The Trump campaign’s playbook for Joe Biden’s eventual running mate has become familiar and predictable; anyone that the presumptive Democratic nominee picks can expect to be tagged a “left-wing extremist.”
But the emergence of former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice as a top contender presents a new quandary for Republicans working with President Donald Trump’s campaign as they gauge whether she would help or hurt their larger effort to cast Biden as a stalking horse for the so-called “left-wing mob.”
By one measure, Republicans treat Susan Rice as a national security hawk, a “neocon.” On the other hand, she’s portrayed as a “deep state” operative who is a part of the conspiratorial world spun by outlets like InfoWars and QAnon supporters — in part for her role in revealing Trump adviser Michael Flynn’s discussions with then-Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak.
One thing several of her detractors appear to agree on is that she’s too moderate to be effectively tied to the far left wing of the Democratic party. That does not bode well for the Trump campaign’s efforts to woo independent voters.
“Say what you will about Susan Rice and we’re about to, but she is not a buffoon,” Fox News show host Tucker Carlson, a Trump ally, said on his Monday segment. “Susan Rice is smart. She is hard-eyed. She is experienced. Susan Rice knows exactly what she wants and she understands the system well enough to get it. She is a threat.”
Carlson also described her as “fervent neocon,” a term that Trump allies haven’t used to describe the other women Biden is considering.
The different epithets lobbed at Rice before a pick has been announced signals the struggle within the Trump camp to give her a label that will stick as they fear she may in fact be a formidable addition to a Biden ticket.
The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, working in tandem, have been compiling research on Biden’s likely picks for weeks now. They’ve been pecking at each candidate whose profile appears to rise to the top of the list. Any past or recent statements in agreement with calls for Medicare for All, demands for police reform or support for the Black Lives Matter movement or any other liberal ideas bandied about during the 2020 presidential race are an asset for Trump’s campaign’s “left-wing nut” attack line.
Undergirding Trump allies’ calculations is an argument, long made by his advisers and allies like Carlson, that whoever Biden picks will be a de facto president because they assume Biden, who would be 78 by January, could be too advanced in age to perform the job or may bow out after one term.
The Trump campaign, for example, has attacked Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth for saying there should be a national discussion around the removal of historic monuments, including statues of the Founding Fathers.
And last weekend on a Trump campaign-organized call with reporters, Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio and Sunshine State Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez described Rep. Karen Bass, another possible Biden choice, as a communist sympathizer after her past comments in support of former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro emerged. Bass later apologized for the remarks.
“It doesn’t matter who Joe Biden picks because they all reside on the far left and will continue to use him as an empty vessel to fill with their radical agenda,” Tim Murtaugh, Trump campaign communications director, said in a statement to Insider. “It will be a consequential decision, however, since Biden has called himself a ‘transitional’ leader and hasn’t even committed to seeking a second term if elected to a first one. His choice will be essentially a ‘living will’ he will sign as he has already turned over the reins to the radical left.”
But some Republicans close to Trump and his campaign have expressed alarm that picking Rice could throw a wrench in their effort to paint Biden as a tool of the so-called left-wing extremists.
At the center of the debate inside Trump’s camp on who would hurt or help his chances the most is an underlying question of whether it needs to turn out more hardcore Trump supporters or woo swing voters and independents put off by the president’s tumultuous tenure and his bungled coronavirus response.
“Susan Rice is the most threatening”
Rice, 55, has never run for elected office, and therefore doesn’t have the kind of controversial campaign statements Republicans could wield against her. She has not served in Congress and so there are no votes they can hold against her as an extreme leftist.
“Susan Rice is the most threatening,” said one Republican close to the campaign. “She has no voting record, she can be whoever she wants to be.”
But her 25-year public service career that spans roles in the Clinton and Obama administrations gives her GOP detractors plenty to work with — if not to dissuade Biden voters, at least to fire up Trump’s base.
Rice has a long history of government service at the top echelons of two Democratic administrations. She worked on the National Security Council under former President Bill Clinton. She later joined former President Barack Obama, first as US ambassador to the United Nations, and then as his national security adviser.
Rice had been in the running to join the Obama Cabinet as a replacement for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012, but she withdrew her name from consideration amid fallout from the attack on the US compound in Benghazi. Republicans could still bring up Benghazi — which they used effectively against Clinton in 2016 — but acknowledge that ship may have sailed.
“The deal on her is the Benghazi record has already been played, that cake is baked, everyone knows what happened,” said the Republican close to the Trump campaign.
But it was Rice’s role as Obama’s national security adviser where she regularly reviewed incidental intelligence, including calls with Russia’s ambassador that are regularly monitored by US intelligence, which drew the most ire from Trump and his allies during the special counsel’s probe into Russia’s efforts to help Trump win in 2016.
Still, two other Republicans close to the Trump campaign said Rice won’t be spared if she’s the vice presidential pick. Trump’s campaign will try to attack her on what they describe as “weak responses” to China and Russia while serving as Obama’s national security adviser and over her role in unmasking the names of Trump campaign advisers in the 2016 race.
“There isn’t a moderate on Biden’s list,” one of the Republicans said. “And they all have plenty of weaknesses.”
In a statement to Insider, a Biden campaign aide knocked the GOP strategy to label any Biden pick an extremist.
“Their one lazy playbook has failed more times than anyone can count, and they just neutered it here before the game started,” the aide said. “Buy yourselves a plastic trophy, children.”
Rice meanwhile is embracing the prospect of running alongside Biden, with whom she worked closely during the Obama years.
“What I would bring is almost 20 years of deep experience at the senior-most ranks of the executive branch, getting things done for the American people, wrestling with crises, and dealing with the solutions we need,” Rice told CBS News recently. “And I think that’s very important given the nature of the crises a new administration would face, from the pandemic to economic recession to our global leadership which is suffering enormously.”