WASHINGTON — The pair of outside groups tied closely to President Donald Trump has retained the top Republican opposition group in an effort to smother Democrats seeking to challenge him — and perhaps even help pick his 2020 challenger.
The early move is part of Trump and his allies’ plan to dominate the Democratic presidential primary and push to have the nominating contest play out on their terms, especially since Trump himself has been uncharacteristically quiet in the new year about top Democratic White House hopefuls, preoccupied with the partial government shutdown and his push for a border wall.
America First Policies and its affiliated super PAC have made significant investments in the opposition group America Rising, funding their efforts to dig into the top Democratic contenders — along with some second-tier candidates — and prep opposition research books on all of them, according to five sources involved or familiar with the plans.
Those close to Trump say the work from America Rising will be used against Democrats in the primary to hammer candidates they think will be most challenging for Trump to beat, weakening the overall field and the eventual Democratic nominee.
“They are important partners of America First, and we’ve already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to help build a robust, substantive research operation for 2020,” said Erin Montgomery, a spokesperson for America First in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
The relationship with America Rising — which launched in the aftermath of the 2012 election as a counter to the well-funded Democratic opposition group American Bridge — is not entirely new. America First Action Inc., the super PAC arm, paid America Rising $175,000 in July 2018 for “research consulting,” and the two, Montgomery said, have been working together since 2017.
But those familiar with the plans say the 2020 work will be much more closely aligned and a way for Trump’s orbit to play in a Democratic presidential primary.
“This is going to be a gigantic field and going to require an aggressive effort from Republicans,” said one of the Republicans involved.
Neither America First nor America Rising disclosed exactly how much they have invested in the 2020 partnership so far.
America First’s partnership with America Rising, and the close setup of the reelection campaign with the Republican National Committee, is a stark contrast to Trump’s first White House bid, when the relationship between Trump’s campaign and the RNC was rocky and Trump was backed by a number of outside groups set up by warring factions of allies.
Trump’s campaign has already raised more than $100 million, as Democrats just begin to lay the groundwork for potential campaigns.
So far, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the only top-tier contender to announce an exploratory committee. When she announced on New Year’s Eve, Trump was already dealing with the partial government shutdown. His attacks on her since — after years of calling her "Pocahontas" and attacking her at rallies — have largely been limited to his comments during an interview on Fox News. Asked in the interview if Warren could beat him, Trump responded: “Well, that I don't know. You’d have to ask her psychiatrist."
But his taunts had already done some damage for her before she announced.
Two years of Trump mocking Warren's claim regarding her Native American heritage resulted in Warren actually taking a DNA test and releasing a video with the results. Her efforts to change the subject with evidence angered some Native Americans and gave Republicans even more fodder for attacks. Trump tweeted a graphic from the conservative website the Daily Wire last week mocking the DNA test. On her first trip to Iowa, it was the first question a voter asked her in Sioux City.
"She totally fell for his trap," said Andy Surabian, a GOP strategist advising Trump's campaign. "That doesn't buoy her argument and just made her look ridiculous.”
As he gets more into reelection mode, Trump will continue to taunt and name-call potential 2020 Democratic challengers in an attempt to goad them into a response, those close to Trump say. They believe Trump could force other Democrats into similar stunts by "living rent-free in their minds," beginning with the nicknames he's coming up with for certain Democrats he's trying to preemptively define before they announce their intentions to run.
"President Trump has the ability to infect the psyche of Democrats in a way that no politician has had the power to do," Surabian said. "He knows what to say to get in their heads."
Other high-profile Democrats are expected to officially join the primary race soon. Former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro, who already has an exploratory committee, is expected to announce this week. California Sen. Kamala Harris, who has also been making 2020 moves, released a new memoir this week and has been on a media blitz promoting it.
As each Democratic candidate makes the case that he or she is best suited to go up against Trump, the president will start counterpunching well before the general election if he thinks he is being attacked. Already, he has gone after Warren, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former vice president Joe Biden in tweets and on the midterm campaign trail.
“So far, I’m dreaming of those candidates,” Trump said at a rally in Kansas late last year. “I see those candidates before my eyes. Every night before I go to sleep. Sometimes while I’m sleeping, I love them so much.”
Despite Republicans’ performance in the 2018 election, Trump, sources say, believes he was not responsible for the losses and is ready for another campaign.
“2020 is kind of like in the WWE,” said a former White House official, “where they have seven or eight guys fight for the majority of the match and then the Undertaker strolls up and pins everybody after they’ve exhausted themselves.”