett, Peter Alexander and Carol E. Lee

WASHINGTON — Some White House officials are privately expressing frustration over President Donald Trump’s recent embrace of a message stoking racial and cultural divisions.

The Trump allies are telling him that he has a better argument to make and to focus on his accomplishments in office and offer sharp criticism of his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, said two officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss private conversations.

But Trump — four months away from facing voters in his re-election bid and trailing Biden in the polls — is “going with his gut” and “relying on instinct,” the two officials said. Instead of touting wins, Trump has opted to zero in on the national debate about race and side with supporters who view themselves as victims unfairly cast as racists in the renewed national discussion about discrimination targeting minorities.

“Cultural issues are always going to be with us, and the president is animated by them,” a White House official said. “While we don’t want to wade into divisive issues, we do want to stand with American history.”

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Trump has heard from some political allies encouraging him to embrace a divisive tone likely to further inflame civic unrest seen across the country over the past month and deliver political wins by rallying his supporters.

But other aides have pushed him to temper his rhetoric.

A second White House official said Trump is making a mistake by stoking racial divisions and continuing to revive the kind of grievances he also aired in 2016, when he stoked racial animosity targeting immigrants. This official says the president’s attack lines no longer have the same resonance as they did four years ago.

After a rough June, some aides had hoped Trump would politically reset in July.

“Post-Fourth of July needs to be a pivot. We have a short period where we have to stay on message,” one of the White House officials said. “Can we stay away from the third rail of politics, including race and divisive issues?”

But both officials acknowledged that the president believes divisive rhetoric helped him win the White House, and could do so again. And two officials said he is largely rejecting the political advice to shift his message because he blames the coronavirus pandemic and his campaign's strategy — and not his own approach — for his polling plunge.

As a result, he’s tapping more deeply into the perceived anger and resentment of his white supporters.

The president, for instance, has gone from obliquely describing an effort to take down Confederate statues as an assault on “our heritage” during his campaign rally in Oklahoma last month to defending the Confederate flag and attacking NASCAR’s only Black full-time driver Monday on Twitter.

Some of the president’s allies worry he is out of step with public sentiment during this moment of national reckoning over racial justice, even if they agree he has a case to make that demonizing historical figures like George Washington goes too far.

The president “senses victimization that a lot of Americans feel” in scenarios where they’re deemed racist if they don’t denounce the Confederate flag, one of the officials said.