To one crowd, Vice President Joe Biden was a “low-IQ individual.”
To another, President Donald Trump wondered aloud whether his front-running rival could ever inspire high esteem: “People don’t respect him,” Trump scoffed, “even the people that he’s running against.”
To a third, he widened his sights: Sen. Bernie Sanders was “crazy,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren was “probably out,” former Rep. Beto O’Rourke “was made to fall like a rock” and mayor Pete Buttigieg — well, he just had a name that’s hard to pronounce.
Crowd-baiting patter at a rollicking campaign rally? Not quite.
Trump offered those assessments underneath crystal chandeliers at the Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, in front of a dry-mill grain processing facility in Iowa and amid a tangle of pipes transporting natural gas in Louisiana.
All were official events — not political ones — funded by taxpayers for the President to ostensibly advance his governing agenda.
As Trump prepares to wage re-election battle against one of the nearly two-dozen Democrats vying to replace him, the line dividing his official work as President and his electoral pursuits has largely been erased. Instead of keeping the two lanes separate, Trump has merged them into one political stream — a reflection, some aides said, of his interest in campaigning over nearly everything else.
This week, a federal watchdog agency determined one of Trump’s top aides — White House counselor Kellyanne Conway — had so blurred the lines between her official duties as a public servant and her role as a political operative that she should be removed from public office.
But in an indication of the dismissive view Trump has taken toward federal rules regulating the political activity of officeholders, the White House said the Office of Special Counsel findings were “deeply flawed.” And Trump said in an interview on Fox News he had no plans to dismiss his longtime aide.
“It looks to me like they’re trying to take away their right of free speech. And that’s just not fair,” Trump said. “She’s got to have the right of responding to questions.”
Striking a balance
All presidents vying for re-election are forced to strike a balance between administering the official duties of their office and battling to keep that office for a second term. Most are accused at some point of using their position for political gain — including, in 2016, by Trump himself, who tweeted it was a “total disgrace” taxpayers were paying “a fortune” for President Barack Obama’s use of Air Force One to campaign for Hillary Clinton.
Three years later, Trump has largely done away with attempts to separate his own official and political roles, freely using the office to demean Democratic rivals who are challenging him in 2020. Official speeches meant to promote administration priorities bear close resemblance to his campaign rallies. And presidential backdrops are used to harangue potential opponents.
In one instance, Trump used his office aboard Air Force One to tape a video blasting New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio after he announced his intention to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, a move that drew an inquiry from congressional Democrats.