President Trump's reelection campaign is struggling to convince voters to back a second term despite nearly 112,000 U.S. deaths from COVID-19, the second-worst unemployment level since the Great Depression and a historic surge of national protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
And he may be digging himself into deeper trouble.
Even as polls show sliding support for the president among older voters, Trump suggested Tuesday that a 75-year-old protester who fell and hit his head on the sidewalk — drawing blood — after being shoved by a pair of armed police officers may have deliberately provoked police or faked his injuries.
"I watched, he fell harder than he was pushed," Trump tweeted, seeming to defend the two Buffalo, N.Y., officers who were charged with felony assault on local peace activist Martin Gugino, who remains hospitalized after the incident Thursday. "Could be a set-up?" Trump asked.
Even some Republicans who typically defend Trump were aghast.
"The President’s penchant for trafficking in conspiracy theories is, politically speaking, going to ruin him," tweeted Ari Fleischer, who was President George W. Bush's press secretary. "This is reckless. He doesn’t know when to stop."
Trump's tweet, which spread an unfounded theory he had seen on a right-wing cable TV channel, provided the latest example of the lack of discipline and empathy that has worsened the president's political plight five months before election day.
The commotion erupted days after six former secretaries of defense, among others, condemned Trump's threat to deploy military troops to put down the overwhelmingly peaceful protests that have erupted around the country since George Floyd died May 25 in Minneapolis after a police officer held a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
For now, polls suggest Trump is the weakest incumbent since President George H. W. Bush, beset by economic woes, lost his reelection bid in 1992. The Trump campaign’s internal polling is just as dismal as a raft of public surveys that show presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden building a significant lead.
Biden is up roughly 10 points in an average of the most recent national polls and holds a 25-point edge with women. More worrying for the president, Trump has seen eroding support from white men, the bedrock of his base, in internal polling, according to a person familiar with the data who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Trump's aides hope to regain ground before November by trumpeting any signs of recovery for an economy that officially entered a deep recession in February, at the start of the coronavirus crisis, and by touting a tough "law and order" response to the civil unrest, including unstinting support for police.
Trump is desperate to re-energize his base and get back on TV by restarting the raucous campaign rallies that he was forced to stop in mid-March, after coronavirus guidelines limited public gatherings.
Rallies could resume this month, although plans for keeping attendees safe from the virus remain in flux. Trump's campaign also wants to conduct in-person voter registration, beefing up the largely shoestring 2016 operation.
The president's insistence on receiving his party's nomination with the pomp and pageantry of a capacity crowd is diverting attention and resources from the campaign as it seeks to reboot.
Party officials are scrambling to find a new city to host the Republican National Convention after Trump last week scotched the planned late-August event in Charlotte, complaining that North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper would not promise to lift all restrictions on large gatherings. Officials have focused on Jacksonville, Fla., as a likely replacement.
“There’s been a lot of dust that's happened over the last 90 days, so the outlook and the vision of the remainder of this year, with what we’ve gone through already in 2020, you just never know,” said Immanuel Jarvis, the Republican chairman for Durham County in North Carolina, a key battleground state.
Jarvis, who is Black, finds fault with Trump's response to the racial protests around the country, wishing the president had shown more empathy. He cringed at Tuesday's tweet. But he believes voters will forgive Trump.
"The reason there are so many Americans who can’t wait to run to the ballot box on election day and to circle his name is because they believe he’s really standing up for them," he said.
Increasingly unnerved by the polling data, Trump has approved hiring several staffers who were part of his 2016 campaign. The most prominent is Jason Miller, an acolyte of former strategist Steve Bannon, who promoted Trump's embrace of right-wing nationalism.
Miller has spoken to Trump "several times a day" of late, according to a person involved in the reelection effort. Several aides view his hire as evidence that Trump has lost some trust in campaign manager Brad Parscale and his close ally, Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior advisor.
Further staff changes are likely in coming days, according to a person close to the campaign.
“I don’t think it’s an overreaction to polling as much as kind of doldrums that I think [Trump] wants to shake things up,” the person said.
At the moment, the campaign's road map for a successful reboot relies less on strategy than on external factors: hopes of a dramatic economic upswing before November, Biden's inability to parry blows and the ardent enthusiasm of Trump's base. In a word, luck.
"We have high confidence that the economy will continue to return," said Tim Murtaugh, the campaign communications director. "Joe Biden is left to the proposition of clinging to bad news … to actively have to root against Americans for your own political fortune."
In a sign of the campaign's nervousness, however, it has aired television ads in Ohio and Iowa, working-class battleground states that Trump won easily in 2016 but now look more competitive.
The main super PAC backing Trump is also running anti-Biden ads, primarily in three battleground states that were key to Trump's 2016 win: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Polls show Trump trailing Biden in all three.
Trump's campaign will try to portray him as the outsider and brand Biden as the establishment choice, given his decades of service in Washington, Murtaugh said. But there is internal disagreement about which attacks will be effective against the former vice president.
For instance, Trump has slammed Biden for supporting the 1994 crime bill, which put 100,000 additional police officers on America's streets, and simultaneously has accused him of seeking to "defund" law enforcement in league with "radical Democrats."
Biden's campaign this week said he doesn't support calls to defund police, a key demand of some protesters.
"Democrats are completely playing into our hands by talking about firing cops instead of the 40 million Americans out of work," said one operative involved in the president's reelection, who sees the issue as one that can help Trump win back some of the white suburban voters he has lost.
"Nothing motivates quite like fear," the operative said.
But playing on voters' anxieties is harder for the incumbent. And much of the president's incendiary comments and tweets could contribute to an "exhaustion factor," the operative acknowledged, in which voters opt for a safe, establishment choice after years of tumult.
"When you're the incumbent, you want to run on peace, prosperity and 'let me finish what I started,'" said Ed Rogers, a former top White House aide to President George H. W. Bush. "What's the job Trump wants voters to let him finish?"