IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

On campaign strategy, Trump says the quiet part loud

Analysis: Trump is publicly tying just about everything to the midterms — even when it translates to a blunt admission that politics is driving policy.
Image: Donald Trump
President Trump at a "Make America Great Again" rally in Missoula, Montana, on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018.Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images

TEMPE, Ariz. — In early September, President Donald Trump said that he wanted to shut down the government over Congress' refusal to fully fund his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — but would wait to have that fight until after the midterm elections because he didn't want to hurt GOP candidates.

"We need Republicans elected in the midterms," Trump told Fox News.

It was a startlingly frank admission by the president that his preferred policy — or at least his approach to it — would be put on hold so that voters didn't reject his party over it. But it was hardly an isolated incident.

In recent weeks, Trump has said that this year's elections are the reason that he won't decide Attorney General Jeff Sessions' fate until November, that he's consciously making a push to talk to the media right now and that he won't meet again with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un until later this year.

The candid talk about politics driving policy and process is relatively unusual for a high-level politician. Typically, they bend over backward to avoid broadcasting their political motives because they fear that voters want to think policy is made independent of partisan gain.

Not Trump. He thrives on saying the quiet part out loud.

"One of the things that President's Trump's supporters like about him most is that he's not a 'typical' politician, and this is just another example," said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist who worked on Paul Ryan's 2012 vice presidential campaign.

Rick Tyler, an MSNBC political analyst who worked on Sen. Ted Cruz's unsuccessful campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, said Trump is playing into the changing dynamics of an increasingly sophisticated set of political junkies — those who watch cable news around the clock.

"As little as five years ago, political operatives were saying, 'Don’t talk about process stories, don’t talk about your strategy,'" he said, referring to politicians. "The reason was, most voters weren’t going to be able to digest process stories and political strategy because they just didn’t know enough."

But that has changed.

Now, he says, politicians who refuse to talk about the political strategy behind their decision-making appear less authentic.

"They seem disingenuous and fake and so, in this sense, Trump seems real," he said, adding that there's little risk in catering to the super-attenuated set of voters because "people who don’t pay attention to politics will never hear him say it."

Trump is also more open about his motivations than most politicians in other settings, whether it's in battles with Congress over domestic policy, in trade fights with other countries or on any number of cultural issues that capture national attention.

But Trump, in the midst of a national barnstorming tour on behalf of Republican Senate, House and gubernatorial candidates, stands out even more for his willingness to tie public policy decisions to the midterms.

On Thursday, during a campaign rally in Missoula, Montana, Trump said that he was prepared to send troops to the southern border to stop a caravan of Honduran migrants who have been making their way north. He mused that Democrats might be encouraging or even funding the group for intended political gain in November — despite providing no evidence for the claim — and then said he wouldn't let that happen.

"That's our issue," he declared.

He's also rolled out new policies on ethanol before a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, last week and on water projects in advance of Friday's stop in Mesa, Arizona. Trump signed a memorandum Friday instructing members of his Cabinet to reduce regulatory impediments to major water projects, which would include streamlining the environmental review process — a win for Western farmers over environmentalists in California and other Western states.

By announcing the proposals on his way to rallies, Trump chose not to disguise their true intent: to help Republicans in states and districts where those issues are at the forefront of the political debate.

Bryan Sandrock, a Trump supporter who attended the rally Thursday at an airplane hangar in Missoula, said he's willing to give Trump room to operate on the idea of shutting down the government to force Congress to fund his border wall.

"Do I think it makes sense to shut the government down as a whole? No," said Sandrock, 53, a Henderson, Nevada, resident who has businesses in Helena, Montana. "But there's got to be some way to get it done, and he's already proved conclusively in less than two years that his approach is working in other areas. So is that the approach that I might take? Maybe not. But I'm not going to second-guess a man who's been as accomplished as he is."

The nakedly political approach Trump takes to talking about his own priorities, Sandrock said, is a feature, not a bug, of his presidency.

"Ultimately, we the people have seen the way it's been for so long where they never say exactly what they mean, they don't do what they say," he said. "This guy just throws it out there for you — like it, not like it. But you know what his mission is and what he's going to try to accomplish and he's going to do pretty much anything to get there. ... I like that a lot."