When the President Lashes Out

Donald Trump has increased his racist rhetoric in recent days, eschewing dog whistles for direct shots.

Win McNamee / Getty

Following the news in the Donald Trump era can often feel like navigating an especially dense fog, where things seem clear only when they’re at your feet, and not a step sooner or later.

But sometimes it is worth stating a series of events as plainly as possible, so that they don’t get swept up in the haze:

  • On July 29, Trump said that the Reverend Al Sharpton “hates whites & cops.”

  • On July 28, Trump called House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings “racist” after being accused of racism himself for his attacks on Cummings.

  • On July 28, as part of those attacks, Trump called Baltimore, an American city, a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”

  • On July 23, Trump falsely claimed that undocumented immigrants in states such as California had caused him to lose the popular vote, saying that they “vote many times, not just twice, not just three times.”

  • On July 21, Trump said he does not believe that freshman Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts are “capable of loving our Country.”

In this case, the timing of these moments could be just as significant as the moments themselves: They arrived just as the country prepares to turn its focus to Trump’s nearly two dozen Democratic challengers for the next two nights, and as the president readies for his own 2020 rally in Cincinnati on Thursday. In other words, this week presents multiple opportunities for Trump to test the resonance of his attacks—whether they will indeed become the core of his campaign message going into next year’s election, or whether, like so many other headlines, they will simply get lost in the fog.

Much of that could depend on what Democrats themselves choose to focus on during the second round of primary debates, which begin tonight in Detroit at 8 p.m. ET. In the first Democratic debates, in Miami last month, the candidates largely stayed away from name-checking the president, preferring instead to concentrate their attacks on one another.

But after Trump’s comments about multiple lawmakers of color in the past two weeks, including telling minority congresswomen to “go back” to the countries from which they came, there’s a higher chance that the candidates feel more urgency to contrast themselves with the president, if only in terms of their character.

“It’s in the moderators’ interest to put everyone on the record about that, whether it’s about Ilhan Omar or Cummings,” one senior Democratic campaign official, who like others in this story spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid, told me. “I think campaigns are preparing to respond to those because you want to show that you have the cleanest rebuke of his comments of everyone. It’s really a matter of showing you can hold your own and aren’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with Trump.”

Because Democrats kept their focus on Trump to a minimum the last time around, the president hardly engaged in real time, with “BORING!” being among his few tweets over the course of the two-night debate. But should moderators bring any of Trump’s recent attacks to the forefront, he is likely to punch back from afar. (The White House confirmed that the president will be watching “at least some of” the debate from the residence tonight.)

“We can only hope and pray that every Democrat on the stage tonight chooses to defend Ilhan Omar,” a former Trump-administration official told me. “If one of the top-tier candidates goes after him about that, the president has always shown that he’s a good counterpuncher.”

All of which could provide Trump with ammunition for more vitriol on Thursday night. As a former senior White House official told me back in January, rallies are the president’s version of a “safe space,” as he “likes control and being around his own people.” So if Trump feels he’s lost control of the narrative—watching Democratic candidates rebuke him for his attacks on others—he could very well try to use his rally to reclaim it.

Whether that means a repeat of the “Send her back!” chant that took place at his previous rally, in North Carolina, is the key question. (Trump later said he did not approve of the chant.)

“I would hope he would try and stop it if that happened,” a former White House official told me. “But I guess you never know.”

Race has long been the undercurrent of many of Trump’s appeals to voters. How Democrats respond to his recent attacks, and how Trump himself decides to confront them Thursday, could bring it to the surface for good.