Last week, President Trump broke precedent, if not the law, by staging his convention at the White House. “The fact is, I am here,” he announced, gesturing at the White House behind him. “What is the name of that building?”
This moment was not merely pregnant with symbolism. It was the blueprint for a pillar of Trump’s reelection strategy, which is to turn the federal government into an apparatus for his reelection campaign.
There has been a flurry of recent reports on new and unprecedented government activity. All of these developments follow the same theme.
Intelligence director limits election-security briefings.
On Friday, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, an administration loyalist who has echoed the president’s conspiratorial views, announced it would end the traditional briefings to Congress on election security. Instead, it would give only written briefs, which prevent Congress from asking questions or pushing back.
The context for this change is important. Russia is continuing active measures to help support Trump’s reelection. The most visible of these measures is that its proxy agents are pumping distorted or one-sided recordings of Joe Biden to pro-Trump figures, which have been disseminated by both Trump and his allied media sources, to further a false narrative of corruption. A report by the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee last year found, even more alarmingly, that Russian hackers probed online weaknesses in election infrastructure in all 50 states.
It is far from certain that any such hacking attempt will actually materialize this year. But what is clear is that Russia remains the most active foreign election-security threat.
Ratcliffe is instead promoting Trump’s narrative that China poses the greatest threat. “When we talk about malign foreign influence, multiple countries are engaged, but none at the level China is,” Ratcliffe told Fox News on Sunday. He insisted that he was curtailing intelligence briefings because Democrats had “leaked classified information for political purposes, to create a narrative that simply isn’t true, that somehow Russia is a greater national security threat than China.”
Of course, whether China or Russia poses a greater national security threat is a matter of opinion. It’s certainly plausible to defend Trump’s position that China is a more important adversary. But Ratcliffe is using that to obscure the fact that Russia poses a more important election-security threat, according to both the administration’s own intelligence and a bipartisan Senate report.
Trump is mailing out Trump bucks before the election.
Earlier this summer, negotiations over budget stimulus broke down, mainly due to internal Republican disagreements — some Republicans want fiscal stimulus, others don’t, and Trump is most keen on a payroll-tax suspension that has little support in either party. Trump announced he was breaking off negotiations and unilaterally extending unemployment benefits and halting collection of the payroll tax.
At first the measure appeared completely moribund. But the government is working around the limits, at least partially. Forty states have signed up for a limited extension of unemployment benefits, which will begin reaching workers early this month, and run through October. While the economic value of the payments is small, it is optimized to deliver its biggest punch in the run-up to the election.
Trump’s payroll-tax suspension has fared more poorly. Businesses have largely held off on participating, due to concerns that if they withhold collections now, they may be stuck with a huge bill next year. But Trump has devised a partial workaround to this obstacle, too: The federal government will suspend payroll taxes for its employees, the administration announced yesterday.
Federal workers are not happy about this plan, which will give them a bigger paycheck this fall, only to load up a gigantic tax burden in January. But for Trump’s purposes, it works very nicely. Employees will get a big raise in the weeks leading up to the election.
FDA might release a vaccine early.
Trump has been pressuring the Food and Drug Administration to accelerate therapies and vaccines. The pattern is that he attacks the agency as a tool of the “deep state,” and pressures its administrators to submit to his political agenda:
This of course is Trump’s familiar projection at work. He assumes FDA scientists could only be motivated by political considerations, because Trump is only motivated by political considerations.
FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn gives every sign of submitting to Trump’s pressure. Last week, the agency cooperated with a splashy announcement that it was authorizing blood plasma treatments, despite insufficient evidence of their efficacy. Sunday, Hahn told the Financial Times he might approve emergency usage of the Oxford vaccine before it had completed its phase three trials. This could open the door to a Trump vaccine announcement in October, allowing him to benefit from the appearance that the pandemic is about to disappear, even if reality does not match the promise.
Anthony Fauci quickly warned that a premature vaccine release could prove counterproductive. But for Trump’s purposes, the perception of solving the crisis before the election, followed by a cold splash of reality after, would suit him perfectly.
HHS unveils an election slush fund.
Politico has obtained a Health and Human Services contract for $250 million to communications firms to promote the Trump administration’s message on the coronavirus. Spending money to promote public-health information is a completely legitimate use of taxpayer dollars. But spending money to make people feel good about the government is not.
In the context of a presidential campaign, $250 million is a lot of money.
And the administration’s plan seems almost indistinguishable from a generalized campaign message. “By harnessing the power of traditional, digital and social media, the sports and entertainment industries, public health associations, and other creative partners to deliver important public health and economic information the administration can defeat despair, inspire hope and achieve national recovery,” the document instructs.
This is not spending to promote sound public-health behavior. (Trump himself has undermined this guidance since the beginning of the pandemic.) It is spending to make people feel good about the status quo and make them believe that a national recovery is underway.
A federal task force is combating “left-wing terrorism.”
At his press conference yesterday, Trump announced a joint Justice Department–Homeland Security task force to “investigate violent left-wing civil unrest.”
Of course there is some civil unrest. But its scale, confined to small sections of a couple cities, has been massively exaggerated by Trump and his media allies. Much more troubling is the fact that, while violence has been stoked by extremists at both ends of the political spectrum, Trump is identifying the perpetrators entirely with the left. In his press conference yesterday, he defended an armed gunman who is being charged with murder in Kenosha, and insisted that Trump fans who drove through Portland firing paintballs at demonstrators were merely defending themselves.
Trump’s unhinged rhetoric would just be a Trump problem, were it not for the fact that the government appears to be following his lead. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told Tucker Carlson last night he is “working” on a plan to arrest leaders of Black Lives Matter, who he claims are instigating a violent plot. Trump’s Homeland Security officials have already ignored or downplayed threats involving right-wing terrorism, which has resulted in a number of deadly shootings.
It’s common for Trump to announce a measure that sounds terrifyingly authoritarian, only for the scheme to bog down in the bureaucracy and amount to little. Wolf and Barr may or may not have a workable scheme to crack down on Black Lives Matter while leaving armed right-wing goons unmolested. At minimum, they are using federal law enforcement as a platform to disseminate Trump’s propaganda message that violent threats are coming exclusively from the left.
Events are moving quickly, and we do not have perfect information about what all this means. It may add up to less than what it appears at the moment. Many times before, career officials or even political appointees have reeled back Trump’s most corrupt or dangerous orders.
But there is a pattern in all these events: They describe recent actions by the federal government; they all serve the purpose of enabling Trump’s election; and they all conscript the power of the federal government in novel ways.
It has the appearance of coordinated action — as if Trump has ordered every arm of the government to generate whatever tools can be placed at the disposal of his reelection.