Disparaging the press as Donald Trump’s “unwitting accomplice.” Shaming journalists for spending too much time on Twitter. Pointedly telling a reporter to “ask the right question.”
Joe Biden‘s presidential campaign is waging a media offensive to control the Ukraine narrative, a display of targeted force designed to head off a repeat of what the campaign refers to as “Hillary 2.0.”
Story Continued Below
Since Friday alone, Biden’s team has adopted a new in-your-face approach, including repeatedly singling out journalists behind unfavorable coverage, tweeting out taunts that accuse reporters of carrying Trump’s water and rolling out a series of fact-checking memos.
It’s all designed to focus coverage squarely on allegations that Trump asked a foreign leader to investigate the Biden family — and away from the president’s attempts to highlight Biden’s son Hunter’s business activities in Ukraine. Biden himself has taken on a more confrontational tone in addressing the subject, including in a fiery, finger-pointing exchange with a Fox News reporter caught on camera.
Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s communications director, tweeted the clip and, repeating her boss’ demand in the exchange, wrote: “ASK. THE. RIGHT. QUESTION.”
Bedingfield acknowledged Monday that the fierce pushback was in part aimed at preventing a reprisal of the 2016 presidential campaign, where questions over Hillary Clinton’s emails cannibalized her campaign.
“We are going to call out Trump’s sleazy, disingenuous playbook for what it is,” Bedingfield said. “He makes the press an unwitting accomplice in spreading his lies when they don’t keep their focus on egregious abuses of power. The smears he’s trying to spread have been universally debunked and are only true in some MAGA-land alternate universe.”
Another Biden adviser was more pointed: “You saw what happened to Hillary in 2016 with all of the ridiculous coverage about her emails. That’s not going to happen with us. We learned.”
Among the learned lessons: Remain on the attack against all sides. The campaign has demanded that Trump release a transcript of his calls with the Ukrainian president and accused him of the “greatest presidential malfeasance since Watergate.” They’ve also specifically warned that reporters were misleading their audiences unless they “demonstrably state at the outset that there is no factual basis for Trump’s claims.”
The campaign also produced a video newsreel that pointedly criticized recent coverage and asked whether reporters would “fall for it again,” in a reference to 2016.
Far from a defensive crouch, the campaign is attempting to capitalize on the moment by rallying the party around what they characterize as a standard Trump dirty trick. One aspect of their approach is raising money off the controversy. Since news of Trump’s call broke on Friday, the campaign has sent out half a dozen fundraising emails pointing to Trump’s attempts to “smear” the former vice president. And the campaign has tripled its per day average in online fundraising, according to a Biden aide.
According to interviews with five Biden advisers, the message is simple and straightforward: Trump asked a foreign government to meddle in the 2016 election, and he’s doing it again.
Biden’s angry exchange Saturday with a Fox reporter who asked about his son instead of about the propriety of Trump’s alleged call with Ukraine gave the candidate a lift because it established him as a fighter, a former adviser to President Obama, Ben LaBolt, said.
“It’s great primary politics — especially when voices on the left accused Biden of being too cautious or centrist in his views — to challenge FOX. It demonstrated Biden’s strength,” LaBolt said. “The campaign has not had a lot of viral clips. And this is one that will be seen by primary voters. You couldn’t script it better.”
The confrontational tone marks a tactical shift for the Biden campaign, which doesn’t exactly have warm relations with the press but isn’t recognized as an especially combative operation.
In one instance, the Biden campaign in a memo swiped at a columnist for The Hill by name, lumping his stories together with Sputnik News, a Kremlin-supported news agency. But the top target of Biden campaign criticism was the New York Times’ Ken Vogel, who in May, with Iuliia Mendel, reported how Trump and his allies were promoting “conflict of interest questions” against Biden.
Mendel became the spokesperson for new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, weeks after the controversial May story was published.
Jennifer Palmieri, who served as communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said the only way to beat Trump is to forcefully call out the press for repeating unsubstantiated allegations.
“The reality is when you’re running against Donald Trump it’s dangerous to not engage when you’re attacked in this way,” Palmieri said. “This is how [Trump] wins. He gets enough people to believe a lie and tries to wear down the opposition by weaving the lie into the coverage.
“You have to fight back. Just because the press doesn’t have a political axe to grind doesn’t mean they get everything right or portray them fairly,” she said.
There’s no better example of that than the campaign’s aggressive approach against Vogel, who has become the public face for the Times’s coverage. Vogel said Friday on MSNBC that the Ukraine story is “a significant liability” for Biden, remarks that some criticized as echoing the Times’s treatment of Clinton. Trump then approvingly tweeted a video featuring Vogel’s comments early Saturday morning. [Vogel covered the 2016 election for POLITICO.]
In response, in a campaign-produced video with the subhead, “Trump’s sleazy playbook,” the commentator declares “What Ken Vogel said is false,” and also criticizes POLITICO’s coverage.
Other Biden and former Clinton staffers joined the pile-on. One Biden staffer commented “brutal” before quoting a New York Magazine piece critical of Vogel. And the campaign’s fact-checking memos were riddled with citations aimed at debunking his coverage.
Longtime Clinton aide Philippe Reines referenced Vogel when tweeting that Clinton was “the target in 2016” while Biden “is the 2019 target.”
“It just feels like a replay,” Reines said in an interview. “Everyone can make fun of crazy Rudy [Giuliani, the president’s lawyer] all they want, but it was mission accomplished. It’s the false equivalence. You can’t say the words ‘Trump’ and ‘Ukraine’ without seeing ‘Biden’ and ‘Ukraine.’ The only reason the word ‘Biden’ should appear is to say [Trump] was soliciting dirt on Biden.”
Vogel did not respond to requests for comment and the Times did not make any editor available to discuss the handling of the Biden-Ukraine story.
“Our only approach to covering all aspects of the Ukraine story is that we’ll do it aggressively,” a Times spokesperson told POLITICO.