Trump reviving 2016 political playbook in Biden battle

President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign is using some tactics and strategies that helped elect the nation’s 45th president in 2016.

Trump’s allies are framing 2020 as an election between a dishonest establishment politician and a political outsider being targeted for taking on the system. The outsider is Trump, and the establishment is his presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.

The strategy already centered on playing up allegations that Biden’s son, Hunter, profited off the vice presidency. Trump recently added Biden’s ties to China, the country the White House now blames for the spread of COVID-19.

And it kicked into overdrive last week when Trump seized upon revelations that Biden was informed of the investigation of ties between Russia and Michael Flynn, a senior Trump official, as evidence of a plot to undermine a presidency before it began.

Flynn’s so-called unmasking, a common request by a government official for an intelligence agency to identify someone in contact with a foreigner under surveillance, became the centerpiece of unprecedented attacks by Trump on his predecessor.

Trump said Barack Obama — and, by extension, his vice president — had perpetrated the “greatest political scam, hoax in the history of our country.”

“This was all Obama. This was all Biden. These people were corrupt — the whole thing was corrupt — and we caught them,” Trump said. “People should be going to jail for this stuff.”

The Biden campaign quickly pushed back, denying wrongdoing and noting the routine practice of unmasking to help officials understand intelligence. They paint Trump’s reaction as a tired play that will have little effect on voters who have watched three years of a scattershot presidency now struggling to handle the pandemic.

“We have a president who doesn’t want to talk about the central issue in this campaign right now,” said Mike Donilon, one of Biden’s longest-serving advisers. “This isn’t new. It’s not like Trump started attacking the vice president today or yesterday. He’s been at him all year long.”

The president, Donilon asserted, falls back on “an all-out effort to try to take people away from what they’re living through,” describing a tactic that he acknowledged “has succeeded in the past in terms of throwing up distractions and smokescreen.”

Polls suggest an uphill climb for a reprisal against Biden. Fewer voters dislike Biden than they did Hillary Clinton. And in 2016, voters who had negative views of both candidates overwhelmingly broke for Trump; for now, they favor Biden.

There are other inherent limitations to Trump’s effort to repeat his 2016 strategy.

The FBI investigated Clinton’s use of the email server and, while it did not bring charges, the fallout was politically damaging. But while the optics of the younger Biden’s lucrative work in China and with a Ukrainian gas company have frustrated some Democrats, no one has charged either father or son with any wrongdoing.

And it was Trump’s push for Ukraine to find politically damaging dirt on the Bidens that led to the president’s impeachment.

But the storyline won’t go away. Trump’s Senate allies will hold hearings into the younger Biden’s work overseas to portray the former vice president as a longtime Washington insider whose family benefited from his stature.

“From his involvement in the unmasking of General Flynn to his son Hunter Biden repeatedly landing lucrative foreign business deals while his father was vice president, Joe Biden embodies the D.C. swamp,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Sarah Matthews.

“It’s a reminder that Trump is the outsider trying to take on those who were entrenched in power for decades,” said Jason Miller, a top aide on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “And if Trump is the outsider, Biden is the insider.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.