This past week, Donald Trump’s campaign did what one senior aide on the president’s 2020 team described to The Daily Beast as the “dumbest thing I’ve read in a long time.”
In a cease-and-desist letter dated June 9, 2020, the president’s re-election staff demanded that CNN retract and apologize for a recently released poll that had presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden leading Trump by 14 points. The letter, which the cable news network immediately laughed off, heavily cited the work of Trump pollster John McLaughlin, whose company alleged that CNN had somehow engaged in a “defamatory” act of “misinformation” and deliberately “skewed” data in an attempt to depress the president’s supporters.
The legal threat quickly became a punchline in political media and even in some sectors of Trump’s own political operation.
In one respect, it was just the latest effort by the president’s aides to attempt to satisfy the boss’ appetite for retribution. But it also revealed an element of the Trump political operation that has increasingly demanded time, money, and attention—mainly, the task of convincing Trump that the electoral landscape and polling deficits he faces aren’t as dire as he’s been hearing.
“This helps keep the president from flying into a rage as much as he otherwise would,” said a White House official who’s been in the room for these types of sessions.
On June 4, for instance, the president convened multiple meetings at the White House with top officials in his administration and from his campaign, including his son-in-law and White House aide Jared Kushner and campaign manager Brad Parscale, to have a series of discussions about strategy and communications. According to a person familiar with one of those gatherings, Trump sounded impressed that the support among his conservative base had remained solid in the presented data given recent media coverage and the maelstrom of crises he’d been facing.
At one point, members of the president’s team began briefing him on the campaign’s own private polling, much of which did not look favorable. They sought to reassure the president by telling him that their numbers showed a large “enthusiasm gap” between Trump and Biden voters, and that much of the public polling wasn’t to be trusted, according to two sources familiar with the meeting. In particular, they argued that public polls skew in favor of the Democratic Party at this time because polling firms were polling registered voters and not “likely voters.”
In the characterization of one source close to the president, a chunk of the re-election team focuses on proving to the president that his “dumpster-fire numbers” aren’t as bad as they seem, or reinforcing Trump’s conviction that pollsters get it wrong “all the time.”
But not everyone on Team Trump is buying the spin. In fact, efforts to pacify the president about the polls and his campaign’s position ahead of November have been undercut from within, with several key advisers making personal entreaties to Trump in the past few weeks to try to convince him that he should not brush off the numbers, even unpleasant ones that comes from news organizations such as CNN.
“I have told the president that the numbers are real and that I believe he can and will win, but that right now it looks bad,” said a Republican who recently spoke to Trump. “He said, ‘Come on, don’t you know that’s all fake?’ But in a lot of these internal numbers [that I’ve seen], we’re way down right now.”
“Something needs to change,” the Trump ally added.
This person wasn’t the only one sounding the alarm over the past month. Two other sources who’ve spoken to the president lately—one of whom is a senior administration official—said that when the topic of polls came up they advised Trump that the surveys on swing states and key demographics seemed bleak. Both said they were concerned the president wasn’t taking them as seriously as they had wished.
Outside the campaign, a belief has grown that the Pollyannaish advisers surrounding the president—and who are feeding him news that won’t puncture his feel-good bubble—are doing a disservice to both their clients and their professions.
“There are a few pollsters who are bought and paid for, and they will tell you [the client] what you want to hear,” Frank Luntz, a famed-GOP pollster and Trump-skeptical conservative, said, without naming names. “There are pollsters [for whom] if the check is big enough, the lie will be big enough.”
“I don’t envy those who have to tell Donald Trump what he doesn’t want to hear,” Luntz continued. “I’ve met him several times, I’ve met Biden several times. I would rather present bad [polling] information to Biden than Donald Trump. Presenting bad information or tough information to Joe Biden, you’ll break his heart, if you present tough information to Donald Trump, he breaks your arm.”
But some Trump confidants are more willing to take the chance of harm than others. Late last month, David Bossie and Corey Lewandowski, two prominent informal advisers to the president, visited the White House to warn Trump that his electoral prospects were deteriorating in certain states crucial to securing a second term in office. Lewandowski, who also serves as a senior adviser to Trump 2020, has often second-guessed official campaign strategy, while whispering in the president’s ear that his current aides are failing him.
The Trump campaign counters that the surveys that have shown him trailing Biden do not account for the economic turn around that they believe is taking place, which the president and his allies have dubbed the “Great American Comeback.”
The campaign has also argued that their own secret polls give Trump the edge over a “defined” Joe Biden—a descriptor that is both unscientific and a concession that the campaign has so far failed to effectively define its opponent with just a few months left before election night.
When The Daily Beast reached out for comment on this story on Friday, the Trump campaign’s communications director Tim Murtaugh wrote back: “2016 proved that public polling is routinely wrong about President Trump, otherwise Hillary Clinton would be in the Oval Office right now. Our internal data consistently shows the President running strongly against a defined Joe Biden in all the states we track. And we know the President’s supporters are more enthusiastic than Biden’s. Trump supporters would run through a brick wall to vote for the President. Nobody is running through a brick wall for Joe Biden.”
But Trump’s approval rating on his handling of the coronavirus fallout has itself dipped dramatically in recent weeks. And there is no evidence that the pandemic is truly fading. And on top of that, Republican senators facing competitive reelection fights this year have been far less sanguine in their rhetoric on the economic fallout, suggesting they’ve opted for empathy rather than triumphalism. It’s not an enviable position, Luntz concedes. But it’s not yet fatal either.
“It’s not doomsday. We are too early in the election process. We never anticipated we would be where we are [today, even] two days ago,” Luntz stressed, citing the economic implosion, the coronavirus pandemic that has a U.S. death toll upwards of 100,000, and the mass protests following the police killing of George Floyd. “The changes in racial awareness and opinion is the story of a generation and we got all three of them happening at the same time. Nobody knows what’s going to happen in November. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next Friday. Everybody would be wise to just keep quiet.”