ROSSLYN, Va. – Inside the Trump re-election campaign offices overlooking the Potomac River, a rapidly growing operation is confronting a challenge of historic proportions – how to run against a field of nearly two-dozen candidates, all of whom are hurling rhetorical bombs at the incumbent on a daily basis.
Communications Director Tim Murtaugh, whose job is to help shape that strategy, boils it down. The field, he says, is “one big socialist organism with 22 heads.”
It’s a message voters can expect to hear often as the Democratic primary field settles into place, with just a few more stragglers left to join. The Trump re-election team sees a target-rich environment emerging, especially with the rise in popularity of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and policies like “Medicare for All” and the “Green New Deal.” While stitching that counter-"socialist" theme into the fabric of their message, the campaign is now starting to hit back more at the ensemble cast of potential 2020 foes after waiting and watching for months.
“We see them as a homogenous group of socialists,” Kayleigh McEnany, the Trump campaign’s national press secretary, told Fox News during a recent visit to the Northern Virginia office.
For now, the Trump campaign says they are enjoying the advantage of incumbency: being able to spend the next 13 months raising money, staffing up and pushing their message that the other party has moved too far left while Democrats endure a bruising intra-party fight.
“We like the way the field – the whole landscape -- is shaping up,” Murtaugh said. “We’ve got this huge advantage of time and their whole messy primary process is going to -- at the end -- produce a socialist candidate for president.”
'One of the things that we’re very keen on doing is having every other Democrat answer for the inevitable extreme, completely out of left field statement that is made on a daily basis.'
But the campaign, and President Trump himself, have started selectively taking shots at the more prominent members of the field. When Bernie Sanders called for giving the Boston Marathon bomber voting rights, the campaign responded. The president also just assigned the rising Pete Buttigieg a nickname, mocking him as "Alfred E. Neuman" in reference to the goofy Mad magazine mascot. (Buttigieg took a swipe at their age gap in response, telling Politico: "I guess it’s just a generational thing. I didn’t get the reference.")
The Trump campaign hasn’t announced plans yet for how they will approach the upcoming Democratic debates – which kick off in Miami on June 26. But they suggested they may offer some kind of counter-programing, whether a rally or something else. “It’s safe to say we will be engaged,” McEnany said.
Democrats, for their part, have dismissed the efforts to portray the party's candidates as a socialist cabal. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez recently said on "Fox News Sunday": “This is one of the oldest tricks in the playbook. You go back 75 years, when Republicans don’t want to discuss the issues that matter to real people, they call it socialism.”
Brandon Gassaway, a spokesman for the DNC, said in a statement that Republicans "know they can’t compete in a policy debate, so they rely on tropes and misinformation."
"Whether it is the minimum wage, Social Security, or children's health insurance, Republicans have always cried 'socialism' in response to any proposal designed to expand opportunity for working people," he said. "Democrats will win in 2020 because our candidates are focused on the issues and identifying how to make sure everyone has a fair shot at success."
Hypothetical head-to-head polls, meanwhile, have shown Trump slightly trailing the two Democratic primary front-runners, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders. A Fox News poll in March, before the former vice president entered the race, showed Biden ahead of Trump by 7 points and Sanders ahead by 3 points. Not all Democratic candidates are polling ahead of the president: the same poll showed Trump topping both California Sen. Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren by 2 points.
But it's still early.
On the recent visit to Trump's suburban Washington campaign office, aides were seen busily typing on laptops and making phone calls. The campaign is still hiring, with plans to increase staff from about 40 to an unspecified but “sizeable” number, the campaign said. The bulk of staff will be out in the field, jointly with the Republican National Committee.
Many of the seats in the soon-to-be activated war room are yet to be filled, as the RNC, at this point, carries the load of candidate monitoring, opposition research and rapid response. But the campaign, busy highlighting controversial comments made by the entire field, will eventually integrate the RNC's war room into their own operation at the offices.
“We certainly keep tabs on all the Democratic contenders,” McEnany said. “One of the things that we’re very keen on doing is having every other Democrat answer for the inevitable extreme, completely out of left field statement that is made on a daily basis.”
“So when Bernie Sanders says, ‘let's let the Boston bomber vote’ we want to hear from every other Democratic candidate how they feel about that,” she said.
The Trump campaign signaled they are determined to push back on the portrayal of Biden, currently leading the field, as more centrist than his primary rivals, pointing to his comments this year that he has the “most progressive record” of anyone in the race.
“Purportedly that means more so than Bernie Sanders, his socialist peer,” McEnany said.
Though some Republicans -- like former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan -- have launched or considered an intra-party challenge to Trump, the campaign says they aren’t focused on primary rivals and are running a general election campaign.
“We are unmistakable in echoing the RNC that there is not a Republican primary going on right now,” McEnany said. “You look at this president, he has 93 approval among his own party.”
A major difference, the campaign notes, between this cycle and last cycle is its fundraising operation. They cite how establishment Republican types, like longtime bundler Jack Oliver, are now helping to raise money.
McEnany said the campaign will continue holding Trump rallies in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida. The campaign just announced one in Pennsylvania next week. But campaign manager Brad Parscale is also eying states won by Democrats in 2016 like Minnesota, New Mexico and Colorado as targets in 2020, she said.
'We’ve got this huge advantage of time and their whole messy primary process is going to -- at the end -- produce a socialist candidate for president.'
McEnany said the campaign doubts Democrats will make the same mistake they did in 2016 by not spending enough time in Midwestern states like Wisconsin, but argued even someone who might connect better with voters than Hillary Clinton will have to answer for manufacturing job losses during the Obama-Biden era. “You can put your feet on the ground you can pay lip service to these policies – but you have a record of failure,” she said. “One that is not going to sell to union workers.”
The campaign has room to grow. The operation rents the entire floor of a building in Rosslyn with views of the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Capitol and Arlington National Cemetery from staffers’ offices. The campaign says they still consider headquarters to be at Trump Tower in Manhattan, though the vast majority of the campaign operation will be in Rosslyn.
As for the re-election slogan, McEnany said the campaign will continue to use “Make America Great Again," even if re-tooled to something like “MAGA ’20.”
They still fundraise off the slogan: Under lock and key in the office of John Pence, a senior campaign staffer and nephew to Vice President Pence, is what the campaign says is the millionth red “MAGA” hat produced by the campaign since 2015. The campaign had Trump sign it, and plans to give it away as part of a contest.
“Everyone knows MAGA,” McEnany said. “Everyone knows the red hat.”