US President Donald Trump in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on July 21, 2020, in Washington, the US. Picture; AFP/JIM WATSON
US President Donald Trump in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on July 21, 2020, in Washington, the US. Picture; AFP/JIM WATSON

Washington — Donald Trump has a message for voters who are concerned about his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, policing in the US and China trade policy: Joe Biden would make everything worse.

Trump and his allies have attacked Biden on television, social media and even from the White House Rose Garden as a left-wing radical who would ruin the country. But as Trump’s approval ratings plunge over his handling of the virus, the economy and race relations, his team is trying to pin Biden as a failure on those same issues.

Biden will leave the economy in ruins, won’t improve life for African Americans and doesn’t have the mental capacity to be president, Trump says.

In an interview with Fox’s Chris Wallace on Sunday, Trump said Biden didn’t have the mental stamina to withstand an hour-long interview and boasted that the former vice-president couldn’t pass the cognitive ability test that Trump said he had passed. Wallace noted that the test was rather easy.

At a Rose Garden appearance last week to announce actions against China for infringing on Hong Kong’s autonomy, Trump focused the majority of his remarks on Biden — not just for the Obama administration’s China policy but on domestic policy, the virus, the economy, even his son, Hunter Biden’s, work overseas.

“That comes from the classic attack playbook of accuse your opponent of what you’ve done, as a way to neutralise it,” said Republican consultant Doug Heye, a frequent Trump critic. “We’ve really never seen it on this level.”

Trump campaign spokesperson Ken Farnaso defended the approach, saying Biden “has welcomed a scrutinous examination of his nearly five-decade long failed record”.

“This election will be a binary decision between freedom and socialism,” Farnaso said in a statement. “President Trump has done more for Americans in three years than Joe Biden has done in his whole life.”

Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster unaffiliated with the Trump campaign, says the president doesn’t have to convince voters that everything he says about Biden is true, strictly speaking, but can tarnish his rival if he can “just muddy the water some”, bringing Biden on par with Trump’s own performance.

Last week, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany deflected a question about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic by talking about the Obama administration’s response to the 2009 swine flu outbreak, which was far less deadly and disruptive.

“We didn’t pause testing. The Obama-Biden administration did,” McEnany said. “And that was a shameful decision.”

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped reporting individual cases in July 2009, it did not stop testing. From May 2009 to September 2009, the US shipped one-million tests to 120 domestic and 250 international laboratories, according to a CDC summary report on its H1N1 response. The CDC estimates 12,469 people died from H1N1 between April 12 2009 and April 10 2010. By comparison, Covid-19 has killed more than 141,000 people in the US.

Mental health

Trump has long weathered questions about his physical and mental health. He famously declared himself a “very stable genius” after author Michael Wolff published a book in 2018 alleging that several Trump advisers consider him unfit for office.

But the issue flared again recently when Trump appeared to have difficulty descending a ramp after delivering a commencement speech at West Point. And then his estranged niece, Mary Trump — a psychologist — published a tell-all memoir of the family and claimed that the president was emotionally and psychologically unstable.

Trump, 74, has responded by leveling similar claims against Biden, 77. Trump told Wallace that Biden “can’t put two sentences together,” but stopped short when Wallace asked if he believed the Democratic nominee is senile.

When asked how crushing it would be if he lost in November, Trump said Biden is “mentally shot” and couldn’t sit through the same kind of interview.

‘Mommy, Mommy’

“He’ll be on the ground crying for mommy. He’ll say mommy, mommy, please take me home,” Trump said.

At the same time, historic job losses caused by the pandemic have robbed Trump of his ability to run on the economy. The president and his supporters have taken to attacking Biden’s support for increased taxes and stronger regulations.

Trump said on July 2 that a Biden victory in November could result in a “1929 situation,” referring to the market crash that preceded the Great Depression.

But polls show a growing number of Americans now favour Biden as a better steward of the US economy, after unemployment surged to 14.7% in April — a figure not seen since the Depression.

Since he first ran for the presidency, Trump has faced criticism that his comments on race fan the nation’s oldest divide rather than heal it. Those critiques have become even more pointed since George Floyd’s death in police custody set off nationwide protests.

Trump embraced police reform in the days following Floyd’s death, arguing falsely that President Barack Obama and Biden did nothing to address the issue during their time in the White House. Trump tweeted on June 3 that Biden set back black Americans “big time” with his work in the senate on a 1994 crime bill that imposed lengthy sentences on nonviolent drug offenders.

‘Muddy the water’

But Trump more recently has sought to tie Biden to efforts to defund the police, even though the former vice-president has not endorsed the idea of abolishing law enforcement agencies.

Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates said Trump has become “even more desperate” as his approval ratings drop.

“Now, whenever Donald Trump opens his mouth about Joe Biden, voters know he’s advertising his own weakness — and it only serves to remind them of why they are yearning for new leadership,” Bates said in a statement.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Sunday showed that 34% of Americans trust Trump more than Biden to handle the pandemic, down 11 percentage points since late March. The survey also showed 33% trusted Trump more to handle race relations.

“We think we can punch him and people will leave him. You can punch Trump and he’ll hit you back,” said John McLaughlin, a pollster for the Trump campaign.

Deflecting attention onto his opponents is a tactic Trump has long employed. He has accused Obama, Biden and Democrats who led his impeachment inquiry of “treason.” After the “Access Hollywood” tapes in 2016 revealed Trump describing how he groped women, Trump planted in the audience of a debate with Hillary Clinton, three women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct.

Biden, meanwhile, has remained based at his Delaware home and kept a limited campaign schedule, while the country’s attention largely remains fixed on the pandemic and Trump.

“It’s a referendum on his handling of this and everything else,” Heye said of Trump’s response to the pandemic. “I think part of why they’re doing this is trying to test what can get Biden off of his game.”



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