Over the past few weeks, Donald Trump and his allies have kept close tabs on prominent conservatives the president believes are gearing up to throw him under the bus in the event he loses his bid for re-election.
Two individuals who have spoken to Trump say the president has expressed suspicion that members of his own party believe he will be defeated by Joe Biden. That sense of paranoia has been fed by the president’s aides and confidants, who have flagged news coverage for him of Republican politicians either openly criticizing his conduct or else trying to distance themselves from a looming possible electoral bloodbath.
According to one of the sources with direct knowledge, the president is already contemplating retribution.
“[The president] said something to the effect of: If you’re backing away from him now, don’t bother coming back for a favor when he wins,” the other source said. “He made a comment about how there are some people out there who you can only count on when things are going your way.”
Some of the coverage that has been bookmarked for Trump includes recent stories on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has not only split with the president on coronavirus-related stimulus legislation but made a point of saying he hadn’t been to the White House in weeks because of its cavalier approach to the pandemic.
Trump’s frictions with Republican senators don’t stop there. This past week, the president attacked Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) on Twitter over “a nasty rumor” that she was going to oppose his Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. He said of the endangered incumbent: “Not worth the work!”
The slight was met with sighs among Trump strategists, who noted that it was utterly unnecessary: He already has enough votes for Barrett’s confirmation.
Beyond that, there is strong suspicion within Trump’s inner sanctum that Sen. Ben Sasse’s (R-NE) office leaked the contents of a call he held with constituents in which he chastised the president for embracing dictators and not condemning conspiracists. Trump’s anger with the call boiled over on Saturday with yet another Twitter attack.
Then there’s Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), who has put out two recent statements targeting what he describes as a corrosive turn in national politics. Notable in those statements was condemnation for Trump and little in the way of criticism for Biden.
“You hate to see it, but having been on Capitol Hill, one great way to get attention is to speak against your own party,” said former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), who has for years served as an official Trump surrogate. “Ben Sasse is an intelligent guy and I’m sorry he’s decided this is the time to bolt, [but] I don’t know how it helps swing-state [Republicans] either…But you still don’t see the ideological people breaking. If Ralph Reed said, ‘OK, I’m out of here,’ that would be different.”
Still, those signaling that they’re ready to jump ship do include some major players in conservative politics. One of the president’s most powerful and influential confidants, billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch, has been telling associates he thinks Biden will win in a landslide, as The Daily Beast reported last week. Murdoch specifically said he had been repelled by the president’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis.
Sources familiar with the situation say Trump and Murdoch have not talked in several weeks. A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on this story, but Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said in a statement: “President Trump won in 2016 without the vocal support of the political insider crowd, and he’s going to do it again. The President enjoys the support of over 90 percent of Republicans, and our rally data shows that about a quarter of rally registrants are not even registered as Republicans.”
But the knives are out, and not just for perceived turncoats. Within the broad universe of GOP operatives working to re-elect the president, the blame game has already begun. One senior Republican official who has consulted with the campaign said that while staff were still confident the president could win, they were also increasingly alarmed by what the official described as the “gross incompetence with how things were being spent.”
“I think there is a reality where this is what happens in a campaign. This is the point where people start to figure out who takes the fault,” the official said. Asked who would take that fault, the source added: “There is no question that [former campaign manager] Brad [Parscale] will take a large part of it, because that is easy. But anyone with a brain who looks back at this will point to Jared [Kushner]. Jared can’t be both the mastermind and blameless.”
Inside broader GOP circles, a bit of cold realism has taken hold about Trump’s prospects. Few, if any, are pollyannaish. The optimism that does remain is tied to two features of the race: that the president faced a similar skepticism (including from within his own party) four years ago and still won; and that this go around, the Trump campaign has invested substantially more in voter turnout than he did in 2016.
“He’s not winning, but there’s always been a sense that he was in this position in , that it will tighten, and that we have this ground game that will put us over the top,” said a GOP official involved in the re-election effort.
But even that official conceded the limits of the spin. “A ground game is a field goal in a close game,” the official said. “It’s not three touchdowns.”
Among Republican operatives, there has been an expectation that Trump’s polling deficit with Biden would close as the election neared. That tightening has not happened as quickly as they’d hoped, and among the explanations for it are the president’s combustible debate performance, his personal infection with a virus he has downplayed, and the fact that he’s been outspent on the airwaves.
There’s also a growing consensus among the GOP consulting class that Trump has lost some of the political instincts that made him both unorthodox and effective in 2016. Back then, Trump closed the campaign by largely keeping to script, doing rallies, and posting only mundane tweets. This go-around, he’s embraced wilder conspiracies—such as the Osama bin Laden raid being staged—and put up more Facebook ads attacking Hillary Clinton than going after Biden on trade.
“I guess it’s difficult when you’re in the White House, but it’s different than 2016,” the GOP official said. “They just have no message discipline. It’s totally off the rails all the time.”