DES MOINES — While the eyes of the country are on the Democratic caucus in Iowa tonight, the Trump campaign is holed up in a Sheraton in West Des Moines with dozens of famous supporters and officials in tow to flex their muscle and grab some of the spotlight.
Their message is unified: They’re here to show Iowans that the president’s reelection campaign hasn’t forgotten them, that Trump is eager for November, and that he can take on whichever nominee Democrats eventually choose.
But scratch the surface and you find growing concern over the unmistakable rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders. It would be easy to think of the concern as disingenuous. What better competitor could Trump face than an avowed socialist, the epitome of the demonic “far left” that he’s been screaming about — at rallies, on Twitter, in interviews — for months? And don’t Trump and his people lie all the time anyway? Maybe they’re just saying that because he’s the competitor they actually want.
“If you pick one candidate right now, the passion of Bernie followers is concerning,” Rep. Mark Meadows said here before listing the attributes of other candidates who could pose a challenge for the Trump campaign — Joe Biden’s “moderate policy,” Mike Bloomberg’s money, Pete Buttigieg’s “more direct policy conversations.”
“Bernie Sanders’ followers are more of a concern to me than anybody else,” he said. “They have a passion and, in a way, they tap into what Donald Trump tapped into, but they do it on the left. It’s an antiestablishment, 'we want to mix things up' kind of environment. That’s why Sanders will continue to be a factor, and it’s why a lot of people see him not just as a legitimate contender but the contender to beat. So if I had to pick one person I’m most concerned about, it would be Bernie Sanders.”
Meadows was one of dozens of surrogates flown into Iowa by the Trump campaign to fan across the state and rally caucusgoers in a race that is totally meaningless (apologies to Joe Walsh and Bill Weld). Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross sat, quiet and alone, in the shadow of the Sheraton’s vast indoor waterfall, apparently willing himself to stay awake. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager in 2016, has rejoined the reelection effort and was inseparable from David Bossie, another once-fired aide who has also rejoined. Firebrand pastor Paula White, who last week publicly prayed for women to miscarry if they were carrying “Satanic babies,” milled around, as did pastor Jerry Falwell Jr., Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and former Energy secretary Rick Perry. Mike Lindell, better known as the My Pillow guy, said the Trump campaign had called him last week to join the effort. The campaign only announced the push — not a thing reelection campaigns normally do — last Monday, a week before the caucus.
Before they fanned out across the state, the guests of honor took the three front rows in what was billed as a press conference at the hotel by campaign manager Brad Parscale, the president's sons Eric and Don Jr., and their partners, Lara Trump and Kimberly Guilfoyle.
The event felt better suited to a Trump rally. There was an introductory soundtrack — Adele, Guns n' Roses, Britney Spears, Aerosmith. When the five took the stage and arranged behind a lectern that read “Keep Iowa Great,” the surrogates leaped to their feet and broke into applause.
Parscale said the Trump campaign had built the “largest grassroots army we’ve ever seen” and that it was time to “kick the training wheels off and see how it’s going.”
“We’ve built a well-oiled machine,” he said, “and tonight will be the first test of that machine.”
Lara said they “don’t take a single vote for granted. ... We’re here in Iowa to show the people that we take the election seriously.” Guilfoyle went into attack mode, saying “the liberals, the Democrats, the socialists, the communists — that’s the other side, that’s the juxtaposition — have lost their minds but we have not lost our way. And with the help of God, we will get this done.” Eric lauded the campaign’s huge coffers — nearly $200 million cash on hand — and Don Jr. did his thing, making sure to promote his book, Triggered, several times, including when he was interrupted by a protester accusing the president and his family of spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and prompting the rise in anti-Semitic attacks around the country.
Asked whom Trump was eager to fight against in the general, both Parscale and Don Jr. launched into conspiracy mode, hinting that the Democratic machine was mobilizing to “rig the primary” to make sure that Sanders didn’t get the nomination.
“I think Bernie will do well,” Parscale went on to say before being quietly tapped by Don Jr. and moving on. “The president is a fighter. I’ve never sat with him, one time, and he goes 'That’s the guy I want—’ or woman. He can take all of them on.”
Don Jr. took the mic to shift the focus to Biden — a candidate the campaign has long been concerned about, to the degree that impeachment is unfolding the same time as the Iowa caucus.
“I think one thing that should be pointed out — while obviously it seems like there’s a good surge in Bernie and obviously a lot of support, I mean — Joe Biden had Iowa to himself for what, three weeks? Because of the impeachment sham,” he said, saying it was an example of “Nancy Pelosi actively trying to keep Bernie off the trail,” while failing to mention that Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar were also confined to DC while the Senate deliberated whether to remove Trump. Biden wasn’t exactly alone either, with Buttigieg and Andrew Yang storming Iowa at the same time. Don Jr. continued: “If Biden doesn’t win big, I mean, he’s probably in a lot of trouble, right?”
“It’s one thing to hide him in a field of 17, it’s another to try to hide Joe when he’s running alone against Trump for six months," he said, "and that’s a fight I would pay a lot of money to see.”
He ended by saying: “It’ll be a lot of fun and I promise you one thing: Over the next 10 months, Donald Trump will make this very entertaining for you all.” Maybe it depends on your definition of "entertaining."