He started out with “1 percent Joe.” Then he moved on to “Creepy Joe.” And finally he settled on “Sleepy Joe” — or sometimes, when feeling punchy, “Sleepy Creepy Joe.”
By the time President Trump road-tested his fourth nickname for Joe Biden, it was clear he and his allies are treating the former vice president as their chief Democratic rival — with Trump turning his considerable talent for political destruction on both Biden and his family.
Trump’s allies have mocked Biden’s hugging of his own wife, while Trump accused him of deserting Pennsylvania because his father moved the family to neighboring Delaware when Biden was 10. Some Trump surrogates are also mounting attacks on his son, Hunter Biden, for his foreign business entanglements and privately — but eagerly — sharing reports of his alleged substance abuse.
More broadly, the Trump campaign and its supporters have started attacking Joe Biden in much the same way they went after Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 — casting the former senator and vice president as a lifelong politician who has been part of a broken political system and whose family has been personally enriched by it.
“There’s nothing quite like watching Joe Biden, who’s been in D.C. for about 60 years, say government has failed you,” Donald Trump Jr. said at a rally for his father in Pennsylvania on Monday night. “I go, ‘Joe, in all fairness this is your life’s work. It is a failure, I agree with you.’ ”
Kelly Sadler, a former White House official who is communications director for the American First Action super PAC, called Biden “a 40-plus-year swamp monster. And with that comes votes he’s taken that he’s going to be held accountable for, plagiarism that he’s going to be held accountable for, inappropriate touching he’s going to be held accountable for.”
The focus marks a new phase of the presidential race, as the Republican incumbent places Biden under far more scrutiny than any of Biden’s Democratic rivals have done. The aggressive attacks — many of which are highly misleading — also provide a preview of how fierce a general election matchup between the two men could be.
While Trump is treating Biden as his eventual opponent — “Sleepy Joe Biden is pulling ahead,” he tweeted Monday — Biden is doing much the same, though he must defeat at least 22 other Democratic hopefuls first.
Biden’s campaign declined to comment on Trump’s focus on his candidacy, but his allies say privately that Trump is attacking Biden and his family only because they view him as the biggest threat.
Biden and his supporters are also readying an argument of their own: that Trump was supposed to shake up Washington as the consummate dealmaker but has few results to show for it. Biden, they say, is the steady hand with decades-long relationships in both parties.
“If the back and forth is between those two, it’s going to be a brawl,” said Scott Mulhauser, a Democratic consultant who was Biden’s deputy chief of staff in 2012. “They’re both sluggers, know these fights and don’t tend to back down. You’re seeing real traction for the vice president in going after President Trump directly.”
One reason Biden took so long to enter the race was family considerations, including the toll a campaign would take on Hunter and the broader scrutiny on a family that has long been known as tightknit but more recently has provided ample gossip-page material. Biden’s campaign declined to say whether it had done a full vetting of Hunter — a task normally done on the candidates but one that could also prevent any surprises regarding controversial family members.
But it is clear that the attacks are having an effect, and those close to Biden are particularly sensitive about even the mention of Hunter Biden. During Joe Biden’s announcement speech in Philadelphia — billed as the biggest moment of the campaign so far — his wife, grandchildren and daughter appeared onstage, but his son did not.
Biden allies also say they recognize the potential hazards of being cast as part of the hidebound establishment, but are banking on voters rewarding experience and stability. They do not view Trump’s family as off limits — in part because Trump’s daughter and son-in-law are senior government officials — but Biden has largely refrained from getting too personal.
“On every single issue and on every demeaning thing he says about other people, I have no problem responding directly,” Biden said during a recent fundraiser in Columbia, S.C. “What I’m not going to do is get into what he wants me to do. He wants this to be a mud-wrestling match. I don’t want to get it down to that level.”
But when asked what nickname he had for Trump, he did have an answer: clown.
“And by the way, just so you know, this guy is going to go after me and my family,” Biden said.
He said that his grandchildren had urged him to run during a family meeting earlier in the year, and that they recognized the scrutiny that was about to come.
“‘Mommy and daddy had a divorce and they’re going to really go after that,’ ” Biden recounted hearing from one of his grandchildren. “My generic point is they know how tough it’s going to be.”
Trump added a new, and debatable, line of attack on Monday, criticizing Biden for leaving the state he was born in — though he was a child at the time.
“Biden deserted you,” he told the crowd at a campaign rally in Montoursville, Pa. “I guess he was born here, but he left you, folks. He left you for another state.”
Biden, as he has done several times before, sent out a fundraising email to supporters and argued that Trump simply does not understand the plight of a middle-class family that has to move to take a new job, as his family did.
“I was 10 years old, man,” Biden told about 340 guests Tuesday at a fundraiser in the home of an Orlando attorney. “My dad left for a reason [Trump] couldn’t possibly understand. He left when coal died and there were no jobs — like thousands of people, he had to leave to do better for his family.”
People in the president’s orbit said there probably will be several unofficial channels for taking on Biden and other Trump rivals — with varying degrees of aggressiveness. The White House is expected to be the most measured, the campaign will have more leeway and a “third tier” of unofficial friends and advisers will be the most unrestrained, said one White House aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment.
Trump, the aide added, is the real wild card — able to weigh in whenever and however he chooses.
“The campaign is quite obviously an extension of the president, so we follow his lead,” said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign communications director. “Where he leads, we will go.”
The campaign, for instance, has not shied away from embracing Trump’s nicknames for his opponents. After the president dubbed Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, “little pencil-neck Adam Schiff,” the campaign began selling “pencil neck Adam Schiff” T-shirts. (“They were quick sellers,” Murtaugh said. “They were limited edition, and out they went.”)
The president’s advisers and allies also say they view Hunter Biden as a fair point of attack, particularly when it comes to his foreign business dealings, which have drawn media scrutiny. The Washington Post Fact Checker gave Trump three Pinocchios this month for his misleading and “wild jabs” at Joe Biden and his son.
Some Trump supporters and conservative media outlets also have taken aim at Hunter Biden’s personal life. The conservative website Breitbart News highlighted a police report last week detailing a how a cocaine pipe was left in a car rented to Hunter Biden and returned to an Arizona Hertz location, along with several other of his personal effects.
Though the White House and Trump campaign stayed silent, some Trump allies attempted to publicize the story by sending the link to reporters. Donald Trump Jr. also retweeted a journalist who had written about the police report and retweeted a missive from Andy Surabian, a former a White House official, arguing that Hunter Biden was being held to a different standard than Trump’s adult children.
Trump allies say that as the campaign progresses, they expect the majority of Trumpworld will be following the president’s combative approach. One campaign adviser said that Democrats are pushing incendiary attacks on the president — from saying he is destroying the country to asserting that he is “engaged in a coverup,” as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did on Wednesday — that many Republicans view as going over the line.
“We know it’s going to be a spirited battle going into next year, and obviously President Trump is not shy about defending himself and drawing contrasts with whoever the eventual Democratic nominee is, and we also know President Trump will likely continue to be attacked by everyone from Capitol Hill Democrats to many members of the media, all the way up to and even probably through Election Day,” said Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Outside groups on the right, including America Rising PAC, are preparing opposition research books on Biden and others, compiling what they believe will be the most effective lines of attack against whichever Democrat becomes the nominee.
America Rising has begun digging into Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine, as well as his father’s post-White House life and long history of statements, believing those two themes will be particularly potent, according to a Republican involved in the opposition research effort.
But the Trump and Biden orbits also are entwined in ways that could make things complicated.
Hunter Biden’s daughter, Naomi, and Trump’s daughter, Tiffany, went to the University of Pennsylvania together, and both Joe Biden and Trump were at the 2016 graduation. Last summer, Naomi and Tiffany posed for photos together in the Hamptons.
Tiffany Trump posted one of the photos on Instagram with interlocking hearts — several months before Tiffany’s father would begin publicly ridiculing Naomi’s father.
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.