What Donald Trump does when he feels cornered — whether it is the about the expanding scope of investigation into his presidential campaign’s potential connections with Russia, his failure to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health care reform or North Korea’s steady progress in developing its nuclear weapons capabilities — is always use the same strategy.
He denies that he has done anything wrong and then he goes into attack mode in a way that resonates with his core base of supporters. And at the same time, he succeeds in alienating most of the rest of the country.
“Get those Trump voters fired up and yelling and screaming their heads off and get the other 65 percent of the country screaming and yelling their heads off and everybody is so angry and disoriented,” is how Reed Galen, a Republican strategist and John McCain’s former deputy campaign manager, described the president’s modus operandi when he is under pressure.
In the current case, amid the ratcheting up of Special Counselor Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the presidential election and the Trump campaign’s possible connections with Moscow, the President went exactly by this trusted technique.
Deny and disparage
After the indictment of Trump’s former campaign manager became public, the president first tweeted in all capital letters “NO COLLUSION,” denying the charge that his campaign had colluded with Russia. He also, erroneously, stated that the charges against Manafort did not include the period when he was working for the Trump campaign.
And then he went into attack mode.
He disparaged former Trump campaign foreign policy aide George Papadopoulos, who was indicted and had cut a deal with federal prosecutors, by calling him a “liar” and a “young low level volunteer” known by “few people.” Never mind that Trump himself, in an editorial board meeting with the Washington Post in March 2016, had named Papadopoulos as one of his five foreign policy advisors, calling him an “excellent guy.”
“I think that the fact that something is a lie has never stopped him,” said Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer who teaches journalism at Columbia University.
“What Trump does when he feels threatened is to go on the offensive by whatever means necessary,” said Blair, who described the president’s mode of operation as an ongoing “conflict- seeking strategy.”
“Always go for the conflict, always go for some kind of aggressive, belligerent stance, whatever is going on ramp it up, because most people don’t like conflict, they don’t like bullying and they back off,” she said.
In the case of the Mueller indictments, Trump did not only attack his former campaign aide Papadopoulos, but he also went after Hillary Clinton and Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta, who stepped down as the head of his lobbying firm after coming under investigation in the Russia probe. Tony Podesta is the brother of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager.
“Try and drag in Hillary again, because that’s a pretty proven applause line with his base,” said Galen. “Bring in the so-called fake media that is also a well established applause line with his base.”
And that’s exactly what Trump did after Mueller’s indictments became public, when he claimed that what he calls the “fake news” were “working overtime” on the Manafort story, which according to Trump has no merit.
While Trump’s strategy of fomenting conflict and bullying worked for him during the campaign and was a significant factor in getting him elected president, the key question is whether it will continue to work for him in the White House — and amid a seemingly widening probe into the Trump campaign by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Neither Trump biographer Blair, nor Republican strategist Galen can answer that question. But what both agree on is that Trump can’t and won’t change his ways.
“That’s how he ran his business, that’s how he ran his campaign, that’s how he is running the White House and that’s what he would like to do internationally,” said Blair.
“Remember that this is a president who creates his own reality,” said Galen. “He believes he is the most successful president in the history of the republic and no one will convince him otherwise.”