President Donald Trump won in 2016 in part by branding Hillary Clinton as “crooked” and talking obsessively about her use of a private email server for State Department business. The press couldn’t quit the story.
Now Trump’s trying to do the same thing with Joe Biden. In a full-out media assault in recent days, the president and his allies have framed a potential abuse of executive power in Ukraine as more about Biden than Trump. It’s an early preview of the 2020 infowar, and the question is whether the press will once again play ball.
“If the last 72 hours is any indication, the media is going to be completely prone to repeating its errors from 2016,” Brian Fallon, press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, told VICE News on Monday. “For them, there’s more quote-unquote ‘upside’ in getting a scalp from Joe Biden than there is in providing the umpteenth reason why Trump is unfit to be president.”
Trump admitted he talked to the newly-elected Ukrainian president about Biden this summer, and the Washington Post reported that Trump ordered his staff to withhold nearly $400 million in funding to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden's son Hunter's involvement on the board of a Ukraine oil and gas company.
There’s no evidence suggesting Hunter Biden broke any laws. But instead of avoiding the story, which is renewing calls among Democrats for impeachment, Trump and his allies are repeatedly claiming corruption by Biden.
“If a Republican ever said what Joe Biden said, they’d be getting the electric chair by right now.”
“If a Republican ever did what Joe Biden did, if a Republican ever said what Joe Biden said, they’d be getting the electric chair by right now,” Trump said on Monday.
In explaining the withholding funds, Trump and his allies have framed it as looking out for American interests — not Biden — and the president’s media apparatus has launched into high gear to drive it home.
“It's very important to talk about corruption,” Trump said. “If you don't talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”
The pro-Trump internet has followed the president’s lead, pumping out content raising questions about Biden. Fox News hosts including Sean Hannity have closed ranks around the White House. And the administration deployed top aides to Sunday-morning shows to repeat the party line.
“This is the way in which the Republican Party’s working of the refs for the past 20 years has worked,” Fallon said.
The attention roiled the Biden campaign this weekend to the point that it sent out a missive to reporters linking to 18 separate articles debunking the allegations.
“We feel it is necessary to distribute this public information for those unfamiliar with this conspiracy theory, which has been comprehensively litigated in the press,” Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield wrote.
Yet Trump’s flood-the-zone media strategy pushed news outlets to litigate some more anyway. Rudy Giuliani suggested the president was doing his job in a bizarro CNN interview-turned weekend-long Twitter rant. Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin added that it “should be further investigated” in his own CNN interview Sunday. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to equate Biden’s unproven influence in Ukraine with Russian efforts to shake up the 2016 U.S. race.
“We know there was interference in the 2016 election,” Pompeo said on CBS Face the Nation. “And if it’s the case that there was something going on with the [vice] president or his family that caused a conflict of interest, and Vice President Biden behaved in a way that was inconsistent with the way leaders ought to operate, I think the American people deserve to know that.”
Some interviewers have challenged Trump aides on the merits of these claims, pointing out that the Trump family still does business around the world. But liberals fear that giving them airtime in the first place makes fact-checking difficult and adds to the confusion.
“It was Trump’s playbook with Clinton’s email, and the media fell for it,” Chris Lu, a deputy secretary of labor in the Obama administration, said on Twitter.
Regardless of the framing, the Trump campaign has woven this mainstream attention into its digital strategy. New York Times reporter Ken Vogel told MSNBC on Friday that “there is a story here. We’ve told some of it. There is more to be told.” The comments drew venom from progressives stung by the Times’ saturation coverage of Clinton’s email server.
Soon afterward, Trump tweeted a supercut video featuring Vogel and complete with information on how to sign up for campaign alerts via text. It drew 36,000 retweets.
The Trump campaign has spent heavily to build out a large advertising and fundraising operation online. But supporters’ collective social media footprint extends far beyond its reach.
Just two mainstream media outlets cracked that list.
“BIDEN CRIME FAMILY!” added a top-performing Facebook post Sunday from Terrence K. Williams, a pro-Trump comedian that the president occasionally retweets. “Joe Biden thinks President Trump is afraid of losing but Biden ran Twice & lost, Trump ran once & won. Who else thinks Joe Biden should be investigated for threatening to cut foreign aid if Ukraine didn’t stop investigating his son. #InvestigateTheBidenFamily.”
These right-wing media figures, coupled with outside advocacy groups like Judicial Watch, breathed life into Clinton’s scandals throughout the course of the 2016. But Democrats don’t have a similar media apparatus of their own.
Fallon, who now focuses on reshaping the federal judiciary as head of the progressive group Demand Justice, said it puts 2020 campaigns in a conundrum if and when Trump goes on conspiratorial attacks.
“I really do think that if you engage with this day to day, if you just spend your morning conference calls trying to come up with a witty one-liner, or secure a cable appearance pushing back on this, it ends up being less than the sum of its parts,” he said. “The cumulative gain from those tactics doesn’t move the needle.”
Coming: US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, September 23, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)