Donald Trump's plan for 2020 Democrats: Cause chaos and sow division

Posted at 8:17 PM, Feb 22, 2019

One presidential candidate is following the Democratic primary fight far closer than you might imagine. His name is Donald J. Trump.

Inside the White House, the President is watching announcement rallies, tuning into televised town hall sessions with voters and listening carefully to commentary on the Democratic presidential race. His opinions fluctuate on who he will, or would like to, run against. But one sentiment is unwavering — he has no plans to sit idly by and watch.

The President intends to play an active role in the Democratic primary and has instructed his aides to look for ways he can, according to more than a dozen Republicans involved in his campaign. His team is working to sow divisions among rivals and looking for opportunities to "cause chaos from the left and right," in the words of one adviser.

"The President wants to get into the game," said a top Republican who talks to Trump frequently, speaking on condition of anonymity to share a private conversation. "People may knock him in terms of running the government, but he gets the campaign and can't wait to get started."

Trump has been holding regular meetings with a small circle of advisers inside the White House, led by his 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale, who briefs his boss often, sources say. On Tuesday, that meeting got a little bigger when Parscale sat down with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and more than a dozen aides to go over the expected structure of their campaign.

But a power struggle between the President's re-election campaign and those who helped him win the White House has already emerged.

Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, two central figures in the President's 2016 campaign, were not invited to the Tuesday meeting, amid a growing rivalry between Lewandowski and Parscale, according to people familiar with the matter. While Lewandowski and Bossie have the President's ear and were seen on the White House grounds the week before, they do not have a formal seat at the table.

"Brad Parscale is building a state of the art campaign operation, light years ahead of anything the Democrats have created. Our opponents are the Democrats, not anyone in the President's circle," said Kayleigh McEnany, a campaign spokeswoman, in a statement to CNN.

Another campaign official said Lewandowski and Bossie were not at the meeting because they're not on staff and that they will be invited to the campaign's meeting for surrogates soon.

Despite any early drama, aides say they hope the re-election effort will be a cohesive undertaking between the campaign, White House officials and the President's outside advisers. They believe it will require a massive and more coordinated strategy than the first time around, when Trump was seen as an unlikely winner.

In 2016, they won the White House on their own, without support or backup of the party apparatus. But now Trump is relying upon the help of the party establishment, which aides say has created an opening for tension among loyalists who helped him win the White House and those who surround him now.

Several former White House aides, including Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, have departed the West Wing for the campaign, which is coming to life only three miles from the White House. The desks are slowly filling inside Arlington Tower, where glass offices offer sweeping views of the Potomac River, the Jefferson Memorial and the capital Trump maligns.

Jared Kushner, the President's son-in-law and senior adviser, will also play a prominent role in the campaign, as he did in 2016, but he will do so from the West Wing, aides say. He speaks frequently to Parscale, who has secured his spot in the Trump family inner circle.

With a wide-open Democratic contest, where the ultimate winner of the nomination is literally a guessing game, the President and his advisers are trying to make the race anything but a referendum on him. Instead, they are trying to make it a choice between him and what they are trying to define as an out-of-touch Democratic alternative.

Trump telegraphed that during his State of the Union address, where he first laid bare his plan to brand the entire Democratic field as socialists. It's far from a new argument, but many Democrats acknowledge it could still be a potent one, which has led several candidates to suddenly voice their support for capitalism.

When Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont jumped into the race this week, the President and his advisers beamed, saying it fit perfectly into how they are trying to frame the race as a stark choice between Trump and socialism.

"It's a radical left -- a radical left," Trump said last week in the Oval Office.

But the President is watching far more than Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who he has repeatedly derided as "Pocahontas."

In recent days, Trump has also asked aides for political intelligence on former Vice President Joe Biden and his family. And he has wondered aloud about whether Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio could complicate Trump's chances in one of his favorite swing states if Brown decides to jump into the Democratic race with a promise to compete hard in Trump country.

While Trump has talked admiringly about the crowds of Sen. Kamala Harris of California, he has also spoken to confidantes about being impressed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who he has met several times and has spoken openly about her ability to connect with voters. He took a dig at her snowy announcement, which was a sign he took her candidacy seriously, given her track record of winning 42 counties last fall in Minnesota that Trump had carried two years earlier.

At the Republican National Committee and in the offices of the Trump re-election campaign, aides often follow the President's lead. If he tweets about a Democratic candidate or mentions a potential rival in conversation, they will amplify it. And they are waiting for Trump to nickname the candidates, which he is already working on doing, much like the derogatory branding he did for his own Republican rivals in 2016.

While Trump and his advisers believe they will escape a serious primary challenge, a team of aides is already working on shoring up Republican delegates to the party's convention and making sure local officials are on board.

"It's county-by-county," an aide involved in the campaign said, "looking for people who didn't show up in the midterms."

The President is optimistic about his chances, several advisers say, largely because of the data Parscale and others have shown him and what he sees as a leftward-leaning Democratic field.

While his national approval ratings approach record lows for a sitting president, Trump is seizing on other metrics. Aides say he is focusing on two types of counties: surge and switch, which he believes hold the key to his re-election. Surge counties are those where his support soared from the 2012 baseline of Mitt Romney, while switch counties are those that flipped from Barack Obama to Trump in four years.

But above all, the President is increasingly fixated on the Democratic primary.

It's become a regular topic on his phone calls with friends and Republican members of Congress. And it's now a staple of his daily television diet in the residence of the White House, a building he is fighting to stay in for a second term as president.