Plotting a general election strategy against Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton’s advisers joke that their challenge feels like Lucille Ball’s in the famed chocolate factory episode of “I Love Lucy.”
As truffles fly down a conveyor belt, Lucy frantically tries to wrap each one before they pass. Falling behind, she stuffs some under her hat, down her blouse and in her mouth. For the Clinton campaign, the conveyor belt is Trump’s mouth and Twitter feed — and the chocolates are his inflammatory statements.
In the three weeks since the celebrity mogul became the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Clinton and her sprawling bureaucracy of a campaign have struggled to keep pace with Trump’s unremitting medley of savage attacks, unorthodox policy pronouncements and casual misstatements.
Clinton advisers are trying to stitch together an overall narrative that they are confident will destroy Trump, but they are still experimenting with tone and tactics as they seek an effective equilibrium. And even as they launched their first big effort this week, Trump’s response to it stole some of their thunder — illustrating vividly that breaking through his barrage of attention-getting words will not be easy.
Clinton’s aides say they have settled on the big story they want to tell about Trump: He is a business fraud who has cheated working people for his own gain, and his ideas, temperament and moves to marginalize people by race, gender and creed make him simply unacceptable as commander in chief.
“Our thesis is that this isn’t just a difference in world views akin to, say, a policy debate between John McCain and Barack Obama in 2008. This is somebody who’s uniquely dangerous and disqualified,” said Brian Fallon, Clinton’s national press secretary.
On Tuesday, the likely Democratic nominee and her allies opened a coordinated and methodical assault on Trump, starting with reviving his past comments that he had hoped to profit off a housing crisis that devastated millions of families. Other lines of attack will follow.
“What we’re doing amounts to a deconstruction of Trump’s phony story about himself to show the seedy, sleazy underside of his business record,” said David Brock, a Clinton ally who runs a collection of supportive outside groups.
But a day that began with Clinton’s housing push — from the candidate’s speeches and a campaign video to a surrogate blitz in battleground states and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s fiery Trump take-down — ended with a Trump stage performance in New Mexico so provocative that it threatened to distract voters from the substance of Clinton’s argument.
Trump defiantly called Clinton a “low life” for dredging up his past comments and argued that profiting off the housing crisis was what any savvy businessman would do. He tried to imitate Clinton and said “she screams and drives me crazy.” And he labeled Warren “Pocahontas,” charging falsely that the Massachusetts senator said she was Native American because “her cheekbones were high.”
As Trump’s Albuquerque rally broke up, there were violent encounters outside between police and anti-Trump demonstrators.
Such sequences leave Clinton’s high command wrestling daily with strategic questions. What some see as Clinton’s good fortune — an opponent with a bounty of offenses that would prove fatal under the ordinary rules of politics — is also a hindrance.
Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Obama, said: “Trump’s activities serve as a message-blocker to his opponents.”
Which of Trump’s actions warrant a response from Clinton herself vs. campaign staffers or outside allies or nothing at all? How does Clinton compete with Trump’s saturation-level media coverage? And, perhaps most importantly, how do they keep Trump from becoming normalized — that is, to ensure voters react to his antics with horror rather than a shrug or a laugh?
David Axelrod, the top strategist on President Obama’s campaigns, said it is imperative that the Clinton campaign not merely attack Trump for the sake of attacking him but that each move be in service to the broader narrative.
“It would be a mistake to just take a kitchen sink approach — a little bit of this and a little bit of that — and hope that it adds up to a message,” Axelrod said. “Being tactical to the point where you can’t discern the forest from the trees is a problem. You’ve got to be able to tell a story that is coherent.”
Pfeiffer suggested belittling Trump with light humor, which Obama has done on occasion. “The Clinton campaign has to figure out how they make Trump respond to them,” he said. “You don’t want to spend every day of the next five and a half months responding to every crazy thing Trump said that day.”
Trump, who prides himself on campaigning from the gut, argues that Clinton’s attacks come across to voters as overly programmed and political. He said he watched Clinton’s interview last week with CNN anchor Chris Cuomo — where she said for the first time that she thought Trump was not qualified to be president — and thought she looked “totally scripted.”
“A president has to have great instincts because oftentimes a president won’t have time not to have instincts,” Trump said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “You have to be able to move decisively after your brain and your instinct have made a decision. You have to rely on yourself more than your people. Hillary relies on all of these people that have her perhaps going in 15 different ways.”
The contrast was evident in the reporting for this story. While Trump quickly accepted a request to be interviewed about Clinton’s strategy, Clinton’s aides declined to make her available. In the 13 months since launching her campaign, Clinton has not granted a single interview to The Washington Post.
Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser and confidant, described his friend as a “natural phenomenon” — and suggested it would not be easy for Clinton’s more traditional campaign to extinguish him.
“You never know what he might say or do. The normal bounds of politics do not restrict him,” Stone said. “One can listen to Hillary and it becomes very apparent quickly that every word out of her mouth is focus-grouped and debated and re-debated. That’s not Trump.”
So far, Clinton and her campaign largely have ignored Trump’s personal attacks, such as airing old sexual assault allegations against former president Bill Clinton or giving credence to conspiracies surrounding the 1993 suicide of Clinton White House aide Vince Foster.
Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, a Clinton supporter, said this is just the right approach. “She has not stooped to his level,” Rosen said. “When she fights back, she fights back hard — but with things that matter.”
The Clinton forces have been aggressive about rebutting him on policy grounds and urging the news media to call him out for his misstatements. After Trump called into MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last Friday and said he would have kept the United States from a military engagement in Libya, Clinton aides contacted the show with evidence of Trump previously favoring action in Libya. Host Joe Scarborough fact-checked Trump later in the broadcast.
Brock said his super PAC, Correct the Record, is setting up what he called a “surrogate war room” to blow the whistle on any Trump falsehoods and to quickly brief Clinton supporters on the facts before their media appearances.
One concern of Clinton’s advisers is the current inequity in news coverage. The media, especially cable television networks, gives Trump far more attention than Clinton — in part because of the frequency of his interviews and his propensity to make news.
Last Friday, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC broadcast Trump’s speech to the National Rifle Association live in its entirety. But on Monday, when Clinton debuted new lines about Trump in an address to the Service Employees International Union, no cable network aired her remarks.
At Brooklyn headquarters, Clinton aides have been closely monitoring news coverage since Trump assumed the nomination and concluded that there is a silver lining for their candidate.
“We are not in denial about the fact that he will drive most news cycles because he will always be willing to say the more provocative thing,” Fallon said. “But driving a news cycle isn’t the same as winning it. Usually he is saying things that are only hurting him, not helping him.”
Asked why he thought television news paid him so much more attention, Trump put on his reality-television hat.
“It only has to do with one thing: ratings,” Trump said. Pointing to the historic viewership of this season’s Republican primary debates, he said, “If I wasn’t in the show, they would have had two people watching. You know.”