Trump campaign lashes out over ‘Don’t defend Trump’ memo

McLaughlin responded by saying he agreed with the Trump campaign’s position and, according to two people familiar with the conversation, clarified that the committee wasn’t advising candidates to not defend Trump over his response.

The episode illustrates how the Trump political apparatus demands — and receives — fealty from fellow Republicans and moves aggressively to tamp down on any perceived dissent within the GOP. The president maintains an iron grip on his party, even as his poll numbers sag and he confronts fierce criticism from Democrats over his response to the coronavirus pandemic.

During the conversation, McLaughlin called the line in the memo inartful in its wording and argued that the overall thrust of the document was about pushing candidates to go on offense over China — something that Trump has done frequently in recent days — and not to evade defending the president.

“There is no daylight between the NRSC and President Trump,” McLaughlin said in a statement, adding: “Senate Republicans have worked hand in glove with the Trump administration to ensure a highly effective federal response to Covid-19.”

The 57-page memo, which was authored by a top GOP strategist, was perceived by Trump aides as giving candidates leeway to avoid backing the president on what could be the defining issue of the 2020 campaign. And they held a series of conversations on Friday and over the weekend figuring out how to respond.

The memo urged GOP Senate candidates to stay relentlessly on message with attacks against China, where the coronavirus originated, when pressed about the pandemic on the campaign trail. When asked about Trump’s response to the pandemic, the document advised candidates to pivot to an attack on the authoritarian country rather than offer an explicit defense of Trump’s response.

But the Trump team didn’t take kindly to the guidance. Senior Trump campaign officials, including campaign manager Brad Parscale, political advisers Clark, Bill Stepien and Chris Carr, and communications director Tim Murtaugh, decided to reach out to the NRSC to convey the campaign’s displeasure. Top Republican National Committee officials were also involved in the deliberations and the White House was kept apprised of developments.

Clark said in a statement that Republican candidates “who want to win will be running with the president.”

“Candidates will listen to the bad advice in this memo at their own peril,” he added. “President Trump enjoys unprecedented support among Republican voters and everyone on the ballot in November will want to tap into that enthusiasm. The president’s campaign, the RNC, and the NRSC are firmly on the same page here.”

Trump campaign officials said they were rankled by other passages in the memo, including one line that advised Republican candidates to say: “I wish that everyone acted earlier – that includes our elected officials, the World Health Organization, and the CDC.”

The memo was distributed by the Senate GOP campaign arm, though it was not explicitly drafted by or for the committee. It was authored by the political consulting firm of Brett O’Donnell, a veteran GOP strategist who advises Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton.

The document details how China mishandled the viral outbreak and offers candidates detailed talking points for going after the authoritarian country. It also provides guidance on how to respond to accusations that targeting China is inciting racism.

O’Donnell vehemently denied that he was urging Republican candidates to distance themselves from the White House.

“I never advise candidates not to defend the president, and the media shouldn’t take one line out of context,” O’Donnell said in a statement. “I have spent the last four years of my life being an advocate for the president and advising people to do the same.”

He added: “This document explained how to remain on offense by staying focused on the president’s China travel ban — which Democrats like Joe Biden opposed. Candidates, and all Americans, should blame the Chinese Communist Party for spreading this virus and support President Trump’s work to hold them accountable.”

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