President Donald Trump sees parallels between Joe Biden’s early surge to the front of the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential field and his own runaway success in the 2016 Republican primaries.
In an interview with POLITICO on Friday afternoon, Trump cast the former vice president as a clear, if flawed, front runner, noting that Biden had recently flubbed the name of Britain’s prime minister. And he compared Biden’s early success in a heavily crowded field to his own entry and rapid ascent in the 2016 Republican campaign.
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“I look at it like my race” in 2016, the president said in a phone interview, predicting that Biden will remain at the head of the pack of 22 Democrats running for president.
Recalling his June 2015 campaign announcement at Trump Tower, he boasted, “If you remember, from the day I came down the escalator until the end of the primaries, I was in the number-one position. I was center stage every debate. And, you know, nobody came close.”
Trump actually polled near the bottom of the then twelve-candidate Republican primary field when he first joined the race in mid-June 2015. But he became the clear GOP front runner within several weeks, and no other candidate ever decisively claimed that mantle from him.
Trump appeared to be following Biden’s early days on the campaign trail closely. At one point, he mocked the former vice president for last week mistakenly referring to Margaret Thatcher instead of the current British prime minister, Theresa May. Biden quickly corrected himself, calling it a “Freudian slip.”
“Is that a good front runner? I don’t know. That was a beauty,” Trump said.
He suggested that he doesn’t see his other Democratic rivals as serious threats. “It seems that many of them aren’t registering with, you know, the public,” Trump said. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), he added, “seems to be going in the wrong direction.”
Asked specifically about South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Trump was dismissive.
“Alfred E. Neuman cannot become president of the United States,” he said, comparing Buttigieg to the iconic boyish Mad Magazine cartoon character.
Asked by POLITICO in San Francisco on Friday night to respond to Trump’s new nickname, Buttigieg said: “I’ll be honest. I had to Google that. I guess it’s just a generational thing. I didn’t get the reference. It’s kind of funny, I guess. But he’s also the president of the United States and I’m surprised he’s not spending more time trying to salvage this China deal.”
In the 15-minute interview, which stemmed from POLITICO’s inquiries for a separate story, the president touched on North Korea, his former campaign aide David Bossie, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s subpoena to his son, his view of Steve Bannon and Rudy Giuliani’s upcoming trip to Ukraine.
Trump again expressed frustration that the Senate Intelligence Committee subpoenaed his oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., to testify as part of the panel’s ongoing investigation into 2016 Russian election interference. But he said he had not spoken to Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the panel’s chairman, who has come under fire from some Republicans for signing off on the subpoena.
“I won the state of North Carolina and frankly had another Republican won [the primary], they would not have won the state. I have a great relationship to that state. So I was very surprised,” Trump said. “[Burr] came in, ran along with me. I didn’t know him well but he ran along with me. So yeah, I was very surprised to see that.”
The president also gently criticized his former deputy campaign manager and longtime friend David Bossie, who has been accused of using his political group to scam Republican voters out of millions of dollars for personal financial gain under the guise of supporting Trump’s re-election.
“I would be disappointed in David if he did that,” he said, later adding: “I would be disappointed if everything wasn’t on the up and up.”
Trump’s 2020 campaign issued a sharply-worded statement on Tuesday saying that it “condemns any organization that deceptively uses the President’s name, likeness, trademarks, or branding and confuses voters.” The campaign encouraged authorities “to investigate all alleged scam groups for potential illegal activities.”
Trump said he has not spoken to Bossie about the subject.
In a statement, Bossie said, “For 15 years we have scrupulously complied with every campaign law and regulation that exists. The accusations are false and personally offensive to me.” He added that he has “worked tirelessly to support President Trump and his agenda and I am not going to let smears from old enemies on the left stop me.”
Even amid his apparent anger at one close ally, Trump hinted at a softened view towards a former one: Steve Bannon, whom Trump excommunicated last year after the strategist was quoted in Michael Wolff’s incendiary book about the White House, “Fire and Fury.”
“Well, I always liked Steve and I mean the last seven months or eight months, I mean, you can’t have nicer statements stated about yourself than the things he’s been saying about me,” Trump said, adding later, “You’ve seen what he’s said on the various shows and you’ve seen what he’s written and it’s very nice and I appreciate it. But I haven’t spoken to Steve in a while.”
Trump also touched on the business activities in Ukraine of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, a subject that has drawn scrutiny among conservatives in recent days and which Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, says should be investigated further. As vice president, Joe Biden pressured Ukraine’s government to oust a top anti-corruption official who had reportedly investigated a Ukrainian energy company in which Hunter Biden had a financial interest, although no evidence has emerged that Joe Biden was acting to assist his son, and it is not clear that the official was probing the company at the time.
Trump has also alleged that Ukraine’s government aided Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign by releasing damaging information about his since-jailed campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who made millions doing political work in the country.
Some Democrats have expressed concern that Trump could direct the Justice Department to pursue the allegations, which they call a diversion from Russia’s systematic 2016 election meddling, and warn that it would be an abuse of power for political purposes.
When asked whether he would consider directing Attorney General Bill Barr to investigate the Bidens, as some Democrats fear, Trump said he had not spoken to Barr about the issue. But he left open the possibility, saying “certainly it would be an appropriate thing to” discuss with Barr.
“Certainly it is a very big issue and we’ll see what happens. I have not spoken to him about it. Would I speak to him about it? I haven’t thought of that. I mean, you’re asking me a question I just haven’t thought of,” he said, noting it “could be a very big situation” for Biden.
“Because he’s a Democrat it’s about 1/100 the size of the fact that if he were a Republican, it would be a lot bigger,” he alleged.
Trump also said that he plans to speak to Rudy Giuliani about his personal attorney’s imminent plans to go to Ukraine to reportedly encourage the Ukrainian president to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation and Hunter Biden’s role on the board of directors of an energy company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch.
“I will speak to him about it before he leaves. I’m just curious about that,” he said, adding that he has “not spoken to him at any great length” about it.
On foreign policy, the president, who once bragged about the cessation of North Korean missile tests during his presidency, downplayed the significance of North Korea’s recent decision to launch a pair of short-range missiles.
“They’re short-range and I don’t consider that a breach of trust at all. And, you know, at some point I may. But at this point no,” he said. “These were short-range missiles and very standard stuff. Very standard.”
Trump added that he might eventually lose faith in his friendly relationship with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator. “I mean it’s possible that at some point I will, but right now not at all,” he said.
Minutes before the interview, Trump tweeted that trade talks with China would continue, suggesting that negotiators were unable to reach a compromise. Unprompted, the president marveled about the instant effect his China-related tweet had on stock prices.
“It seems to be having quite an impact on the market. I looked — the market was down,” he said. “Now I think it’s up 181.44. So, it shows you what happens.”
Carla Marinucci contributed to this report.