ANALYSIS — For Donald Trump, it may always be 2016.
The president is running for reelection in 2020, but a wild Friday morning television interview showed anew just how laser-focused he remains on things that happened — and that he and right-wing lawmakers and commentators claim went down — three years ago.
“They were spying on my campaign,” Trump declared, implicating then-President Barack Obama: “And it went right up to the top.”
Trump has not hidden his inability to put the 2016 race behind him, and his frustration only seems to grow.
“This was spying on my campaign, something that has never been done in the history of our country,” he told the “Fox & Friends” morning show. “This was an overthrow attempt at the presidency.”
The president is gearing up for what polls suggest will be a tough 2020 general election with whoever wins the Democratic nomination. But he said Friday that while he expects to face off with former Vice President Joe Biden “if he can make it through” despite allegedly being “off” mentally, he is not quite ready to pivot to 2020.
One reason appears to be his anger about 2016, which means he likely will drag into his reelection fight a Justice Department probe of its own Russia election-meddling investigation, which was taken over and completed by former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.
“They thought I was going to win and they said, ‘How can we stop him?’” Trump said, looking backward. “They wrote up the phony, fake … disgusting dossier.”
He was referring to a packet of information that painted him in a severely negative light that was compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele for research firm Fusion GPS. Trump on Friday repeated his false assertion that work on the dossier was financed exclusively by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
The president’s claim that Clinton’s campaign — and he has previously said the Democratic Party stroked the checks — paid for the Steele dossier is murky at best. Whenever he has discussed the dossier, Trump excludes any mention that an unknown “Republican client” funded the firm’s work on his Russia ties even before the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee inquired about retaining its services. That means, based on Fusion GPS chief Glenn Simpson’s testimony and reporting from major media outlets, it would be more accurate to say the dossier was paid for in part by a law firm connected to the Clinton campaign.
But, for the president, saying Clinton and Democrats paid a British spy to collect “fake” information about him has been a useful talking point since he took office. Expect that to continue from now until Election Day.
Vague hints at undefined future revelations
His 2016 obsession dominated the first half of the nearly hourlong Fox interview.
Trump also predicted a criminal case against a former FBI lawyer accused of altering a document related to the bureau’s probe of Russia’s 2016 election meddling and his campaign will be the “biggest scandal” in American political history.
“It will be incredible, if it’s done right,” Trump said of the Justice Department’s investigation of its own investigation.
He even suggested some former Obama administration officials could have hell to pay — or at least that he might threaten something like that on the campaign trail.
“If it’s historic, you’re going to see something,” he said in his signature cryptic way.
He promised — kind of — to allow Attorney General William P. Barr “to handle everything” related to the Justice Department’s internal investigation of its Russia investigation. But, just like with Mueller’s probe, Trump said there is nothing legally prohibiting him from reaching deep into the effort and leaving his fingerprints all over its conclusions.
“I think this is nothing compared to what you’ll see over the next couple of weeks,” Trump said of the coming Justice Department inspector general report on the matter.
But he also was asked about 2020. His response was almost to mock Democrats, saying their impeachment inquiry already is backfiring in the states that will matter most.
Trump offered some bravado by predicting that enough House Democrats will be swayed by polling data showing skepticism of the impeachment probe in swing states to vote against the expected articles of impeachment.
“I don’t expect it. … I think it’s very hard to impeach you when they have absolutely nothing,” he said, contradicting House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, who on Thursday delivered an impassioned closing statement that accused Trump of corrupt dealings with Ukraine. “You’ve seen the polls over the last week. I’m going through the roof. In Wisconsin, I’m way up over every Democrat,” Trump said.
He appeared to be referring to a Marquette Law School poll that showed him leading the four top Democratic presidential candidates in hypothetical head-to-head races by 3 percentage points (former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders), 5 percentage points (Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren), and 8 points (South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg).
RealClearPolitics’ average of polls in Wisconsin show him leading Warren narrowly and trailing Biden and Sanders in very close races; those averages all are within the margins of error of those polls, suggesting dead heats in the Badger State with less than a year to go.
“You have two elections. You have the Electoral College. You have popularity,” Trump said, revealing his thinking about how to win a presidential race. “I like to go for the Electoral College.”
And as he does, the calendar might read “2020,” but it’s likely to sound a lot like 2016 all over again.