World·Analysis

Donald Trump's re-election campaign is bleeding votes. A new book adds fresh paper cuts

The forthcoming tell-all book from former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton will likely not rattle Donald Trump's base of supporters. But the problem for the U.S. president is that there aren't enough of those voters to guarantee his re-election in November. He needs swing voters.

Tell-all by former aide John Bolton hands new material to the president's rivals

U.S. President Donald Trump with John Bolton, right, when he was national security adviser, pictured at the White House last year. Bolton's new book could pose a political headache for Trump in an election year. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

One tell-all book from a disgruntled, score-settling former aide will likely not rattle Donald Trump's base of stalwart supporters.

The base might brush off John Bolton's forthcoming book, The Room Where It Happened. It might vilify the former national security adviser, call him a liar or, conversely, suggest he be charged for leaking state secrets.

Streams of ink and star clusters of pixels have been devoted to media tales about the unwavering allegiance of the U.S. president's unshakeable base. But there's just one problem for Trump: there aren't enough of those supporters to guarantee his re-election in November. He needs swing voters.

And this book, due to be published June 23, from a former insider delivers a few paper cuts to a campaign that's already begun bleeding support among those critical voters.

Trump is nearly 10 percentage points behind Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in the latest national polls, and a key reason seems to be the souring mood among a small cohort of past Republican voters.

That's compounded by his dismal score among centrist voters. In one example among many, one poll this week showed a 27-point gap between Trump and Biden among self-described moderates.

One disenchanted Republican who happened to work with Bolton in George W. Bush's White House said this book alone isn't a problem for Trump.

'You can make an ad out of that'

What it does do, Canadian-American writer David Frum said in an interview, is add to a treasure trove of material for attack ads aimed at swing voters.

The new damaging comments will, he said, compound ones made by other former Trump aides, including John Kelly, James Mattis and Rex Tillerson, who served as chief of staff, defence secretary and secretary of state, respectively.

"You can make an ad out of that," said Frum, an unsparing critic of the current president who wrote a book, Trumpocalypse, about ideas for renewing U.S. democracy in a post-Trump era.

Political commentator and author David Frum, pictured in an interview with CBC News in January 2018, says Bolton's book will provide material for attack ads directed at Trump. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"What the people who are [less-committed voters] will hear is Trump's former secretary of state Rex Tillerson called him a ... moron. Trump's former secretary of defence James Mattis said the only member of our military [Trump] respects is Colonel Sanders. Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton said that Trump asked the Chinese to help him win re-election....

"You put up the faces and the quotes, and you send a message to people who say, 'I took a chance on him in 2016' ... It turns out everyone close to him in a national-security position thinks he's dangerous and incompetent."

The China angle

One part of the book, published in an excerpt in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, poses a particular political headache for Trump.

It involves China.

It's almost impossible to overstate how central it is to Trump's re-election message that he's the China hawk in the election race.

Text messages are constantly going out to Trump supporters encouraging them to amplify specific China-related messages in their social-media feeds.

WATCH | The Room Where It Happened makes explosive allegations:

According to several U.S. media reports, John Bolton's new book alleges that U.S. President Donald Trump is uninformed and all his decisions were made with the 2020 presidential election in mind. 2:00

They include China being responsible for COVID-19, Chinese trade being the source of problems for American workers, allegations that Biden, a former vice-president, is soft on China and that Biden's son has questionable business connections in China.

Biden, who described the published details in the book as "morally repugnant," now has an abundant supply of fresh material with which to counter-attack.

Allegations and denials

In the excerpt published this week, Bolton claims Trump personally asked China's Xi Jinping to help him win re-election by buying more U.S. farm goods. 

Bolton also alleges Trump encouraged the Chinese president to build concentration camps for members of the Uighur minority.

"At the opening dinner of the Osaka G-20 meeting in June 2019, with only interpreters present, Xi had explained to Trump why he was basically building concentration camps in Xinjiang. According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do," Bolton writes.

The book reportedly claims Trump was also willing to halt criminal investigations for dictators he liked; contradicted his own CIA and defended Saudi Arabia in the killing of a Washington Post columnist as a distraction tactic from a controversy involving his daughter; and spoke of executing journalists, whom he called scumbags.

The president has now tweeted about Bolton at least a half-dozen times. His senior aides spent part of Wednesday and Thursday contesting details of the book.

"Absolutely untrue," U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer said of the characterization of the Xi meeting, which he also attended. 

"Would I recollect something as crazy as that? Of course, I would recollect it."

Trump adviser Peter Navarro referred to his former colleague as "Big Lie Bolton." Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was equally critical, in less printable language. 

Who are these swing voters?

Meanwhile, the polls have steadily worsened this spring.

Wendy Schiller, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, R.I., said one reason is that a small slice of the electorate — no more than 10 per cent of voters representing fewer than 14 million people — is drifting away from Trump.

She said they tend to live in the suburbs or outer rings of growing metropolitan areas — places such as the research triangle in Raleigh, N.C., the wealthy outskirts of Philadelphia, or between Tucson and Phoenix in Arizona.

Many voted for Barack Obama, then Trump; others are longtime Republicans.

These voters will decide the election, says Schiller.

"What ties independent voters together is a sense of how well the government is running — for them," she said. 

"In 2016, there was a sense that the economy had not improved fast enough under Obama and an undercurrent of dislike for Hillary Clinton, especially among independent men.... 

"If the economy improves by October, independents might stick with Trump, but if they believe Biden will continue economic growth and run the government more smoothly, and calmly, than Trump will, they will switch their votes."

Republican moderates are wavering on Trump. Some recent polls show him losing a greater share of self-described Republicans than Biden is losing Democrats. (Joan Dymianiw/CBC News)

Two polls this week show Trump with less support among Republicans than Biden has among Democrats.

Trump tried to re-energize some of the party faithful on Thursday with a new message.

After losing a second major Supreme Court case in a week, first on LGBT rights and then on rights for undocumented immigrants, he promised to make the nomination of judges a campaign issue like he did in 2016.

The problem with bashing Bolton

His aides, meanwhile, blasted Bolton as a war-monger with a habit of knifing colleagues and burning bridges in Washington.

"That's the pattern," Navarro said.

But Frum said it's on Trump, not Bolton, that the president hired perhaps Washington's most famous advocate of military interventionism and put him in charge of national security in a White House that opposes foreign military entanglements.

Bolton, seated next to Trump's daughter Ivanka in the Oval Office last year. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

"There are just so many examples of people where Trump says, 'I hired this person, and he turned out to be no good,'" Frum said. 

"Here's one of the best-known people in Washington, with a record going back to before the Reagan administration who's written books and op-eds, hundreds of thousands of words ... and you seem not to have been aware of any of that material. 

U.S. President Donald Trump's job approval ratings have slumped over the past few months. (CBC News)

"You just hired him because he was a familiar face from Fox News. And then you were surprised to discover that he wanted to take you in directions you didn't want to go? 

Frum's own new book begins with a pastor, in March, describing churchgoers being willing to lick the floor to prove Trump's claim the coronavirus wasn't dangerous.

History shows, however, that it takes more than deeply devoted partisans to put a presidential campaign over the top.

About the Author

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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