Trump and family go it alone on campaign trail, for better or worse

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On Oct. 14, President Trump had just returned to in-person campaign events after recovering from COVID-19, but the morning crew at Fox News were wondering why he wasn’t getting more help on the trail.

“Where are the surrogates?” Brian Kilmeade, one of the hosts of “Fox and Friends,” asked White House spokesman Alyssah Farah. “Where is Senator Rick Scott? Where is Senator Marco Rubio? Where is Senator Tim Scott? Where is Jim Jordan? It seems like the president is a one-man band with 20 days to go."

“I’m just not used to seeing this type of solo act,” Kilmeade said.

Farah pointed to appearances by the president’s family. “We’ve got all of the president’s children deployed into the states,” she said. “So, there are vocal supporters of his out there in the states making his case.”

“But he’s going to have to adopt quite a few kids with 50 states and so many in play. I just don’t know if there’s any help planned,” Kilmeade quipped.

Two weeks later, as the presidential campaign is in its final weekend, not much has changed.

The affect of this dynamic on Trump’s chances for the election are hard to determine. It’s not clear how much Republican senators help the president’s fortunes, but their frequent absence is an indication of his relative isolation from the rest of the party. He campaigned as an outsider and has remained one to a large extent during his presidency.

Democrat Joe Biden is campaigning with former President Barack Obama, while Trump is holding events featuring only himself. The last Republican president, George W. Bush, is nowhere to be seen.

It’s not just the contrast between former presidents. The most active Trump surrogates by far have been Trump’s children, much more so than the biggest political stars in the Republican Party, such as Tim Scott, Marco Rubio, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Ivanka Trump

The majority of events organized and touted by the Trump campaign have either been rallies headlined by the president himself, Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, the president’s two sons, Don Jr. and Eric, his daughters, Ivanka and Tiffany, and Eric’s wife, Lara.

The only non-Trump family member to headline multiple campaign events over the last two weeks is Rick Grenell, the former ambassador to Germany who was briefly acting director of national intelligence earlier this year.

There have been a handful of official Trump campaign events where GOP politicians have been featured over the past week. Haley did three events last weekend in the Philadelphia area, and Scott did one in the Atlanta suburbs on Friday.

But those are the only in-person events that either of them did since they both spoke at the Republican convention in August. Haley, in particular, is the kind of political figure who could have been used to even greater effect to speak to suburban women — a voting bloc crucial to Trump’s chances — in swing states across the country. She was at the last debate to go on TV on the president’s behalf.

Rubio appeared at a rally in Tampa on Oct. 11, alongside Don Trump Jr. That too is the only in-person event that Rubio appears to have attended on Trump’s behalf.

COVID-19 has made it more difficult to hold in-person events, so Rubio and others have done press calls and online events, often appearing on the nightly internet TV show the campaign hosts. And many U.S. senators were stuck in Washington for much of October during the confirmation process of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) talks to the media after Senate Republicans closed lunch meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington on October 21, 2020. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) talks to the media after Senate Republicans closed lunch meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington on October 21, 2020. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

But that hasn’t stopped many Republican political stars who harbor presidential aspirations themselves from appearing at multiple events on behalf of Republican Senate candidates. Meanwhile they’ve been rarely used by the Trump campaign.

The reason is simple, said one Republican political operative who has remained fairly close to the Trump administration. Trump “has no friends and didn’t take time to make friends,” the Republican told Yahoo News.

But there is also an anti-establishment attitude that still dominates Trump and his universe.

“He’s the anti-politician running against a career politician. I don’t think campaigning with other politicians sends the message you want,” said Terry Sullivan, who managed Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Some mixture of these elements was on display this past week in Arizona when Trump humiliated the incumbent Republican senator in that state, Martha McSally, who is locked in a tight race with Democrat Mark Kelly. The race could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate, but Trump treated McSally — the first woman to fly a fighter jet in combat in U.S. history — as a nuisance.

“Martha, come up fast. Fast. Fast. Come on. Quick. You got one minute! One minute, Martha!” Trump said. “They don't want to hear this, Martha. Come on. Let's go. Quick, quick, quick. Come on.”

McSally was forced to run up on stage and hurry through a brief speech.

Martha McSally and Donald Trump
Sen. Martha McSally with Trump during a recent campaign rally in Goodyear, Ariz. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It’s no secret that the president’s ego craves large rallies with adoring fans, and that he does not like to share the spotlight unless it is with others who are talking positively about him. But the rallies this fall that Trump and his most loyal supporters enjoy have only served to remind many other voters of his cavalier attitude toward COVID-19.

Similarly, a lack of support from establishment politicians might validate the president’s authenticity among his hardcore supporters. But voters who are on the fence may want some reassurance that Trump can stabilize the country during a chaotic year, and appearing with career politicians might have struck a tone of normalcy and competence.

Privately, Republican political operatives told Yahoo News that the lack of a surrogate operation was also an indictment of the Trump campaign’s organizational and political capabilities.

But the Trump campaign said their surrogate operation compared favorably with presidential campaigns of the past, especially given the extenuating circumstances of a pandemic and a Supreme Court justice confirmation.

“From the first family to elected officials and community leaders across the country, President Trump and our campaign are blessed with a vast array of surrogates who help us reach the right voters on the issues that matter most to them,” Samantha Zager, the Trump campaign’s deputy national press secretary, told Yahoo News. “Our surrogates and supporters are a large part of the reason President Trump’s message has been delivered so consistently to voters over the last four years.”

Zager said that the campaign has been “deploying [surrogates] at the most opportune moments.”

Yahoo News reviewed all press releases sent out by the Trump campaign over the last month, and spoke with representatives of numerous Republican politicians.

Melania Trump
Melania Trump campaigning in Wapwallopen, Pa., on Friday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Trump’s two sons have both been very busy. Don Jr. and Eric have both spent almost every day over the last three weeks doing at least one event a day, and often more than one. Ivanka Trump has been out a dozen times for sometimes multiple events a day. And Lara Trump, spouse to Eric, has been out at least nine days.

Grenell, meanwhile, has been on the trail for at least eight days of official Trump campaign events, including multiple gay pride events. Tiffany Trump has ramped up her campaign presence over the final week.

Prominent Republicans who have a national presence, like Sen. Ted Cruz, or up-and-comers like Sen. Josh Hawley have been promoted by the campaign only once each, or in the case of Hawley, not at all. Cruz — who like Rubio clashed viciously with Trump during the 2016 primary and was not invited to speak at this year’s convention — has done one event this month for the Trump campaign, along with a press call.

Meanwhile, Cruz, Scott, Haley, Rubio and other top Republicans have each campaigned for numerous Republican senators up for reelection.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has been the most notable exception. Just this month, she has done an event in Wisconsin, a two-day bus tour through Minnesota earlier this month, attended a Trump rally in Nebraska this past Tuesday, and then did another bus tour through Maine and New Hampshire the next day.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has also done several in person and virtual events.

Republicans elected statewide have sometimes appeared at a Trump rally. But their names are left off the Trump campaign press release. The release simply says that the event will “feature remarks from President Donald J. Trump and Republican candidates.”

Trump spokesman Tim Murtaugh told Yahoo News, “When we announce a rally, the president’s attendance is what we announce.”

Donald Trump
Chris Szagola/AP


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