The president hopes to shape the images — and psychology — of his would-be challengers just as he did to his 2016 GOP rivals. But some may welcome the attention.
“Crazy Bernie.” “Pocahontas.” “One Percent Biden.”
President Donald Trump, who humiliated his 2016 Republican opponents with sticky monikers like “Lyin Ted” Cruz, “Lil Marco” Rubio and “low energy” Jeb Bush, is already salting the earth for Democrats lining up to run in 2020.
Even as he stumps for Republican midterm candidates, Trump is increasingly training fire at his own potential Democratic opponents: assigning them nicknames and mocking them at rallies, handicapping their prospects — and even trying to reshape the Democratic field.
“They got some real beauties going,” Trump said at a Monday rally in Johnson City, Tenn., after slamming several potential Democratic contenders by name.
It’s an unusual approach: Sitting presidents rarely seek to play a spoiler role in the opposing party’s nominating contests. But Trump has never been deterred by historical codes of conduct.
“He is a man who charges into the arena and dictates the terms of the contest,” said Brian O. Walsh, president of the pro-Trump group America First Action. “I would expect the same in 2020 across the board.”
Trump considers himself the main attraction in the coming presidential contest — he has often talked about his 2016 campaign as a TV ratings smash — and believes he can wield the same verbal weapons he used to demolish rivals like Rubio and Bush against his would-be Democratic challengers, according to a half-dozen White House aides and outside advisers familiar with his thinking.
In Trump’s parlance, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who challenged Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries, is “Crazy Bernie.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is “Pocahontas,” a reference to a decades-old claim she made to partial Native-American heritage. And “One percent Biden” refers to former Vice President Joe Biden’s ill-fated bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
The early talk already has some Democrats contemplating runs guessing at how Trump will go after them: Two people close to 2020 Democrats who have yet to get a Trump nickname privately speculated to POLITICO about what he might come up with.
Trump allies — projecting buoyancy about a race the president approaches with historically weak approval ratings — say the bombast reflects his confidence: Trump privately claims to be unimpressed with the Democratic crop, calling its major figures grossly unprepared for prime time and too liberal for the general electorate. Aides and allies said they expect the smattering of public broadsides to pick up significantly after the midterms.
Stoking Trump’s interest is the gathering momentum on the Democratic side. Warren told a town hall this weekend that she plans to “take a hard look” at running for president after the midterm elections, Biden has conspicuously raised his public profile of late, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), is making high profile appearances in key primary states, along with using his Senate Judiciary post to jab at Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Since then Trump has mocked Booker several times, including twice at rallies and once in his Monday Rose Garden appearance to tout a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada.
“Take a look at Cory Booker. He ran Newark, New Jersey into the ground. He was a horrible mayor,” Trump said.
He followed up hours later at his rally in Tennessee, pointing to a column Booker wrote in college confessing that, as a 15-year-old in 1984, he groped a woman’s breast after they kissed on New Year’s Eve. “See some of the things he wrote when he was young about women,” Trump said.
Trump this summer defied New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to challenge him in 2020. “Oh, please do it. Please. Please,” Trump said at an August fundraiser, adding: “Anybody that runs against Trump suffers.”