Today reinforced some of the developing storylines of the 2020 election.
Last night, at a rally in Michigan, Trump once again attacked Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer for locking down her state in the early days of the pandemic. When the crowd started to chant "Lock her up!" Trump responded: "Lock them all up!" Just ten days ago, the FBI arrested eight men plotting to kidnap Whitmer and put her on trial for "treason." Whitmer called Trump out for "inspiring and incentivizing and inciting this kind of domestic terrorism." She told NBC, "It is wrong. It's got to end. It is dangerous, not just for me and my family, but for public servants everywhere who are doing their jobs and trying to protect their fellow Americans. People of goodwill on both sides of the aisle need to step up and call this out and bring the heat down."
Lara Trump, who is married to Eric Trump and is a senior advisor to the Trump campaign, disagreed. She told CNN's Jake Tapper, "Well, look, he wasn't doing anything, I don't think, to provoke people to threaten this woman at all…. He was having fun at a Trump rally." The Trump campaign then insisted that a small "8645" emblem on a table beside Whitmer during her television interview was "encouraging assassination attempts" against Trump. (To "86" something is slang for getting rid of it.) While observers have noted Trump's use of gaslighting—making someone believe something that is not true—another abusive pattern is "DARVO," which stands for "Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender."
Today, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that political officials in the Trump administration have restricted his media appearances. He also explained that he now has federal protection because of threats to his life, and to his wife and children. "That's sad," he told Jonathan Lapook of CBS's "60 Minutes," "The very fact that a public health message to save lives triggers such venom and animosity to me that it results in real and credible threats to my life and my safety."
The editorial board of the New York Times today ran a special section of the Sunday Review to explain to readers in thirteen essays why Trump "is unfit to lead the nation." The essays cover his corruption, incompetent statesmanship, attacks on women and minorities, rejection of science, and so on. The editorial introducing the issue begins: "Donald Trump's re-election campaign poses the greatest threat to American democracy since World War II." What follows is a blistering litany of the actions of the man who is "without any real rivals as the worst American president in modern history," the editors say. He is conducting "an intolerable assault on the very foundations of the American experiment in government by the people." The editorial concludes: "Mr. Trump is a man of no integrity. He has repeatedly violated his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States…. Now, in this moment of peril, it falls to the American people — even those who would prefer a Republican president — to preserve, protect and defend the United States by voting."
More Republicans who have appeared to move in lockstep with the president are distancing themselves from him. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) needs independents to swing his way in a tight race with Democrat MJ Hegar, a retired Air Force combat pilot. On Friday, Cornyn told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Editorial Board that his relationship with Trump was "maybe like a lot of women who get married and think they're going to change their spouse, and that doesn't usually work out very well." Cornyn claims to have stood up to Trump, but privately.
In all this there is nothing really new.
But there is a story that might have new information in it.
Last Wednesday morning, October 14, the tabloid New York Post ran a complicated and unbelievable story about Hunter Biden dropping off three laptops at a repair store and never going back for them, the FBI subpoenaing hard drives, and the repair shop owner making copies before turning them over and then giving the copies to Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who gave them to the New York Post. Allegedly, the material on the laptops was incriminating.
The story was pretty transparently bogus from the start, especially since Giuliani has been hanging around with Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker who, according to the Treasury Department, is a longtime Russian agent. According to the Treasury, Derkach has been working to promote "false and unsubstantiated narratives concerning U.S. officials in the upcoming 2020 election." Giuliani was an eager listener.
Today, Katie Robertson at the New York Times reported that the New York Post article was so suspect that its lead author refused to put his name on it. The two main sources for the story were Stephen Bannon, Trump's former advisor who is under federal indictment for fraud, and Giuliani. Giuliani said he took the story to the Post because "either nobody else would take it, or if they took it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out." One woman whose name finally appeared on the story is a former associate producer for Sean Hannity's show and has been at the newspaper only since April. The other did not work on the story and only discovered her name was on it after it was published. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have all said they could not verify the story.
The startling new "revelations" about Hunter Biden mirror classic disinformation campaigns in Russia, and look a great deal like the last-minute "revelations" about Hillary Clinton's emails "discovered" on a laptop in Fall 2016, all of which later came to nothing. Former CIA officer Evan McMullin tweeted: "For weeks, there's been awareness in intel circles of Russian plans to return (with Trump) to their bogus Biden-Burisma narrative and, as I've warned, their plan to expand that to include bonkers pedophilia and human trafficking allegations against the Bidens. Don't fall for it!"
And yet, certain Republican lawmakers are running with the story. Republican Representative Lee Zeldin of New York tweeted that "Joe Needs to answer some questions ASAP about this dirty $ setup." Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) went onto the Fox News Channel to suggest that the computer at the center of this story, allegedly belonging to Hunter Biden, had child pornography on it. This prompted intelligence specialist Malcolm Nance to tweet: "Whoa. The Republicans tried to tie Hunter Biden to child pornography. This is a 100% FSB [Russian Intelligence Agency] tactic. The FSB ALWAYS claims/plants Child porn on their opponents."
For at least a year now, intelligence officers have warned us that Russia is interfering in this election, trying to swing it to Trump. Despite the fact that Trump's polling numbers are abysmal, our Electoral College system means that the swing of relatively few voters in key states could enable him to eke out a victory, just as he did in 2016. It is worth remembering that Trump's plan in 2020 has never been to win a majority; it has been to win by gaming the system. It seems to me also worth remembering that Trump has consistently refused either to criticize Russia or to acknowledge that Putin's agents are working to help him get reelected.
While many Trump campaign officials are already trying to blame each other for their candidate's apparent weakness, Trump and his loyalists remain adamant that he is going to win. They are allegedly taking names of those whom he considers insufficiently supportive. He is mad at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has rejected the president's plans for a coronavirus relief bill and who publicly criticized the White House approach to the pandemic. He has gone after Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) for her coolness toward Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, and Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) for his condemnation of the president in a phone call with constituents. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), who has made his dislike for Trump clear in recent statements, is also on the outs.
Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, says, "President Trump won in 2016 without the vocal support of the political insider crowd, and he's going to do it again. The President enjoys the support of over 90 percent of Republicans…."
It is certainly possible that the Trump campaign is putting a brave face on the terrible polls, but the ham-handed attempt to dump disinformation about the Bidens is an excellent reminder that foreign operatives have been trying to influence our elections since 2016, and they have not gone away.