President Trump is running out the clock on his own re-election campaign.
For much of the Trump presidency, days and controversies have run together until they’ve become an indistinguishable blur: a bombshell revelation from a former aide, or a self-sabotaging news conference, canceling out the last one. Time has seemed to pass quickly or not at all, as the constant churn of scandals, resignations, tell-all books and racist or sexist tweets has created its own political ecosystem.
At times, the constant noise has helped Mr. Trump, who thrives on chaos and wants the spotlight always on himself, and he believes he has faced few consequences for it.
But with less than eight weeks left until the election, and with early voting beginning in some states this month, the number of days Mr. Trump can afford to burn is dwindling. He is trailing his Democratic rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr., in most national and battleground state polls, and is facing a potential cash crunch, leaving him with less to invest in television ads after aggressive spending over the last three years.
Nevertheless, Mr. Trump has spent the last week playing defense, first in the wake of a report that he referred to Americans who died in combat as “suckers” and “losers,” and then doing damage control after the release of excerpts from the veteran journalist Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage.”
“Even though the calendar says 54 days, it’s really more like 40 days,” Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican strategist and former adviser to Jeb Bush, said Thursday, with a nod to the early voting. “And so every day, Trump is burning the one thing he can’t create more of, which is time — which is a disaster for him.”
The race is not over, strategists in both parties warn: Mr. Biden is prone to verbal slips his own supporters have winced at, external events can still affect the campaign, and it’s difficult to predict what voter turnout will look like amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, the polling has shown that Mr. Biden’s lead is durable. And while the president craves his campaign rallies, and his travel schedule has been more intense than Mr. Biden’s, he generally does not like leaving the White House, multiple advisers said, making it harder to come up with events that can dominate the news.
Mr. Trump, Mr. Murphy said, cannot resist treating the campaign “like the tabloid news cycle in New York City and create a news story about himself every day.” As a result, he said, “Trump is giving Biden the greatest gift a candidate who is behind can give a candidate who is ahead, which is wasted days.”
That dynamic was apparent on Wednesday, when the White House was engulfed by news accounts of a forthcoming book by Mr. Woodward.
Instead of driving a message, or trying to cast attention on Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump’s aides were mostly paralyzed as they tried to respond to audio recordings of their boss speaking freely with Mr. Woodward, acknowledging he intentionally minimized the threat of the virus to avoid “a panic” and declaring the virus was “in the air” well before government officials said that publicly.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump announced a surprise news conference where he had nothing to announce. He entered the briefing room simply to reiterate false statements about the administration’s coronavirus response and defend himself, again, against revelations in Mr. Woodward’s book.
Mr. Trump often feels compelled to defend himself, but that almost always merely keeps a story alive. “I didn’t lie,” he said Thursday when asked to explain why he told Mr. Woodward the virus was “deadly stuff” and admitted it was more deadly than “even your strenuous flu” while telling the public the opposite. He also claimed that “everyone knew it was airborne” back in February.
The Woodward fiasco came after several days of Mr. Trump’s being consumed by another damaging narrative, spurred by an article in The Atlantic. The article, citing unidentified sources, described a history of the president making denigrating statements about members of the military. When the uproar over the story was finally dying down on Monday, the Labor Day holiday, Mr. Trump breathed fresh life into it by holding a news conference and talking about it again.
Mr. Trump’s advisers would like him to turn the race into a choice between himself and Mr. Biden. Instead, Mr. Trump is more comfortable turning the campaign into a referendum on himself.
“Donald Trump doesn’t appear to be in control of the news cycle fundamentally because he’s not in control of events,” said Steve Schmidt, a longtime Republican strategist who is an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump, and who advises the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project. “The country is profoundly out of control under his watch.”
Mr. Schmidt, who advised President George W. Bush as he was running for re-election in 2004, said that in the final weeks of a presidential race, the person who the race is a referendum on is frequently the person who is losing. Right now, he said, “the race is substantially about Trump, and everything he tries to do to change the subject just isn’t working.”
Mr. Trump’s campaign has not consistently availed itself of other methods to drive a message about Mr. Biden. After the previous campaign manager, Brad Parscale, spent roughly $100 million in television ads earlier this year as Mr. Trump battled the impeachment inquiry and criticism of his handling of the virus, the new campaign manager, Bill Stepien, has taken a highly surgical approach.
Some campaign officials have forecast a shortage in cash on hand and say that the amount the campaign has at its disposal is less than meets the eye, because there are restrictions on what pots of money can be spent.
There isn’t agreement about it within the campaign, however, and some Republicans think that not countering Mr. Biden’s own television ads consistently is a mistake. Mr. Parscale had favored maintaining a rigorous, uninterrupted presence in television spending.
Mr. Stepien told The New York Times last week that the current strategy was the right one for a moment when early voting is beginning in some states. And when spending on television from supportive outside groups is included, some campaign officials say, they are close to being at parity with the Democrats.
It is also unclear what information the campaign is using to guide its decisions on spending.
Historically, Mr. Trump’s campaign has incorporated Republican National Committee data from so-called voter scores, a detailed form of analytics, to help guide its thinking.
Asked whether the campaign is still relying on the data, Mr. Stepien would not directly answer. “We have a head start on Joe Biden — not by months, but by years — in having grass-roots teams on the ground in key states and in developing the best data any campaign has ever used,” he said in a statement on Thursday. And he dismissed “Beltway experts” who questioned the campaign’s decision in 2016 to buy fewer television ads and invest in digital spending.
Despite all that, the Trump campaign finds itself in a similar position to 2016: reacting to what the candidate wants. But so far, the president’s efforts have merely served to keep himself off balance, and not Mr. Biden.
For instance, on Wednesday Mr. Trump attempted to change the channel by announcing a new list of 20 conservative, anti-abortion Republicans he would consider as Supreme Court nominees. That move, Mr. Schmidt said, was a sign of weakness.
“That’s base politics,” he said. “With 55 days left, you’re making further appeals to the base. That’s not a strength, that’s a sign of political weakness.”
Mr. Trump rarely, if ever, thinks beyond the immediate moment. Throughout his life, Mr. Trump, in the words of Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, has lived in “an eternal now.”