WASHINGTON - In her first 24 hours as the presumptive Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris was labeled "nasty" by President Donald Trump, "phony" by his reelection campaign and "a far-left radical" by his surrogates.
The messages emanating from Trump and his allies about the senator from California varied wildly - casting her as both an overzealous prosecutor too tough on crime and an advocate for defunding the police, and as being so far to the left she would institute socialism as well as too moderate to satisfy her party's progressive base.
Meanwhile, Trump's allies in conservative media road-tested an assault on Harris as soft on crime, an avatar of political correctness and a danger to the safety and security of American families. Some argued that she was not African American because her father emigrated from Jamaica and her mother from India, and repeatedly mispronounced her first name. And in the darker corners of social media, some of the attacks were more overtly misogynistic and racist.
All that was before Harris made her first public appearance on Wednesday afternoon alongside presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who made history Tuesday by selecting her as the nation's first Black and Asian American major-party candidate for vice president.
The blizzard of attacks against Harris from the political right illustrated the urgency Republicans feel to demonize her as a way for Trump to recover some of the ground he lost this spring and summer over his handling of the novel coronavirus. The scattershot nature of the intersecting lines of attack also underscored the lack of consensus within the GOP about how best to take on Harris.
"It's clear that they don't have a message on Kamala Harris, much like they haven't on Joe Biden. They are flailing," said Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications for Emily's List, a group that helps elect women who support abortion rights and is among a coalition of political organizations forcefully defending Harris. "The sad news is I assume Trump will fall back to racist and sexist tropes that have nothing to do with Kamala Harris. The good news is that won't work on suburban voters, and it will energize Democrats."
It took Trump a few minutes into lobbing his first attacks on Harris at a White House news conference Tuesday to reach for one of his go-to labels, accusing her of having been "exceptionally nasty" in her questioning of Judge Brett Kavanaugh during his 2018 Supreme Court confirmation hearing.
Trump continued his assault on Harris during a White House news briefing on Wednesday, maligning Harris for performing poorly in the Democratic presidential primary and claiming that she left the race "angry" after being "insulting" to Biden.
"Is anyone surprised Donald Trump has a problem with a strong woman, or strong women across the board?" Biden said at his Wednesday event with Harris. "Kamala Harris has had your back, and now we have to have her back. She's going to stand with me in this campaign. And all of us are going to stand up for her."
Considering Trump's long history of misogynistic comments and his declining popularity among female voters, some Republican strategists suggested that he proceed with more caution when talking about Harris - and, better yet, leave it to surrogates who might deliver criticism on his behalf with more discipline and less personal baggage.
"If I were advising the Trump campaign, I would not have Donald Trump attacking Kamala Harris," longtime Republican pollster Frank Luntz said. "He's doing poorly among women with school-age children. Attacking her will not help that deficit. Other people in the White House and in the campaign should be responsible for that effort."
On Tuesday evening, Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity teed up an opportunity for Trump to make the case against Harris on his 9 p.m. show, but the president's answers to Hannity's questions veered from attacking Hillary Clinton, his 2016 opponent, to pontificating about "windmills."
By Wednesday, the official Trump campaign had settled on a tighter, two-pronged argument: that Harris is a phony and that her liberal voting record would pull a Biden administration to the left. The campaign seized upon an analysis last year by GovTrack that rated Harris as the most liberal U.S. senator based on her voting record in 2019.
"Kamala Harris was rated the most liberal U.S. senator in 2019 and completes the radical, leftist takeover of Joe Biden and the entire Democrat Party," Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said. "She pushes Biden even further to the left than he had already moved. Biden and Harris together make up the most extreme liberal ticket in American major party history."
Cliff Sims, a former Trump White House official who is helping to lead messaging and speechwriting for the upcoming Republican National Convention, said of Harris: "She has an air of inauthenticity, which is a major problem at a time when plastic politicians just aren't connecting with voters. That's why the 'phony' line of attack really hits. It rings true."
An array of Trump surrogates amplified these arguments throughout the day.
"Phony Kamala is Joe Biden's living political will, and her radical leftist beliefs should cause every American to worry about her being just one heartbeat away from becoming president," Stacy Washington, one of the Trump campaign's more prominent Black supporters, said during a conference call with reporters.
But Biden campaign advisers characterized Team Trump's opening assault on Harris as ham-fisted and contradictory and said the absence of a consistent and coherent message underscored the president's weak standing and desperation to improve his reelection hopes.
"Senator Harris is tested and ready to lead on Day One," Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said. "The Trump campaign certainly wasn't ready on Day One, as their response to her nomination has been an incoherent, self-defeating train wreck."
Outside of the Biden campaign, an army of Democratic leaders and operatives are prepared to defend Harris and attempt to inoculate her against whatever attacks come her way.
"Donald Trump has no idea what he's going up against if he's going to try to mess with Black women," Democratic strategist Karen Finney said. "We're mobilized to have Kamala Harris's back, to have Joe Biden's back. We're not going to let him get away with this, and we're going to call it out when we see it."
Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of the feminist group Ultraviolet who is monitoring disinformation and hate speech surrounding the presidential campaign, said, "There are immediately, out of the gate, sexist and misogynistic and racist attacks having absolutely nothing to do with her record or the substance of her leadership."
The subtext of Team Trump's critique of Harris is that Biden, who has referred to himself as a "transitional" candidate, will not really be at the helm, instead relinquishing the work of governance to Harris.
Figures from One America News, the far-right channel welcomed by Trump into the White House, quipped that Harris herself would need to pick a second-in-command.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham made the subtext explicit in signing onto a meme from pro-Trump media that Biden is enfeebled and incapable of wielding executive power. "Even Joe is witted enough to understand that he's not really going to be running the show if he wins in November," Ingraham said.
Another Fox host, Tucker Carlson, repeatedly mangled Harris's first name (which is pronounced "comma-la") and scoffed when a guest, Democratic operative Richard Goodstein, corrected him on air.
"OK, so what?" Carlson responded.
Attacks lobbed online drew more explicitly on sexism and racial bigotry. Harris's family members were also put in the crosshairs. In entries on right-wing blogs and in images posted to pro-Trump groups on Facebook, attacks on Harris that gained viral popularity during her primary campaign resurfaced.
Pro-Trump personalities with thousands of followers on Twitter boosted the false claim that Harris is not eligible to run for president because of her foreign-born parents. The erroneous smear, which Donald Trump Jr. amplified last summer, carries echoes of the birther conspiracy theory directed at former president Barack Obama that was popularized by Trump.
Purported news articles airing the baseless accusation, from sites known to traffic in conspiracy theorie, such as the American Thinker and AIM Truth Bits, gained thousands of shares on Facebook. Some were marked for containing false information; others were not.
In similar pro-Trump spaces online, Harris was ridiculed for a past relationship with Willie Brown, the former mayor of San Francisco and former California State Assembly speaker. One meme that circulated widely referred to her as a "high-end call girl." Others used wordplay to describe sexual acts. This emphasis on the relationship played into sexist tropes about opportunistic female politicians.
Some of the figures who went on the offensive have an online audience with Trump and his family members. The conservative author Paul Sperry - who helped precipitate a quest last fall to unmask the Ukrainian whistleblower that culminated in the president's eldest son tweeting out the presumed name - went after Harris's sister Maya, posting that she takes hydroxychloroquine. The 53-year-old recently documented her struggle with lupus, which some patients manage with the anti-malarial drug touted by the president as effective against the novel coronavirus.
There was substantial overlap between the themes and images circulating in right-wing echo chambers and those promoted by top campaign officials. Biden is regularly depicted in far-right communities online as handsy, especially with women. Brad Parscale, Trump's recently deposed campaign manager who is now a senior adviser to the campaign, on Tuesday night tweeted a manipulated video of Biden coming up behind Harris, grasping her shoulders and sniffing her hair.
Ian Sams, who worked for Harris as national press secretary on her primary campaign, said "Trump is clearly flummoxed by her," and predicted that attacks on Harris by the president and his allies would get uglier.
"It's going to get nasty," Sams said, noting that the president's eldest son shared a variety of personal and at times racist attacks on Harris during the primary campaign. "The far-right ecosystem that they love to play in is firing up bottom-barrel attacks that I think are really going to turn off a lot of voters."
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The Washington Post's Colby Itkowitz, Anne Gearan and Michael Scherer contributed to this report.
WILMINGTON, Del. - Joe Biden and Kamala Harris opened a new front in the presidential campaign on Wednesday, forcefully prosecuting their case against President Donald Trump and attempting to showcase a much different vision for the country as the Democratic ticket appeared together for the first time.
In what were perhaps the most crisp and focused speeches either has given during the presidential campaign, the new running mates defined how they will pursue the general election: with a sharp focus on what they cast as Trump's inadequacies, an embrace of the power of women, a call to action on climate change and a defense of the protesters who have filled America's streets in recent months.
While Biden briefly fended off some of Trump's recent attacks - "Whining is what Donald Trump does best - better than any president in American history" - the senator from California homed in on Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to illness, death and unemployment. She urged the nation to seize on optimism, to celebrate the immigrant experience and to simply move on from the last four years.
"America is crying out for leadership, yet we have a president who cares more about himself than the people who elected him, a president who is making every challenge we face even more difficult to solve," Harris said, ticking off tectonic shifts in the country, including racial unrest, the shattered economy and the pandemic.
Less than two hours after the Democratic event ended, Trump ridiculed Harris's unsuccessful presidential campaign and mocked her early departure.
"She left angry, she left mad," Trump said from the White House briefing room, mischaracterizing the end of her campaign. "There was nobody more insulting to Biden than she was. She said horrible things about him. . . . Now all of the sudden she's running to be vice president saying how wonderful he is."
In a vivid reminder of how the pandemic has upended the campaign, Biden's introduction of Harris as his running mate after Tuesday's announcement did not come before throngs of cheering supporters, arms raised above their heads, as has been the case for generations of presidential tickets. Instead, they walked together into a nearly empty high school gymnasium a few miles from Biden's home. The speeches were greeted with deafening silences, where normally there would have been raucous cheers.
At the conclusion of the remarks, the candidates walked to the front of the stage, several body lengths apart. Their spouses - former second lady Jill Biden and lawyer Douglas Emhoff - took off their masks to greet the candidates with kisses.
Biden's announcement reached for history, putting the first Black woman and the first Asian American woman on a major-party ticket at a moment when the country is facing a racial reckoning. That sentiment was overt in their remarks.
"This morning, all across this nation, little girls woke up, especially little Black and Brown girls who so often may feel overlooked and undervalued in our society," Biden said. "But today, maybe, just maybe, they're seeing themselves for the first time in a new way."
At another point he alluded to Harris's background - a mother from India, a father from Jamaica - as one that reflects the country's diversity.
"Her story is America's story," Biden said. "Different from mine in many particulars, but also not so different in many of the essentials."
Wednesday's appearance shifted the campaign fully into general-election mode. Throughout his campaign, Biden has talked about the "Obama-Biden administration," but on Wednesday afternoon he began promoting the "Biden-Harris administration." He said he asked Harris to be the last person in the room advising him, just as he had requested to be the last one to speak to Obama before major decisions.
The two candidates are separated by 22 years, come from different coasts of the country, hold different ethnic backgrounds, and clashed bitterly during the presidential primary over matters of race and mandatory busing.
But on Wednesday the partnership sought to project a warm relationship, one in which Biden said he considered Harris and her entire family "honorary Bidens."
One centerpiece during the event was the affection both shared for Beau Biden, the oldest son of the former vice president who died in 2015 of brain cancer at the age of 46. Harris was attorney general of California while Beau Biden held the same post in Delaware, and they grew close. It was through that relationship that Joe Biden first got to know Harris, and one that he pointed toward as a reason he picked her.
Harris on Wednesday recounted how she and Beau used to speak every day, sometimes multiple times.
"I learned quickly that Beau was the kind of guy who inspired people to be a better version of themselves. He really was the best of us," she said, as Biden, sitting a few feet away, grew emotional. "And when I would ask him, 'Where'd you get that? Where did this come from?' He'd always talk about his dad. And I will tell you, the love that they shared was incredible to watch. It was the most beautiful display of the love between a father and a son."
In her remarks, Harris seemed to allude to some of her past criticisms of the former vice president. She had lanced Biden last year during a debate for his nostalgic talk of working with two segregationist senators and his opposition to mandatory busing. But on Wednesday she said, "The civil rights struggle is nothing new to Joe."
She also seemed to take aim at criticism from some close to Biden, before her selection, that she was too "ambitious."
"Joe, I'm so proud to stand with you," Harris said. "And I do so mindful of all the heroic and ambitious women before me, whose sacrifice, determination and resilience makes my presence here today even possible."
The two candidates will be at the center of next week's Democratic convention, which will be largely virtual. As the campaign roars toward Nov. 3, Harris is planning to promote her past work fighting banks, taking on the gun lobby and pushing against special interests. Some allies see her national introduction as an opportunity to introduce her to an American public less familiar with her and her record.
Biden's advisers see her background and life story as one that will have appeal to suburban women, as well as drive to the polls large numbers of African American voters, two groups they view as crucial to winning in November. She is also seen by the campaign as someone who can help energize younger voters, long one of the weakest parts of Biden's support.
During her remarks, Harris associated herself with the current movement for racial justice, saying it reminded her of the protests her mother brought her to as a child.
"A whole new generation of children is growing up hearing the cries for justice and the chance of hope on which I was raised," Harris said
Harris is expected to conduct most events virtually, as Biden has, but could also be deployed to some battleground states. While Biden has appeared at several in-person events, there is little expectation that he would increase that pace, given concerns about the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Biden campaign advisers said they did not expect to alter their strategy to keep focused on Trump. They seemed to relish that Trump has yet to find a consistent theme in attacking Harris, with some Trump allies suggesting that she would defund police departments and others saying that she is a too-tough prosecutor. Trump partisans called her the most liberal member of the Senate before, hours later, saying liberals disliked her because she's not liberal enough.
Although Biden and Harris largely focused on their plans for the country, both wedged in some personal attacks against Trump.
Biden pointed out that the country's leaders typically come together in moments of great crisis. He noted that rather than meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other leaders to help the country recover from twin health and economic crises, Trump has been spending time golfing. "Donald Trump is on the golf course," Biden said. "If I told you this three years ago, you'd look at me like I was being crazy."
Harris seized on parallels she sees between Trump's presidency and his spotty business record. The president, she said, came into office with a solid economy that she credited to the Obama administration. "And then, like everything else he inherited, he ran it straight into the ground," she said.
The Biden campaign and a constellation of women's groups have also been animated in drawing attention to the president's use of sexist tropes, and several pointed to Trump repeatedly calling Harris "nasty" as a sign of sexism.
"Is anyone surprised Donald Trump has a problem with a strong woman or strong women across the board?" Biden said, warning of more vitriol to come. "Kamala Harris has had your back, and now we have to have her back. She's going to stand with me in this campaign. And all of us are going to stand up for her."
The joint appearance of Biden and Harris capped a months-long process in which Biden seriously considered nearly a dozen different potential running mates.
In a video released by Biden's campaign, he was shown taking off his mask and joining a video conference with Harris, during which she apologized for having kept him waiting.
"You ready to go to work?" he asked Harris.
A moment passes before Harris responds. "Oh, my God. I am so ready to go to work," she said.
Biden, though, had a follow-up: "First of all, is the answer yes?"
"The answer is absolutely yes, Joe," Harris said. "And I am ready to work, I am ready to do this with you, for you. I am just deeply honored and I am very excited."
On Wednesday morning, she climbed into a silver SUV parked at her condominium complex in Washington, and she and her husband made the drive to Delaware.
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Viser reported from Washington.
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