Donald Trump’s 2016 surprise victory had the proverbial thousand fathers: a uniquely unpopular Democratic nominee in Hillary Clinton, Russian interference, his supposedly insurmountable personal and political liabilities which smoothed the way for protest votes and an electric connection with his white, non-college-educated base. He also got a historic October surprise when then-FBI Director James Comey announced — 11 days before the election — that the agency had reopened an investigation into Clinton’s emailing habits. The investigation went nowhere but gave Trump a critical late boost.
Fast-forward four years and Trump once again lags in the polls, but by a larger margin. Thus, he is apparently trying to rerun the 2016 campaign: he’s focusing on the same voters who narrowly elected him four years ago, rather than trying to expand his coalition and, unable to gain much traction against former Vice President Joe Biden, he’s trying to revive the Clinton email controversy.
And he’s repeatedly tried to produce a new Comey-esque moment to scramble the polls at the last minute – without any success to date. He and his team have ginned up multiple investigations of his political adversaries, promised a pre-election Covid vaccine and, just this week, tried once again to make Biden’s son, Hunter, a campaign issue. But, one after the other, these would-be game-changers have fizzled and flopped.
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The most recent example was a breathless and credulous New York Post story alleging that a laptop left by an unknown man at a Delaware repair shop — and, conveniently, never picked up — has emails supposedly investigated by the FBI from Hunter Biden offering to introduce his father to an executive with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. The fact that the Post got the story from Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and Trump 2016 campaign chairman Steve Bannon, currently out on bail after his arrest on charges that he misappropriated funds that donors intended to help build the wall with Mexico, hardly augments its credibility.
That the bizarre story then also dovetails with a known, active Russian disinformation operation and that it attempts to resurrect the spurious claims that the president already once tried to trump up — getting himself impeached in the process — also mitigates against its believability. Both Twitter and Facebook deemed the story so suspicious that they took the unprecedented step of limiting the ability of users to share it — which, again, was published by an actual, if Murdoch-owned, newspaper.
If stray emails on a random laptop that just had to be investigated by the FBI sounds familiar, it should: Comey’s 2016 October surprise was the result of the FBI’s unrelated investigation into the laptop of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, whose then-wife was a Clinton aide. (There’s also a salacious sex angle to the latest laptop story as well — all the better to sell it with.)
You really can’t, I guess, teach an old dog new tricks.
The other attempts to contrive last-minute bombshells are also proving to be duds everywhere but the right-wing echo chamber in which Trump and his campaign have long cosseted themselves. Remember “unmasking”? Unless you’re a Trump fan or a real trivia buff, you probably don’t, but it was the Republican-grown “scandal” that Obama administration officials’ asking for the identities of specific Americans whose names were blacked out of intelligence reports was untoward. Attorney General William Barr tapped federal prosecutor John Bash in May to investigate the practice — one of several Justice Department investigations aimed at finding proof for Trump’s conspiracy theories about the Russia investigation.
Bash retired from Justice last week, quietly wrapping up his investigation with no charges. “The department has so far declined to release the results of Bash’s work, though people familiar with his findings say they would likely disappoint conservatives who have tried to paint the ‘unmasking’ of names — a common practice in government to help understand classified documents — as a political conspiracy,” The Washington Post reported Tuesday.
Bash’s nothing-burger comes on the heels of news that another one of Trump’s pet investigations is not going to yield fruit before the election. In May 2019, Barr had selected U.S. Attorney John Durham to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation, looking for some wrongdoing to discredit it. Now Barr is reportedly telling Republicans that Durham won’t release anything before the election — and Trump, hoping for vindication or at least a talking point he can pass of as it, is pissed. “Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes ... then we’ll get little satisfaction, unless I win,” he said. “Because I won’t forget it.”
Four years later, and he still wants to “lock her up.”
With the Justice Department a dry well, Trump has apparently dragooned the intelligence community toward the same ends. Late last month, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe declassified unconfirmed intelligence related to Russia, Clinton and the 2016 presidential campaign in an apparent effort to bolster Trump’s wish to relitigate that race. “You saw what happened today with Hillary Clinton, where it was a whole big con job,” Trump said in his first debate against Biden, a shorthand reference which no doubt thrilled Fox News viewers and confused everyone else.
The president’s debate comments were, for the rest of us, another esoteric digression to Hillary-stalking when there are more important matters at hand — like the pandemic which has now killed more than 217,000 Americans and infected nearly 8 million. There too, Trump has pinned his hopes — for re-election, if not for actually beating the virus — on an October game-changer in the form of a vaccine. The pandemic is the dominant election issue and voters have overwhelmingly rejected Trump’s laissez-faire approach to it, so he needs some sort of government success to validate his approach and turn the race around.
Hence his repeated (and likely baseless) assertion that “vaccines are coming momentarily” and his efforts to get the Food and Drug Administration to relax their safety protocols to allow an early release of a vaccine, which they rebuffed last week, telling manufacturers to monitor patients in clinical trials for two months.
With the FDA commissioner now also refusing to alter the language of the approval process in response to political pressure from the White House to show progress, Trump’s vaccine talk has evolved into vague pronouncements about having received a “cure” during his sojourn at Walter Reed. “They call them therapeutic, but to me it wasn’t just therapeutic, it made me better,” Trump said upon returning to the White House. “I call that a cure.” To paraphrase the Holiday Inn commercial, he’s not a doctor but he did stay at a first-rate hospital, so he figures that makes him an expert.
To be clear, this is still the year 2020: it’s not a question of whether there will be an “October surprise” but rather how many surprising, and indeed horrifying, things can happen in October. But Trump’s ham-handed attempts to tailor them to help his political fortunes are, like so much else he does, flopping so far.
And for him, the size of his polling deficit halfway through October speaks to a largely settled view among voters about his tenure. That view is not one likely to be swung by a startling late-game revelation about Clinton or even Hunter Biden — even if he could get any of his trial balloons to float.