Trump is trying to boost Bernie Sanders' profile to help him clinch the Democratic 2020 nomination, but it's a strategy that could massively backfire

Bernie Sanders

Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) during the event dubbed "Bernie's Back Rally" comes as Sanders returns to campaigning after suffering a heart attack earlier this month. An estimated 26,000 people attended.

  • President Donald Trump's 2020 campaign has in recent weeks focused attacks on Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders. 
  • The president has also sought to attract prospective Sanders voters by claiming that there is a Democratic establishment plot to halt Sanders' candidacy. 
  • Trump campaign sources told Politico that this is all part of a plot to secretly boost Sanders' candidacy, and help Trump's reelection chances.
  • Sanders would be easier to beat than the likes of Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren, Trump's team reportedly believe.
  • However some Republicans have warned that it's a strategy that could backfire, and say Sanders' could harness some of the anti-establishment anger that propelled Trump to the presidency in 2016. 
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President Donald Trump usually only talks about the Democrats vying to take him on in the 2020 presidential race to attack them or ridicule their candidacy. 

But there is one candidate who he's spoken of with unexpected sympathy: Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. 
In a refrain of one of the themes of his 2016 campaign, Trump is claiming that the Democratic party establishment is conspiring to halt Sanders' candidacy, with the impeachment trial part of the plot. 

"They are rigging the election again against Bernie Sanders, just like last time, only even more obviously," the president tweeted on January 17. 


"They are bringing him out of so important Iowa in order that, as a Senator, he sit through the Impeachment Hoax Trial," wrote the president, referring to Sanders' obligation as a senator to take time out from the campaign to attend the impeachment trial being held in Washington DC. 

Of course many of the Trump campaign's messages are negative - focusing on Sander's support for sweeping government welfare and spending programs that have long been considered too radical for mainstream Democrats to campaign on. But underlying both types of message there's a strategy at play, sources close to the Trump campaign told Politico.

By talking about Sanders, whether sympathetically or negatively, Trump is aiming to boost his profile and his chances of being chosen as the Democratic presidential candidate.

According to the report, the president is confident that after setting up Sanders he could knock him down, attacking the left-winger as a radical socialist opposed to American values. 

The report echoes one in the New York Times from earlier in January, which also claimed that the president is so confident of his chances against Sanders that he is seeking seeking to boost his candidacy. 

Trump rally

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump reacts to the crowd after speaking at his re-election kickoff rally

Critics of Sanders believe that Republicans would unleash a wave of attacks against him if he won the candidacy, focusing on controversial statements in his early writings- such as an essay where he linked sexual repression with breast cancer - and allege he supported anti-American radicals abroad. 

But other Republicans aren't so sure - and believe that Trump may be massively underrating the threat posed by Sanders.
They point to Sanders' popularity in the Rust Belt states which were key to Trump's victory in 2016 - and say he could cut in to the president's support there. 

According to an analysis of the 2016 election results, around 12% of Sanders supporters ended up voting for Trump instead of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, which some believe was key to Clinton's narrow defeat.

"While Sanders may be a socialist, his populist brand of rabble rousing mirrors Trump, and could cut into the new Republican blue collar base," wrote republican strategist James Barnett in The Hill.

tim kaine

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton's nominee for vice president during her failed 2016 campaign.

One top congressional ally of Trump pointed to Sanders as perhaps the president's most dangerous challenger, and said he would be able to harness the anti-establishment anger that propelled Trump to victory. "Bernie Sanders poses the greatest risk because we are still in an anti-establishment era for presidential elections," North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows told Politico. 

Trump himself expressed anxieties about a Democratic challenge with Sanders on the ticket in a closed-door meeting in 2018 with top Republican donors secretly recorded by Lev Parnas, an associate of Rudy Giuliani, Trump's lawyer.

"I think Bernie as vice president would have been tougher," Trump said, referring to Hillary Clinton's decision to pick Sen. Tim Kaine to be her running mate in 2016. "He was the only one I didn't want her to pick."

So as the race for the Democratic nomination heats up and Sanders continues to challenge Joe Biden as frontrunner, Trump's shift of focus to Sanders will continue to be seen as a dangerous gamble by some top Republicans.