Trump to send Betsy DeVos, Rick Perry and scores of others to Iowa on caucus day

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<span>Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP</span>
Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

One observer calls it “smart”. Another brands it “desperate”. Either way, Donald Trump is determined to steal Democrats’ thunder by sending more than 80 of his best-known – and most controversial – surrogates to Iowa on caucus day.

White House officials, cabinet secretaries, members of Congress and Christian evangelicals will be in the Hawkeye state on Monday, when Democrats take their first step to choosing their 2020 presidential nominee, to offer voters a stark reminder of who and what that candidate will be up against.

The intervention shows the US president’s determination to present his campaign as an intimidating juggernaut roaring towards inevitable victory. His audacious lineup illustrates that, true to form, he will be eager to embrace outrage and division rather than shy away from them like a conventional politician.

“Our caucus day operation is just a preview of what is to come,” said Brad Parscale, Trump 2020 campaign manager. “This will be the strongest, best-funded, and most organized presidential campaign in history. We are putting the Democrats on notice –good luck trying to keep up with this formidable re-election machine.”

Among the surrogates will be Paula White, a televangelist and religious adviser to the US president, recently caught on video declaring during a church service in Florida: “In the name of Jesus, we command all satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now.” White has claimed that she was quoted out of context for political ends.

Related: 'Satanic wombs': the outlandish world of Trump's spiritual adviser

As Trump seeks to shore up his rightwing religious base, Jerry Falwell Jr, president of Liberty University, one of the world’s biggest Christian colleges, will also be deployed. He has previously opined there was nothing that Trump could do that would threaten his support from evangelical leaders. It has been reported that Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen intervened in 2016 to ensure that racy “personal” photographs of Falwell were destroyed.

Ken Blackwell, Penny Nance and Ralph Reed, Pro-Life Voices for Trump advisory board members, will be on the ground, reflecting the president’s personal reinvention as a scourge of abortion rights. Last week he became the first sitting president to address the March for Life in Washington.

Neil Sroka, a spokesman for the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, said: “When you have an absolutely amoral, unrepentantly bigoted president, you’re going to need to turn out the religious sell-outs to try to hold together the Republican coalition.”

The president’s surrogate army, spreading out across the state, will further include Mick Mulvaney, the White House acting chief of staff; the housing secretary, Ben Carson; the education secretary, Betsy DeVos; the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross; and the former energy secretary Rick Perry.

Related: Trump tells anti-abortion activists at March for Life: 'I am fighting for you'

And in a glimpse of the coming campaign, some of Trump’s biggest defenders during the impeachment hearings in Washington will make his case to voters at Iowa caucus sites. Among them are Matt Gaetz of Florida, Jim Jordan of Ohio, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Elise Stefanik of New York and Liz Cheney of Wyoming – daughter of the former vice-president Dick Cheney.

Trump with and Paula White in Miami this month.
Trump with and Paula White in Miami this month. Photograph: Larry Marano/Rex/Shutterstock

There is also a place for the former White House communications director Bill Shine, who was ousted from Fox News after being accused in multiple civil lawsuits of covering up sexual misconduct by the channel’s founding chairman, Roger Ailes. He denied any wrongdoing. Shine’s wife, Darla, has made racially incendiary comments and pushed false anti-vaccination claims on Twitter.

As the Democratic candidates Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and others gear up for the long-awaited caucuses, the mass deployment could be seen as a sign of fear in the Trump camp. Sroka, of Democracy for America, commented: “Sounds like someone is a little worried that somebody else will get press coverage! They seem to be nervous.

“It’s clear they are absolutely desperate to have themselves injected into a news cycle that wasn’t all about Trump. This level of intervention reeks of desperation and it’s only going to get worse for them. As more people tune in, they will see how weak the arguments are for Trump and how much better the alternatives are.”

A veteran of New York tabloids and reality TV, Trump is a master of seizing media attention. He is due to hold a campaign rally in Iowa on Thursday night – just as the incumbent Ronald Reagan did in 1984 – and another in New Hampshire before next week’s first Democratic primary.

Related: Bernie Sanders surges in Iowa poll ahead of caucuses

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “It shows you the Trump campaign has thought ahead and they don’t want the Democrats, during the next six months of primaries, to have massive media hits every week.

“It shows you the campaign is going to bust into the Democratic media moments and make sure they steal their time. It will be impossible for the media not to give them some attention and coverage. This is about Trump trying to charge up his party, contesting media time and sending a message to his base: it’s time to get in order. It’s smart.”

Trump finished runner-up to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in Iowa in 2016. This year the Republican caucuses will be spectacularly uncompetitive as the two challengers, Bill Weld and Joe Walsh, failed to gain traction. And polls suggest the incumbent will be hard for Democrats to beat in Iowa in the November election.

But some farmers’ groups have been critical of Trump’s trade war and support for big corporations. Patty Judge, chair of Focus on Rural America and former lieutenant-governor of Iowa, said: “Iowans aren’t interested in hearing Donald Trump offer more promises that he won’t keep.

“Having crafted some of the biofuels policies that have driven economic opportunity in rural Iowa, I’m deeply saddened to see him prioritise waivers for Exxon and Chevron over farmers and homegrown biofuel facilities, abandoning the engines that drive many small towns and rural economies.”

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