“I believe this is about ideology. This is about socialism vs. freedom,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said at the time, seamlessly embracing the message developed by the president’s team.
And it happened in September, when reporters took notice of a sharpie-drawn addition to a map of Hurricane Dorian’s path. The map had been doctored in an apparent attempt to substantiate an erroneous claim Trump had made on Twitter that the storm was supposed to hit parts of Alabama. “Sharpie-gate” quickly became a proxy for the president’s serial dishonesty — and a marketing opportunity for his campaign officials. Within days, they were cheekily selling Trump-branded markers online, available for $15 per pack-of-five.
While the amount raised from marker sales — roughly $50,000 so far — pales in comparison to the $156 million cash the Trump fundraising committee have on hand, such efforts are more about branding to campaign officials.
“It’s pretty obvious that official Washington still doesn’t know what to make of the guy and that is what a great many of his supporters just love,” said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director.
Both episodes underscore the way Trump’s 2020 operation is using the most controversial moments of his presidency to electrify his base, reinforce his brand as the disruptor-in-chief and assure voters that — despite his incumbency — he’s as much a political outsider now as he was when he first ran for office four and a half years ago. With exactly one year to go until Election Day 2020, the tactic is one team Trump plans to employ as much as possible, primarily, they say, because it cannot be replicated.
“These are the things that only the Trump campaign can do because of who our candidate is,” said a senior campaign official.
“What would be the death knell for any other candidate is often a $1 million idea for us,” declared another, adding that they have “a candidate who loves rallies, loves campaigning and loves using Twitter, so there are plenty of opportunities for us to take what might be politically incorrect and capitalize on it.”
Campaign officials maintain that Trump is almost always their inspiration. “We follow the president’s lead” is a slogan they repeat frequently to inquiring reporters. But it’s their knack for rapidly turning his ideas or blunders into marketable material that they seem to take the most pride in.
“One of our strengths is our speed,” a third official said Thursday on a conference call with members of the media, pointing to the “Where’s Hunter?” tees currently available for purchase on the campaign’s website.
The shirts were posted minutes after Trump ranted about Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden, at a campaign rally earlier this month. The younger Biden has faced scrutiny for profiting off of his father’s career, particularly through business dealings with Chinese and Ukrainian companies. Trump has baselessly accused Hunter of corruption in the matter, and argued, without evidence, that his father helped him evade a Ukrainian government investigation. The House has opened an impeachment inquiry into the president’s attempts to get Ukraine to conduct such an investigation.
Other times, the campaign has converted gaffes by Trump’s opponents — or in one case, his top aide in the West Wing — into fundraising tools or awareness campaigns.
After acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged in a press briefing that the president “absolutely” leveraged aid to Ukraine for political reasons, telling reporters to “get over it,” the Trump campaign quickly released t-shirts emblazoned with the same slogan. Or when Biden, a top-tier 2020 Democrat, failed to purchase a web domain matching the name of his new Latino outreach effort, the Trump campaign scooped up “TodosConBiden.com” on its own. The landing page now reads, “Oops, Joe forgot about Latinos” in Spanish and English, before redirecting visitors to a “Latinos for Trump” website.
Outside of his core supporters, hardly anyone is pleased with the Trump campaign’s methods. Political opponents have accused the president’s team of tomfoolery, claiming they use immature pranks and gimmicky souvenirs to distract from unpopular policies.
“It is no surprise that Trump’s campaign would resort to childish antics like this to take attention away from this president’s appalling record of separating families and using immigrants as scapegoats…,” Biden campaign spokeswoman Isabel Aldunate said in a statement following the “TodosConBiden” stunt.
Other critics have said Trump’s survivability and the way his campaign fundraises off his most troublesome actions are due to a much deeper problem — one that’s nearly impossible to resolve. “Whether by design or lucky accident, he has given himself a singular armor, a special inoculation, which is that no one expects more from him,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote in an August op-ed titled “Donald Trump’s outrageous 2020 advantage.”
The Trump campaign sees such criticism as confirmation that it is doing something right.
Enraging “the inside-the-beltway tsk tsk crowd” is the most effective tool for energizing the president’s base, said the senior campaign official. The official was careful to note that the president’s campaign never corrects what Trump says, they just find a way to market it. Trump, the official said, likes to get in on the action by providing personal input before new merchandise is released or a new message is tested.
“This isn’t a typical reelection campaign,” the senior official explained. “But that isn’t a bad thing one bit.”