Donald Trump’s 2020 masterplan to take on both Democrats and Republicans

PUBLISHED: 10:49 21 September 2017 | UPDATED: 11:01 21 September 2017

President Donald Trump. Photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

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Paul Connew on Donald Trump’s re-election masterplan.

Irma and Harvey aren’t the only hurricanes to have traumatised America lately. There’s Hurricane Donald, too. A different kind of hurricane that only devastates the minds of Capitol Hill politicians and leaves bemused citizens with a wary eye on the democratic climate and posing the same question as surviving victims of Irma and Harvey: ‘What the hell is going on?’

Just like Irma and Harvey, Hurricane Donald is unpredictable, with a tendency to suddenly and violently change course. In truth, meteorologists stand a better chance of accurately reading the likes of Irma and co than the political weather analysts trying to figure out the bewildering, buffeting course changes of Hurricane Donald and how it will reshape the US’s political landscape when it finally blows out.

The answer to the ‘what the hell is going on?’ question doesn’t so much depend on Capitol Hill or even the White House as on a suite of offices in Trump Tower, New York, which houses the Donald Trump presidential campaign 2020, and is already well-staffed and raising millions of dollars.

It was registered as a fundraising operation with the US Federal Elections Commission the day after Trump’s inauguration ceremony on January 20. No previous POTUS has moved so quickly to set-up a re-election campaign machine. No previous POTUS, Republican or Democrat, has retained a separate campaign operation after his election. Instead they followed the tradition of selflessly merging it into their party’s official committee structure.

Senate minority leader Charles Schumer. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

The existence of Trump’s personal re-election campaign machine isn’t exactly a secret. It has already run some thinly-disguised national adverts, and those controversial campaign-style ‘Make America Great Again’ rallies – such as last month’s riot-scarred Phoenix event – operate as fundraising devices too.

But the campaign’s unusual existence has been somewhat eclipsed in both public awareness and media attention terms by the myriad of controversies such as Charlottesville, constant Twitter tsunamis, high-profile White House firings and the overarching issue of whether the ‘Russian Connection’ investigations, the sacking of FBI chief James Comey and the shadow of impeachment would terminate the Trump presidency in its first term.

Now the role of that Trump Tower re-election machine has taken on very special significance after the political hurricane that has rocked Washington over the last week or so.

Why? Because, according to sources, it is working on a sensational strategy that not only involves Trump’s determination to run again in 2020, but to run as an independent. Such an option is being worked on, it is said, as a “contingency planning strategy”, which has been under consideration for some time.

A more public indicator of a possible parting of the ways with the GOP came last week when the president unceremoniously snubbed the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill and struck a three-month deal with the Democrats to raise the US debt ceiling in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, to prevent a US government budget shutdown.

Not only that, but he turned to his beloved Twitter feed to laud ‘Chuck and Nancy’ (aka Charles Schumer, the Democrat minority leader in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi, Schumer’s counterpart in the House) and hint strongly at further future ‘co-operation’ with them. No matter that ‘Chuck and Nancy’ have been among Trump’s fiercest critics; no matter that they’ve both been frequent targets of POTUS’s venomous vendettas on Twitter. Such are the vagaries of Hurricane Donald.

To add to the intrigue, POTUS also took to Twitter to mock top Republican figures, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and the Republican majority leader in the Senate Mitch McConnell, who had opposed the deal. “Republicans, sorry”, ran one tweet, as if Trump was no longer a Republican POTUS, with the particularly damaging dig that the party’s leaders had a “death wish”.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/SIPA USA/PA

The president also pointedly repeated blaming them for the failures to progress any major policy targets (including Obamacare repeal) during the first eight months of his presidency and challenged them to ensure his controversial tax reform package doesn’t meet the same fate. The Republican Party hierarchy seem shell-shocked by Trump’s action. Perhaps they shouldn’t be. After all, this was (again) the ultimate narcissist, maverick POTUS doing his own thing and relishing triggering the equivalent of a combined political hurricane and earthquake reverberating across Washington and beyond.

Worried about the prospect of losing control of the House or the Senate (or conceivably both) in next year’s mid-term elections, Republican leaders had considered their president’s falling poll ratings and divisive image as an Achilles heel. Now they’ve got another problem. Trump doesn’t seem to give a damn about the Republican Party’s fate, only his own – and if that involves governing around the Republican hierarchy and striking self-interested deals with the Democrats, then so be it.

Until now, the Capitol Hill gossip had centred on whether the Republicans could afford to go into the 2020 presidential election with Trump as their candidate (assuming he wasn’t facing impeachment anyway) or needed to find a way to ditch him and run a more mainstream alternative.

US political history shows that parties divided over supporting a president running for re-election fare badly at the polls, but some Republican leaders were convinced the dangers of Trump represented the electoral necessity of trying to prove the exception to that rule.

Paradoxically, it is the president who now thinks he’s the exception to that rule. In conjunction with his Trump Tower re-election team, he’s actively exploring dumping the Republican Party and running on an independent ticket that will be tailored to both appeal to his core right wing support base and blue-collar Democrat voters disillusioned with their own party’s problems and divisions and the political establishment generally.

An impossible trick to pull off? Not in the mind of a POTUS with Trump’s ego. It’s no surprise either, perhaps, that, to the dismay of White House chief of staff General John Kelly, Trump is back in touch privately with his ousted former strategy chief, Steve Bannon. While Bannon, restored to the helm of the alt- right bible Breitbart News, is concentrating his heavily-financed fire on the Republican establishment and not the president who sanctioned his sacking only a few weeks ago. If Trump does go-ahead with a 2020 White House run as an independent, the smart money would be on Bannon, who masterminded his 2016 ‘America First’ upset victory, again playing a pivotal role.

But it is isn’t just Breitbart who have welcomed Trump’s recent willingness to humiliate the Republican party leadership and strike pragmatic deals with the Democrats. Ned Ryun, a Trump supporter who runs American Majority, an organisation which has trained Republican party activists, told the New York Times: “I never viewed Trump as a strict adherent to Republicanism. He gave Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell almost nine months to get something accomplished, and all they accomplished was to really remove all doubts about their legislative incompetence.”

As one former senior Trump campaign aide, speaking anonymously, put it this week: “Is Donald a Republican loyalist? NO, in capital letters. He’s a Trump loyalist and a master opportunist who decided the Republican ticket was the right ticket to ride at the time in question. But if he decides it’s no longer the right ticket, then he’s perfectly capable of reverting to his TV Apprentice persona and telling them ‘You’re Fired!’… especially if he thinks they’re already plotting to try and fire him anyway.”

It’s worth remembering here that The Donald’s first flirtation with the dream of occupying the White House dates back to 2000 when he considered running for the Reform Party, a political refuge for disillusioned independents.

The party was the leftover from eccentric billionaire Ross Perot’s two unsuccessful presidential bids during the preceding decade, although in 1992 Perot won 19% of the vote, the highest ever attained by a candidate outside the US’s two-party power system.

Before dropping out, Trump memorably declared (OK,feel free to laugh) he’d contemplated that 2000 run because “The Republican Party has moved too far to the extreme right and the Democrats are too far to the left”.

In total, Trump, nothing if not a political chameleon as well as an arch-opportunist, has switched party allegiance five times. Once, famously, declaring: “I’m the Lone Ranger”. He was a staunch supporter of Ronald Reagan’s Republican presidency but spent George W Bush’s as a registered Democrat who later donated funds to Bill Clinton’s campaign, before then defeating Hillary Clinton and fulfilling his White House dream on a right-wing, anti-immigrant, ‘America First’ (and arguably Putin-backed) platform.

In the past, incidentally, Trump also donated to election campaigns for both Schumer and Pelosi, the two most powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill. Fellow New Yorker Schumer, meanwhile, is being touted in some quarters as a potential Democrat presidential candidate for 2020. But his prospects probably weren’t enhanced this week by social media re-tweets of an old Trump tweet hailing ‘Schumer’s intellect’ and declaring how well The Donald gets on with him.

As one senior Republican powerbroker privately but pointedly put it this week: “History says no independent has succeeded where Ross Perot and others failed in becoming president. Maybe history is wrong after all. It’s becoming clear that Donald Trump isn’t truly a Republican at all, but the all-about-me POTUS, the leader of the Trump party, nothing more, nothing less.”

But if Trump’s deal with the Democrat leadership on Capitol Hill has thrown the Republicans into disarray, it poses massive questions ahead for the Democrats, too.

The initial euphoria over persuading Trump to back their argument over the debt ceiling and immediate Hurricane Harvey relief funding was understandable. Not least because it humiliated the Republican leadership in the full glare of media focus.

But how to react to Trump’s hint of further ‘collaboration’ on the horizon? Pelosi has defended the pragmatism involved, saying: “I make no apology for doing that with the person who is going to sign the bill. It gives you great leverage.”

To her credit, it’s also true that Pelosi persuaded Trump to tweet reassuringly to the 800,000 ‘Dreamers’, the children of mainly-Hispanic undocumented immigrants who last week faced the nightmare of potential deportation, despite growing up in America, being educated and forging careers there, including serving in the US military. (Ironically, one of the Houston flood rescuers hailed as ‘heroes’ by the president and who then died saving others, himself turned out to be a ‘Dreamer’.) Pelosi may well be right in gambling that Trump – who backed a Republican policy championing scrapping the program which guarantees the ‘Dreamers’ work permits – could be tempted to reverse his support before its enforcement, due in six months.

Certainly, it was significant that the president (known to be less than enthusiastic about the ‘Dreamers’ crackdown) sent its most prominent supporter, his immigration hardliner Attorney General Jeff Sessions onto the stage to announce the decision rather than do it himself. The Republican hierarchy is itself divided on the issue, and Sessions and other backers of the policy are privately bracing themselves for a potential Trump U-turn.

Nevertheless, the real problem for the Democrats is that a Trump U-turn on the ‘Dreamers’ wouldn’t signal a softening on other aspects of his anti-migrant strategy, including his much-trumpeted ‘Mexican Wall’ funding call. And a considerable number of Democrat lawmakers and activists haven’t been slow, publicly and privately, to warn of the dangers of dealing with a president who epitomises the opposite of everything they stand for on race, immigration, the environment, the economy and international affairs.

Above all, critical Democrats fear that building bridges to Trump, even on key issues, could divide the party disastrously ahead of the mid-term elections and undermine efforts to wrestle back the Republicans’ grip on both Houses.

Playing into those fears is the recognition that the Democrats are themselves bedevilled by ideological divisions, competing power blocs and the absence of a clear policy platform or obvious unifying presidential front-runner for 2020.

Party strategists weren’t amused either by the timing of leaks from Hillary Clinton’s memoir of last year’s presidential campaign memoir, aptly titled What Happened. The book takes swipes at, among others, Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party hierarchy and FBI chief James Comey who cops particular blame for her defeat.

A sure sign of the Democrats’ own problems came when Sanders took to CBS’s Late Show programme to witheringly tell host Stephen Colbert: “Look, you know, Secretary Clinton ran against the most unpopular candidate in the history of this country, and she lost. And she was upset by that, I understand that.” OUCH! was the dominant social media reaction to Sanders’ piercingly-placed verbal stiletto.

Among Democrat strategists, there is a view that Sanders himself, despite his age, may well run again in 2020, but that he will not win back the Rust Belt states that went to Trump last year. One said: “We badly need to get the young, left-wing voters [Sanders] inspired on board with the more traditional, older support base to secure the White House and that will require a charismatic, broad-appeal candidate.”

Trump’s attempts to divide the Democrats – while at the same time dividing the Republicans – make this more difficult to achieve, and make the prospect of an independent re-election campaign more feasible.

As the Democrat strategist put it: “Even having one foot in the same camp as Trump won’t help get the Sanders supporters on board. We mustn’t forget that Trump’s ghost-written autobiography was titled The Art of The Deal… and the art of him doing deals with us will be primarily be all about benefiting him in 2020, whether he runs as a Republican or an independent, and seeking to divide us to maximum effect.”

Trump has managed to inspire equal unease in both parties, a point summed up well by Connecticut congressman John Larson, a Democrat. “This president is completely transactional. He’s not wed to them, he’s not wed to us, he’s only wed to himself and whatever his agenda and self-interest dictates at the time.”

In these strange days, only one outcome seems predictable.

Even the massive challenge of clearing up the devastation Hurricanes Irma and Harvey wrought on could prove quicker and simpler than the continuing chaos Hurricane Donald is bringing right across the whole political map of America.

Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, author and former Sunday Mirror editor

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