Trump employs familiar tactic in attacks on 'Squad': Distract and shift spotlight using racial rhetoric

John Fritze and Michael Collins

WASHINGTON – Less than two hours after a trove of documents shed new light Thursday on the effort to pay off a former porn star who alleged an affair with President Donald Trump, White House aides hastily called reporters into the Oval Office.

As news outlets flashed alerts about evidence of Trump's involvement in the hush-money scheme to quiet Stormy Daniels, the president revisited another furor he had set into motion days earlier: A series of attacks aimed at four progressive congresswomen of color.

And just like that, Trump had regained control of the news cycle.

"I think the congresswomen, by the way, should be more positive than they are," Trump said at a subsequent event, shifting blame to the members of the "Squad" he has attacked on a daily basis all week. "The congresswomen have a lot of problems."

Ask Them: Donald Trump blames supporters for 'send her back' taunts 

Pattern: A dozen times Donald Trump has stoked racial tensions

Ever since he rode down the golden escalator of his namesake building and into the consciousness of American politics, the former darling of the New York tabloid press has had a flair for distraction – and also a history of using inflammatory and racially charged rhetoric to commandeer the spotlight.

President Donald Trump in Greenville, North Carolina, on July 17, 2019.

His speech launching his campaign dominated news cycles when he shaped his message around his anti-immigration policies and referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists, drug dealers and criminals. Weeks later, he shot to the top of opinion polls. Then, shortly before the Iowa caucuses, Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. – a proposal that triggered outrage among Democrats and more moderate Republicans but helped to solidify his base.

The playbook that Trump has returned to time and again not only puts him in the spotlight, but also fires up supporters who backed him in part as a rejection of what they view as a culture of political correctness run amok. 

"It’s a very risky strategy for the Trump campaign because even though stoking racial resentments might turn out the base, it also has the possibility of energizing Democratic voters against them," said Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University.

"It really depends which set of voters is more fearful and angry," she said. 

Whatever the original intention behind Trump's tweets, the president and most of the rest of the Republican Party have embraced it as a campaign message. GOP lawmakers have suggested that the women represent an un-American world view. In defending Trump this week, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters that "this is about socialism versus freedom.”

The Republican National Committee this week released a campaign video claiming, without evidence, that the Squad's members favor anarchy.  

'Fits Trump's pattern'

That is precisely what Democrats and some analysts predict is at the center of Trump's latest imbroglio in which he asserted on Sunday that the four congresswomen should "go back" to where they came from. After the uproar that followed, Trump doubled- and then tripled-down on his criticism of the women, sometimes re-litigating the dispute several times a day. 

The Squad includes Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. All four are outspoken progressives and women of color. All four are U.S. citizens, and three were born in the United States.  

"It fits Trump's pattern of rule by distraction," said Lawrence Douglas, a law professor at Amherst College who wrote about the tactic last year. 

"I wouldn't say that Trump woke up and said to himself, 'better send out some racist tweets impugning the loyalty of four House members of color so my base doesn't notice that the promised ICE raids failed to materialize,'" Douglas added. "But we know he is awed by his own power to monopolize media attention."

From left, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., respond to remarks by President Donald Trump after his call for the four Democratic congresswomen to go back to their

The latest flareup of racial rhetoric came amid questions about a lack of evidence of a series of immigration raids Trump promised would begin over the weekend, part of a crackdown on illegal immigration. Two days earlier, Trump Labor Secretary Alex Acosta resigned amid the fallout over a plea deal he made with wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein, a sex offender charged with human trafficking girls as young as 14. 

On that same day, Vice President Mike Pence's trip to the U.S.-Mexico border drew renewed attention to the poor conditions at government facilities used to house migrants.  

"You have to give him credit. He's a great distracter," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Capitol Hill. "And that's what this is about." 

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Planned or spontaneous?   

Before he took the stage at a campaign rally in North Carolina on Wednesday, White House aides had presaged a fiery event – an indication the president would address the controversy. Though he is known to veer off script, photographs at the rally show Trump used a teleprompter as he gave an address laden with biting criticism of the four congresswomen and recounted previous statements they had made. 

When the audience began chanting "send her back" in reference to Omar – who was born in Somalia but moved to the U.S. as a child and is a naturalized citizen – Trump leaned back from the lectern and let the crowd repeat the taunts over and over. At the White House a day later, Trump blamed the audience and said he didn't agree with the chants

President Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Greenville, N.C., Wednesday, July 17, 2019.

White House aides did not respond to questions about the genesis of Trump's initial tweets. Pressed by reporters on whether he would shut down the chants of "send her back" at future rallies, Trump said Thursday that he "would certainly try."   

More than distraction 

Trump has managed to rapidly change the discussion with a single tweet throughout his presidency. 

In September 2017, Trump picked a Twitter fight with professional football players who were kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence against African Americans. The controversy shifted media attention from the escalating North Korean missile crisis and an upcoming Senate primary in Alabama – one in which the Trump-backed candidate, Luther Strange, lost to conservative Roy Moore.

A few months earlier, Trump went after President Barack Obama in a string of tweets, claiming his predecessor had wiretapped his offices in Trump Tower before Election Day and accusing him of “McCarthyism” and being a “bad (or sick) guy.” At the time, his then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was under fire for incorrectly portraying his contacts with Russian officials to a Senate committee.

But analysts said picking a fight with the “Squad” accomplishes more than controlling a news cycle for a few days. It also allows the president to set up liberals in Congress as the face of the Democratic Party, a prospect that makes it easier to draw contrasts with his opponents in the 2020 election. 

"Members of the 'Squad' are very unpopular with the president’s base and have a net negative with many swing voters across Middle America," said Kent Syler, a political scientist at Middle Tennessee State University.

"President Trump will continue to try to bait them into new conflicts," Syler predicted. "Their best strategy is to avoid the trap."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump: Democrats, analysts say flareup with Squad a distraction