The Trump campaign is stepping up its attacks on Bernie Sanders, a reflection of the Independent Vermont senator’s momentum in the race for the Democratic nomination and his sharp criticism of a U.S. military strike against an Iran official that has provoked turmoil in the Middle East.
But Trump’s attacks this week underscore how the president’s campaign increasingly views Sanders as a potential general election threat.
“You know you’re doing well when you get attacked in politics, and the biggest concern in politics is if you don’t get any attacks because then you’re irrelevant,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a top adviser to the Sanders campaign.
“I’ve heard reports in private from people that Trump doesn’t actually underestimate him. He understands Sanders’s appeal to rural America. He understands Sanders’s appeal to working-class voters,” Khanna added.
At a campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio, on Thursday night, Trump singled out Sanders for criticizing the strike that resulted in the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani. A separate Trump campaign statement warned that Sanders “can’t be trusted to defend American lives” as commander in chief.
Both Trump and Sanders have campaigned on the promise to end U.S. involvement in military conflicts in the Middle East, but escalating tensions in Iran have complicated the president’s message on that front.
Earlier in the week, the Trump campaign attacked Sanders as a “wealthy, fossil fuel-guzzling millionaire” who “lectures Americans on how to live their lives while doing the exact opposite.”
That statement also described Sanders as the “Democrats’ leading candidate for president,” highlighting the Vermont senator’s improved position in a tight race for the nomination.
Among some Trump allies, there is a level of respect for Sanders, whom they view as having built an outsider movement in the same vein as Trump despite receiving unfair treatment from the media and the national party.
There is some overlap on policies between Trump and Sanders, particularly on trade and the insistence that the U.S. avoid costly foreign entanglements.
And some Trump allies have debated whether Sanders would have won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and defeated Trump in 2016 if Democrats had nominated him instead of Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s allies think Sanders could be a formidable candidate in 2020, particularly among the white working-class voters Democrats have struggled to reach.
“If Bernie wins the nomination, it does weird things to the electoral landscape,” said one Republican with close ties to the campaign. “It shakes up the map, and we have no idea how it shakes up the map.”
Still, the Trump campaign believes it can effectively render Sanders unelectable nationally by casting him as a far-left socialist.
And Trump World insiders are confident they’ll uncover a treasure trove of problematic audio and video clips documenting Sanders’s decades-long political career if he becomes the nominee.
“Imagine the crazy stuff he was saying in local radio interviews when he was mayor in Burlington, Vt., or a congressman in late ’80s and early ’90s and got zero media coverage,” the Trump ally said. “So far, Republicans have just played softball with Bernie and used him as a cudgel to attack other Democrats. We don’t know how Bernie will act or how it could affect him if he had the right-wing kill machine aimed at him.”
At the moment, Trump and Sanders are going toe-to-toe over Iran, as the Vermont senator has sought to cast himself as the most stridently anti-war Democrat in the race and a leading critic of the administration’s decision to take out the Iranian general.
The debate is particularly salient because both Trump and Sanders have fashioned themselves as skeptics of military interventionism. Trump has hammered the GOP establishment over the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and Sanders has pummeled Biden over his vote to authorize that military action.
Sanders and Khanna released new legislation this week to limit Trump’s options on Iran while blasting the lawmakers who voted to authorize a $738 billion military budget that “places no restrictions on the president from starting an unauthorized war with Iran.”
“We know that it will ultimately be the children of working-class families who will have to fight and die in a new Middle East conflict, not the children of the billionaire class,” Sanders and Khanna said in a joint statement. “At a time when we face the urgent need to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, to build the housing we desperately need, and to address the existential crisis of climate change, we as a nation, must get our priorities right.”
Trump appears to have backed away from the brink of war with Iran and insists he has no intention of embarking on a new war in the Middle East.
The administration has argued that Soleimani was planning new attacks on U.S. facilities and personnel in Iraq. Trump’s defenders have characterized the strike as a show of strength against a figure who has masterminded attacks that have resulted in the deaths of scores of Americans in Iraq.
Trump is blasting back at Sanders and others who have said that the president should have gone to Congress before striking.
“We have Bernie and [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.]. We have them all. They’re all trying to say, ‘How dare you take him out that way? You should get permission from Congress,’” Trump said at Thursday’s rally. “We had to make a decision.”
The Trump campaign has also sought to highlight various interviews Sanders has given on the matter to cast him as extreme.
Sanders has described Soleimani’s killing as an “assassination” and likened it to the Russian government murdering political “dissidents.”
Sanders is basking in the attention, which pits him directly against the president amid a crowded field of Democratic White House hopefuls with the Iowa caucuses only weeks away.
In a Friday statement, Sanders blasted reports that Trump had moved to kill Soleimani because he believed it would improve his standing among the GOP senators who will act as jurors in an impeachment trial this month.
“Once again, we see Trump making enormously consequential national security decisions based on his own personal political needs,” Sanders said. “As a U.S. senator, I will do everything I can to rein in this reckless president and prevent a war with Iran. I call on my colleagues to do the same.”
Julia Manchester contributed.