This tactic is now becoming more overt, and it is spreading to other issues.
In a night full of puzzling moments and incoherent arguments from President Trump at Tuesday night’s ABC News town hall, one of them stood out.
When asked about why he has not pushed masks harder, Trump immediately pivoted to Biden. Trump sought to beg off questions about his own mask stance by suggesting Biden had been soft.
“I will say this: They said at the Democrat convention they're going to do a national mandate. They never did it, because they've checked out and they didn't do it,” Trump said. “And a good question is, you ask like Joe Biden — they said we're going to do a national mandate on masks.”
When moderator George Stephanopoulos noted that Biden had called for governors to implement the mandate, Trump shot back: “Well, no, but he didn’t do it. I mean, he never did it.”
The most charitable read on Trump’s comments would be that he is alleging Biden softened his position. Biden did say at the Democratic National Convention that part of his coronavirus strategy would be: “We’ll have a national mandate to wear a mask.” Since then, though, Biden has been clearer that this would be something he would press governors to implement. Of late, Biden has acknowledged constitutional issues with a federal mandate, and both he and vice-presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris have indicated the federal policy would be more of a standard than a mandate — with no punishments.
But even if you accept that explanation, the way Trump described Biden’s handling of it is conspicuous. He said three times that Biden “never did it” or “didn’t do it,” as if the former vice president had some actual power to enact it right now. Biden does not.
That is not the only time in recent days that the Trump reelection effort has spoken in these terms about Biden on the coronavirus.
Just a few days ago, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel attacked Biden for his coronavirus commentary by saying, “Joe Biden can’t run from his disastrous record responding to the coronavirus. The truth hurts, Joe!”
The word “responding” could be read in a number of ways. But generally speaking, talking about a politician’s response to a crisis entails their polices and positions — which, again, Biden has no power to enact. It seemed an obvious effort to compare criticisms of Trump’s coronavirus “response” to what amounts to Biden’s coronavirus “response” — a similar tactic to the one Trump employed Tuesday night.
McDaniel offered a similar argument the same day as her tweet. In an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” she tried to set up a hypothetical in which Biden were president during the outbreak.
When host Chuck Todd noted twice that “he’s not the president,” McDaniel responded: “No, no, no. He was running for president, and he had the same data and the same information.”
Except for the first couple months of the outbreak, Biden was still a candidate for the Democratic nomination. It is virtually impossible that he had all the same information as the actual president.
The most frequent use of this strategy, though, has to do with unrest at racial-justice protests. The Trump campaign has regularly labeled the scenes as ones of “Joe Biden’s America,” including in an ad last week titled, “This is Joe Biden’s America.”
In the same town hall Tuesday night, Trump also attached Biden to Democratic mayors of the cities in which these scenes are happening, as if he is in charge of them.
“Wherever you have a Democrat city — not in all cases, but if you look at the really troubled cities in our country, they're Democrat-run, and that's Biden,” Trump said. “They're weak. They're ineffective.”
That approach has also filtered down to state parties. The North Carolina Republican Party last week, for instance, tweeted, “Violent radicals have taken over our cities — including North Carolina cities — to purge police from our streets. @JoeBiden and @RoyCooperNC are letting them.”
Again, you could argue Biden could say things to impact these scenes, but the idea that his power is even being mentioned in the same breath as the state’s governor, Roy Cooper (D), who has actual legal authorities, makes the play pretty clear.
Any of these efforts, on its own, could be dismissed as a conveniently worded attack. The lot of them combined makes clear the Trump team would like people to imagine Biden presiding over all of this, even as Trump is the one presiding over it.
These are apparently unlikely to be the last times Trump and his allies pretend they are the ones running against an incumbent president.
After Todd interjected in his interview with McDaniel that Biden is not, in fact, the president, she added: “I think it’s disgusting to take a crisis in our country and try to lay it at the feet of the president.”
Unless, it seems, that president is Hypothetical President Biden.