Sen. Kamala Harris may be on the bottom of the Democratic presidential ticket, but President Donald Trump’s allies plan to portray her as far more than just a running mate. If Joe Biden prevails in November, the line from Team Trump will go, the California Democrat will effectively be the president of the United States.
It’s an extension of a line of attack against Biden that the Trump campaign has hammered for weeks: that he is incapable of governing and would effectively be a vessel for other interests in the Democratic Party to govern by proxy. In Harris, Trump allies say, Biden has selected a perfect foil to ramp up that line of attack.
“The playbook on Kamala is pretty simple,” a plugged-in Trumpworld source told The Daily Beast. “Right now the message on Biden—and it’s the first effective frame the campaign has sustained on Biden—is that he’s an empty shell for the radical left. Kamala Harris is a power-hungry politician. She comes across as ruthless. So it’s a believable frame that she’d be running the administration for empty shell Joe Biden.”
The source, who, like others, requested anonymity to speak candidly about Trump re-election strategy, acknowledged that the strategy will likely elicit cries of sexism from Biden, Harris, and other Democrats. But Trump’s political machine nonetheless sees it as both consistent with recent Biden messaging that they feel has been effective and a line of attack against Harris that Trump and his allies can make stick.
“Anything Trump says about her will be [portrayed as] sexist,” a former White House aide who worked closely with Trump’s political team told The Daily Beast. “That won’t determine the strategy and it shouldn’t.”
Sure enough, the Trump campaign issued a statement moments after Harris was announced as Biden’s pick.
“Not long ago, Kamala Harris called Joe Biden a racist and asked for an apology she never received,” Trump campaign senior adviser Katrina Pierson said in a statement. “Clearly, Phony Kamala will abandon her own morals, as well as try to bury her record as a prosecutor, in order to appease the anti-police extremists controlling the Democrat Party.” In fact, Harris specifically said she was not calling Biden a racist in that first Democratic debate last year.
Despite the campaign’s use of “Phony Kamala” on Tuesday, President Trump is still workshopping “effective nicknames” for Biden’s now-announced running mate, a source with direct knowledge said.
Trump’s Twitter feed also blasted out a “Trump War Room” web video that bashed the Democratic VP selection as someone who started running in the 2020 primary by “rushing to the radical left,” and who later trashed Biden’s “racist policies” before primary voters decisively “rejected” her. The Team Trump video goes on to mock “Slow Joe” for not being “smart” enough to reject her, as well.
Trump, for his part on Tuesday, called Harris “nasty” during his daily press conference and rambled for several minutes about various parts of her record he didn’t like.
But it was her questioning of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the Senate Judiciary confirmation hearings that truly raised his ire.
“I thought she was the meanest, the most horrible, most disrespectful of anybody in the U.S. Senate,” he said.
Indeed, the tactic resembles some Democratic efforts to steer Biden away from selecting Harris as his running mate. Behind the scenes, some Biden allies told the campaign that they felt Harris was too “ambitious,” CNBC reported last month. Efforts by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) to encourage a VP pick other than Harris were interpreted in similar fashion.
The recriminations and allegations of sexism were loud enough to warrant public pushback from the Biden campaign. “Ambitious women make history, change the world, and win,” tweeted Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager. “Our campaign is full of ambitious women going all out for Joe Biden.”
The portrayal of Biden as an “empty shell,” as the other Trumpworld source put it, has largely fed an effort by the Trump campaign to portray Biden as in thrall to, and at the mercy of, more radical elements of the Democratic Party. Biden’s selection of Harris complicates that line of attack a bit. She’s considered more progressive than Biden, but not as far to the left as other 2020 Democratic contenders such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Nonetheless, in conversations prior to Biden’s announcement with three other individuals working on the Trump reelect, each conceded that whether it is Harris or anyone else on the shortlist, tagging Biden with the “radical left” label was going to be the pitch to voters in these final months regardless.
Even if Harris’ radicalism remains an elusive sell to voters, the tactic, Trump allies hope, will drive home their central line of attack against Biden: as one source put it, “he's not going to be running the country.” Indeed, Trump himself largely ignored Harris during her run for the Democratic presidential nomination, even as he frequently railed against rivals such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). When he did go after Harris, Trump was uncharacteristically mild in his criticism.
Some allies of the president and veterans of his political operation shrugged off the process entirely, suggesting the line of attack would hold no matter who was at the bottom of the ticket. “The VP pick matters much more the day before it’s made than it does the day after,” said Ed Brookover, who served as a senior Trump adviser during the 2016 campaign. “It’s always about the presidential nominees... The differences between the potential selections is very narrow.”