WASHINGTON – Trailing in the polls and sidelined from the big campaign rallies that he feeds on, President Donald Trump has found another venue to go after Joe Biden: the White House.
Three times this week, Trump turned the executive mansion into a stage for delivering searing campaign-style attacks on his Democratic rival.
Trump was just six minutes into what was billed as a Rose Garden news conference on Tuesday when he abruptly detoured from his tough talk on China and launched into a lengthy verbal assault against the former vice president.
In the sweltering summer heat, Trump recited a litany of grievances against Biden that touched on trade, the coronavirus pandemic, the Paris climate accord, the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and even the former vice president’s son, Hunter Biden.
“Joe Biden’s entire career has been a gift to the Chinese Communist Party,” Trump said, calling the former vice president out by name 30 times during his hourlong monologue.
While Trump scheduled the Rose Garden gathering ostensibly to announce new trade moves against China, “it was so apparent it was a campaign event,” political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said. “It was shocking in that regard.”
Two days later, Trump tore into Biden on the White House South Lawn in what was billed as an official event focused on rolling back federal regulations. The stagecraft, however, had all the flair of a campaign rally.
Directly behind the podium bearing the presidential seal were two Chevy pickup trucks – one blue, one red. The back of the blue truck was filled with mock anvil-like weights representing the burden of federal regulations. To hammer home the message that Trump has lifted that burden, three of the fake weights were suspended mid-air over the red truck by a giant crane bearing the banner “Trump Administration.”
Halfway through his remarks, Trump ripped into Biden, ominously warning that the former vice president and “his bosses from the radical left” are intent on restoring federal regulations that would destroy the nation’s suburbs, which make up a key voting bloc in the upcoming election.
“Suburbia will be no longer as we know it,” Trump said.
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Trump’s attacks on Biden at those two events raised eyebrows not only because of their content but also because of the setting.
Just steps from the Oval Office, the Rose Garden is normally used as the backdrop for official receptions, bill signings and presidential pronouncements. John F. Kennedy honored the Project Mercury astronauts there. Richard Nixon’s daughter, Tricia, was married there amid the flowers and well-manicured shrubbery. Bill Clinton hosted the leaders of Israel and Jordan there to sign a historic declaration of peace.
The South Lawn is often the scene of State Dinners and formal arrival ceremonies for heads of state, decorous affairs filled with pomp and circumstance, 21-gun salutes and presidential inspections of the nation’s troops.
Both venues traditionally have been considered off limits to campaign-style theatrics.
Other presidents facing a tough, fast-approaching election have resorted to the so-called “Rose Garden Strategy,” making public pronouncements or staging carefully orchestrated events at the White House to boost their political prospects. But none have actually used the Rose Garden to whack an opponent in the way Trump went after Biden.
Past presidents have respected the wall that has traditionally been in place to separate official government functions from campaign activities, political analysts say. But this is one wall Trump has chosen to tear down.
“Here, there’s no wall,” Rothenberg said. Trump “will toss in comparisons to Biden, no matter where he is and whatever the event.”
‘Where are you, Joe?’
With the election just a little more than three months away, Trump has been itching to restart his campaign rallies that for the most part have been put on hold since mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But a much-hyped rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20 failed to draw the hoped-for crowd: Just 6,000 people showed up, putting Trump in the awkward position of addressing an arena with thousands of empty seats. An outdoor rally scheduled for July 11 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was abruptly canceled – purportedly over concerns of bad weather – amid fears of another disappointing turnout.
What’s more, Republicans who are planning a four-day “celebration” in Florida where Trump is set to accept the GOP presidential nomination next month may be forced to scale back the festivities to a single day because of the coronavirus.
With uncertainty hovering over his campaign, Trump has resorted to turning official White House functions into de facto political events.
Over the past two months alone, Trump has attacked Biden during at least 10 official events organized by the White House, according to an analysis by USA TODAY.
On Monday, the day before his anti-Biden broadsides in the Rose Garden, Trump lashed out at his Democratic rival during a White House East Room roundtable discussion featuring police officers and people whose lives have been positively impacted by them.
Trump praised the officers as heroes, but he also complained that “far-left mayors are escalating the anti-cop crusade” and decried murders in “radical lib” cities like Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia.
“If that’s what you want for a country, you probably have to vote for Sleepy Joe Biden, because he doesn’t know what’s happening,” Trump said. “But you’re not going to have it with me.”
On June 23, at an event with young Americans at Dream City Church in Phoenix, Trump repeatedly invoked Biden’s name and questioned the former vice president’s mental acuity.
“Now Biden is going around like he’s a tough guy,” Trump said. “You know, he doesn’t know where the hell he is. Where – where are you, Joe? Joe? Where are you, Joe? Tell me where you are, Joe.”
The next day, June 24, Trump slammed Biden during a Rose Garden news conference with President Andrzej Duda of Poland. After Duda mentioned that Russia attacked Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, Trump interrupted him to note that President Barack Obama “and Sleepy Joe Biden” were in power at the time. “It hasn’t happened with us, and it won’t happen with us either,” he promised.
A week earlier, at a June 15 roundtable discussion for seniors, Trump complained to those gathered in the White House Cabinet Room that Germany owed billions of dollars to NATO. “This isn’t a new phenomenon. This has (been) going on for many years, where they’ve taken advantage of the United States,” he said. “But everybody has – under Biden and under Obama.”
‘Entitled to fight back’
Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates slammed Trump for using official government functions to attack his political rival.
“Even after six straight months of catastrophically mismanaging the worst public health crisis in over 100 years, costing almost 140,000 Americans their lives and tens of millions their jobs, Donald Trump still has no strategy to pull us out of this tailspin as the U.S. leads the world in infections,” Bates said. “Instead, he’s forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for unstable rants about Joe Biden, who this self-described consummate dealmaker has apparently given unlimited mental real estate.”
Trump’s campaign brushed off such criticism.
“Democrats and the media are desperate to muzzle President Trump,” campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said. “They don’t want him tweeting, they don’t want him holding rallies, they don’t want him speaking at Mount Rushmore, and now they don’t want him holding press conferences. Every week, Joe Biden reads speeches off the teleprompter attacking the president, and the media gleefully reports every word, and President Trump is entitled to fight back.”
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‘Problematic,’ but not illegal
Legal experts said that while Trump’s use of campaign-style rhetoric during official government events might be questionable, it’s not against the law.
An eight-decade-old law known as the Hatch Act bars government employees from engaging in political activity on government time, but that law does not apply to the president, said Delaney Marsco, an attorney with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
Regardless, Trump “should refrain from blending his political activity with his government activity, which is work for all of the American people,” Marsco said.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said the president “should be able to address the American people on any topic from any location.”
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows also said he saw nothing wrong with Trump’s anti-Biden rhetoric in the Rose Garden on Tuesday.
“Everything that Joe Biden does right now is certainly political in context,” Meadows told reporters Wednesday aboard Air Force One while returning from a trip to Atlanta with the president.
Trump’s Rose Garden event followed a Biden speech in which the former vice president laid out his proposal to spend $2 trillion over four years to spur development of more energy. Meadows said Trump simply used his Rose Garden remarks to highlight some of his differences with the policies outlined in Biden’s speech.
“Normally you would call that a legitimate debate,” he said.
But melding politics with official activity is “problematic if not illegal,” Marsco said. Yet, she noted, members of the president’s staff do the same thing.
‘Egregious, notorious and ongoing’
The Office of Special Counsel, a federal watchdog agency, recommended last year that Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to Trump, be removed from her job after repeatedly violating the Hatch Act. The watchdog called Conway a “repeat offender” of the Hatch Act for disparaging Democratic presidential candidates and for two television interviews in which she spoke for and against Alabama candidates for U.S. Senate in 2017. Her offenses are “egregious, notorious and ongoing,” the watchdog’s report said.
Another watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, filed a complaint Wednesday against Meadows that said he appeared to violate the Hatch Act twice during recent television interviews. The complaint said Meadows – in his official capacity as White House chief of staff – endorsed the Republican candidate running for his former congressional seat, advocated for Trump’s re-election and frequently launched into attacks on Biden during the interviews.
“This administration has continually stepped over the line with the blending of political and official activity,” Marsco said.
While ethics laws generally don’t apply to the president, “we are used to generations of presidents holding themselves to high ethical norms,” said Jordan Libowitz, the spokesman for CREW. “With this president, the standard seems to be can I get away with it?”
For his part, Trump, a television reality star turned politician, seems to revel in bringing a bit of campaign-style panache to the formality of the White House.
“These trucks – this is really great,” Trump said, pausing during his South Lawn remarks on Thursday to admire the stage props behind him. “I don’t know who thought of this idea, but it’s actually quite, quite simple – and quite good.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump moves campaign-style events to White House amid pandemic