With their boss growing increasingly agitated with the state of his re-election campaign and with the efforts of Republican critics to undermine it, President Donald Trump’s team hatched a plan. They’d run a series of hard-hitting ads and place them on networks that they knew the president and congressional Republicans would watch.
And so, over the past month, the Trump campaign has spent slightly more than $400,000 on cable news ads in the Washington, D.C., area, buying time largely on Fox News but with some smaller buys on CNN and MSNBC as well, according to filings with the Federal Communications Commission. The ads began running in late May and are scheduled through June 23. It is, on a purely electoral level, a remarkably quixotic use of campaign cash. The purchases have no real shot of moving D.C., Maryland, or Virginia into the Trump column.
But that wasn’t the point. The Trump campaign said the ad buys were an attempt to reinvigorate and reassure the president’s supporters in the nation’s capital. “We want members of Congress and our DC-based surrogates to see the ads so they know our strong arguments for President Trump and against Joe Biden,” wrote Tim Murtaugh, the campaign’s communications director, in an email on Monday.
But two knowledgeable sources—one a Trump campaign adviser, the other an individual close to the president—said the D.C.-area ads had another purpose as well: to put the president himself at ease.
In recent weeks, Trump has grown visibly distraught at his prospects for re-election, with recent polling showing his standing in the race declining dramatically in the wake of a sustained coronavirus outbreak and resulting recession, and as demonstrators flood major cities to protest the police killing of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis last month. Things have gotten so bad that after CNN came out with a survey on Monday showing Trump trailing Biden by 14 points, Trump’s campaign’s pollster crafted a memo—subsequently posted to the president’s Twitter account—accusing presidential pollsters of a deliberate effort to “counter the enthusiasm of Trump voters.”
With Trump stuck in that milieu of anxiety, his re-election team is hoping that the ads may put him at ease that his formidable political machine is hard at work defending him and attacking his enemies. Trump is a voracious consumer of cable news, and—the thinking goes—is likely to see the spots pop up between segments of his favorite shows.
These sources also said the campaign is hoping to counter-program recent ads by critics that have driven the president to public outbursts. The ads in question were the work of the Lincoln Project, a super PAC run by a group of dissident conservatives, and elicited furious reactions from the president’s Twitter feed. The Lincoln Project aired a recent, hard-hitting ad called “Mourning in America” on Fox News in the D.C. media market with the explicit goal of getting the president’s attention.
“[The] so-called Lincoln Project is a disgrace to Honest Abe,” the president wrote in a series of aggrieved late-night tweets posted early last month. “I don’t know what Kellyanne did to her deranged loser of a husband, Moonface, but it must have been really bad.”
That spate of angry Trump tweets came early in the morning on May 5. The “Mourning in America” ad ran for another week. According to FCC filings, the Trump campaign began airing its rejoinder on DC-area cable news programs on May 27. It was not immediately clear which ads the campaign was airing, but on the same day, the campaign unveiled a spot that dubbed Trump “a bull in a China shop.” It also began buying airtime on Friday for a new ad hying unemployment numbers released last week.
The Lincoln Project represents a limited constituency, given that President Trump has received exceedingly high approval numbers among Republicans in poll after poll. But the group and its D.C.-targeted messages have managed to get under the president’s skin. And according to George Conway, a Lincoln Project co-founder and the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, the group got the idea from the Trump campaign, and specifically from Brad Parscale, the former top Trump digital aide who now runs the president’s re-election effort.
“[H]is people had bought ads in the District of Columbia—which you don't do in a presidential election! There are no persuadable voters in the District of Columbia,” Conway said in a May interview with The Daily Beast podcast The New Abnormal, co-hosted by his fellow Lincoln Project founder Rick Wilson.
“That stuck in my mind,” Conway recalled. “I was thinking, ‘Well, why can’t you just run an ad on the cable provider for the White House, so that some certain individual would see it?’”