And he’s presenting himself as the strongman that America needs to save it.
The former president spent Saturday night in Nevada lambasting his successor’s southern border policies, which he portrayed as a national security disaster waiting to happen. “There’s a 100% chance that there will be a major terrorist attack in the United States, so many attacks, maybe, and it’s all because of what’s happened over the last three years,” he said. And yet Trump is also trying to kill off a Senate compromise deal that might ease the situation on the border – a sign of his growing power in the GOP and of his tendency to exacerbate the kind of chaos he’s using as a rationale for his own election.
The ex-president was also quick to exploit another crisis for political gain on Sunday. After tragedy struck in the Middle East when three US troops were killed in a drone attack in Jordan, Trump put all the blame on Biden and his perceived lack of strength, claiming that current wars would never have happened if he were in the Oval Office. “(We) would right now have Peace throughout the World. Instead, we are on the brink of World War 3,” Trump said in a statement.
His attacks represent gross simplifications of complex problems and an inflated sense of his own foreign policy, which was chiefly characterized by cozying up to dictators and excoriating US allies, while turning the United States – a source of global stability for decades – into a force for disruption.
But Trump’s attacks do stress the real political peril Biden faces at home as he wrestles with the possibility that an expanding Middle Eastern war could drag the US back into a regional conflict.
Trump’s demagogic descriptions of a border under siege and a world that is laughing at US weakness come at a moment when many Americans are concerned about migrant flows at the southern border – and when bewildering world events and challenges to US power are multiplying. The atmosphere of disorder that Trump is trying to foster also coincides with a feeling among some voters that the country’s on the wrong track – especially as high grocery prices and interest rates challenge many family budgets.
So Trump’s picture of a world in disarray as Biden stands by helplessly may have some political potency.
It is also intended to play into concerns about Biden’s age and anxiety among many Americans that the 81-year-old would be unfit to lead the US in a second term.
Biden has tried to throw that back at Trump, raising questions about his temperament and mental acuity following the former president’s own recent string of campaign trail gaffes, some unhinged appearances outside courtrooms and a self-absorbed victory speech after the New Hampshire primary last week.
How events abroad interrupted Biden’s campaign swing
News of the US deaths in Jordan came with Biden on a weekend swing through South Carolina that included the most energetic campaigning of his reelection bid yet and his most intense attacks on his predecessor and want-to-be successor.
On Saturday, Biden mocked Trump as a “loser,” apparently seeking to draw him into the kind of outraged reactions that could alienate critical swing voters. He visited a barber shop, a pair of churches and a dinner ahead of the state’s first-in-the-nation Democratic primary next weekend as he sought to shore up support from Black voters – a critical part of his coalition.
But the awful news from the Middle East immediately overshadowed the trip. Biden asked for a moment of silence ahead of a Sunday lunch with a Baptist congregation for “three brave souls” the US lost in the Middle East.
“We shall respond,” he vowed.
The tragic interruption underscored how presidents seeking reelection must balance their duties with their political priorities and the way foreign crises can threaten their political fortunes.
Biden’s position is especially acute, since the expanding crisis in the Middle East is occurring at the same time as the nettlesome domestic crisis over the southern border.
Trump understands the president’s exposure well. After issuing a statement that offered “profound sympathies” to the families of the dead and prayers for the around 30 people wounded, he was quick to go on the offensive.
“This brazen attack on the United States is yet another horrific and tragic consequence of Joe Biden’s weakness and surrender,” Trump said.
Trump’s final remaining GOP opponent, former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, also used the attack to criticize Biden as weak. Haley, whose husband is a serviceman overseas, demanded immediate action to deter Iran.
“It shows that they would not be attacking our troops if Joe Biden weren’t so weak in his treatment of Iran. We should retaliate with the full force of American strength,” Haley said.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina went even further – demanding a US attack on Iran itself, an option that, if followed, could plunge the US into a disastrous war with a powerful adversary and set the region on fire.
Trump is back as a major political force
The intensification of the general election campaign confirms Trump’s return as a major political force following his first two wins in the GOP nominating race.
But his hardline stance on immigration is also exposing the splits in the Republican Party as a group of senators pushes for an immigration enforcement deal that they can sell to voters in November.
On Saturday night in Nevada – a key battleground – Trump described migrants, many of whom are fleeing political persecution and economic blight while seeking political asylum, as “criminals, rapists, murders, terrorists.”
He also made his most public effort yet to derail the compromise being finalized in the Senate that would allow the president to shut down the border between ports of entry when unlawful crossings reach high levels, to shorten the asylum process and to expedite work permits.
“As the leader of our party, there is zero chance I will support this horrible, open-borders betrayal of America. It’s not gonna happen. … I’ll fight it all the way,” Trump said. He also praised House Speaker Mike Johnson as “very tough” and backed the Louisiana Republican’s warning that the bill would be dead on arrival in the House.
Biden, after months on the defensive on immigration, also sought to exploit the issue over the weekend. He heaped pressure on Republicans to pass the bill in repudiation of the ex-president, saying it would give him “emergency authority to shut down the border until it can get back under control. If that bill were the law today, I’d shut down the border right now and fix it quickly.”
One of the president’s allies in the Senate predicted Sunday that the border deal could be ready this week.
“I was glad to hear the president come out and speak forcefully in favor of this bill. I’m hopeful that we will still have enough Republicans in the Senate who want to fix the problem at the border rather than just to do Donald Trump’s bidding, but we will see over the next 24 to 48 hours whether that’s true,” Democratic Sen. Christopher Murphy of Connecticut told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”
The showdown has also revived the long antagonism between the ex-president and key Senate leaders such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and could foreshadow the disarray that could unfold in a second Trump administration.
But given the power of pro-Trump lawmakers in the House and the pressure Trump’s piling on Johnson, it’s almost impossible to see a path through Congress for the compromise. That would be terrible news for Ukraine as the immigration package is being linked to Biden’s latest request for $60 billion in aid for Kyiv’s effort to repel Russia’s invasion. Trump also opposes that measure – in another sign of how his return to the center of Washington’s political universe is already having global ramifications.
Biden kicks campaign into high gear
Biden’s most biting attacks yet on Trump were on display when he brought up the ex-president’s refusal to visit a military ceremony in France while he was in office. Trump has denied calling US war dead “suckers and losers,” but Biden seized on the controversy in a state where the military and veterans play a huge role. “The only loser I see is Donald Trump,” Biden said, “It makes me angry.”
The president also highlighted Trump’s recent apparent mix-up of Haley and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as he raised questions about the former president’s acuity, turning Trump’s claims that he is incapable back against his 77-year-old rival.
“He’s a little confused these days,” Biden said.
And on Sunday evening, the Biden campaign issued a mocking response to a social media tirade from the former president slamming United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain after the union endorsed the current president last week.
“So…apparently losing the UAW endorsement to Joe Biden has left Donald Trump’s wounded ego with quite the SCAB,” a statement said.
It remains to be seen whether voters will buy into the image Biden and his team are trying to paint of Trump. But his reemergence as the GOP’s likely nominee is also highlighting the extraordinary liabilities that he would carry into a general election.
The stunning spectacle on Friday, for example, of a jury deciding he should pay $83 million for defaming the writer E. Jean Carroll, whom he was already found liable of sexually abusing and defaming in another civil case, exemplified the extreme legal threats facing the ex-president and the character issues that alienated suburban voters in 2020 during his election loss.
That case came to a conclusion with Washington still braced from an appeals court ruling on Trump’s expansive claims of presidential immunity that could help decide whether his federal election interference case – one of four looming criminal trials – goes ahead before Election Day in November.