Donald Trump pretends he’s still the president. You will not find the word “former” in any of his official statements or social media accounts; he is the “45th President of the United States.” When he’s not using the actual seal of the president of the United States, he’s using a strikingly similar one that has been modified just enough to avoid trademark issues. And of course his supporters, allies in Congress, and even lawyers all refer to him as “President Trump.”
How pathetic! But also unsurprising. Over his five decades in public life, despite untold legal, financial, personal, and political losses, Trump still cannot admit to having lost in anything. So he simply denies reality—but only after he has failed to cheat or steal his way to victory.
There is nevertheless a perverse kernel of truth in Trump’s insistence that he is a kind of Avignon president. Though not in elected office, of course, he is very much the leader of the Republican Party—and, as we have seen repeatedly over the course of Joe Biden’s actual presidency, Trump exerts unprecedented control over the party. If he wants to be treated as an incumbent, then Biden should humor him—by pointing to the chaos caused by his leadership, both in office and now in absentia.
Look no further than the collapse of the border deal earlier this week. That bipartisan agreement, which exchanged a Democratic priority (funding for Ukraine) for a Republican one (the most restrictive immigration reform in decades), was one that many in the GOP, particularly Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, genuinely wanted. It took weeks of negotiations, led on the right by Oklahoma Republican Senator James Lankford—no one’s idea of an immigration dove. And few would dispute that Republicans won those negotiations at the policy level. Democrats agreed to billions in funding for border security and a much stricter asylum process, and surrendered any hope of a path to citizenship for Dreamers. Politically, yes, Biden has been desperate to look tough about the surging numbers of migrants at the southern border. But if signed into law, the bill would turn Democrats against each other—and likely exacerbate Biden’s already dismal numbers with young voters and people of color.
And yet, Republicans killed the deal Tuesday at Trump’s behest. While some Republicans have hemmed and hawed about the agreement being too weak, Trump himself has made no secret about what’s really going on. “This Bill is a great gift to the Democrats, and a Death Wish for The Republican Party,” he wrote on his Truth Social account. “It takes the HORRIBLE JOB the Democrats have done on Immigration and the Border, absolves them, and puts it all squarely on the shoulders of Republicans. Don’t be STUPID!!!” For Trump, it all comes down to his own political fortune. He doesn’t want Biden to have a bipartisan win ahead of the election. More importantly, the border crisis is central to his election appeal, so he can’t well support legislation that might actually lessen that crisis. (He claims that only he can fix it—ignoring, for once, the fact that he was president for four years.)
Mere hours after the embarrassing demise of that deal at the hands of Republican senators, their colleagues in the House—the chamber they actually control—failed to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, a long-standing priority, after three GOP representatives voted “no.” While the blame fell squarely on incompetent Speaker Mike Johnson, rather than any interference from Trump, a narrative has coalesced: Give Republicans even a smidgen of power, and chaos ensues.
Eager for an election message that will stick—and thus far unable to find one—the Biden campaign has suggested that it intends to hammer it home in the coming weeks. “We’ve had a good week because Republicans have shot themselves in the foot,” a Biden campaign aide told Semafor on Wednesday. “There’s a lot for us to work with, and we’re going to be able to highlight Joe Biden focusing on issues that matter for voters while Republicans are not.”
It’s a throwback to the Biden campaign’s most successful 2020 argument: With a steady hand from decades of political experience, he would restore order, decency, and competence to a government that lacked all of the above under Trump. It worked; voters were tired of the chaos. The question is whether Biden fully delivered on that promise. The decline in his poll numbers began after America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, and his standing has been further diminished by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and lagging doubts (that appear, to be fair, to be drying up) about the economy. Perhaps it was too big of a promise.
But now that Trump, all but officially the GOP’s nominee for president (sorry, Nikki), is explicitly dictating what elected Republicans do, Biden can update that 2020 message. The chaos of the Trump years, which voters roundly rejected, is in danger of making a comeback. In fact, it’s already back, among Republicans in Congress, and Biden can credibly argue that Trump is the cause of it. Do voters really want to see the White House consumed by it again too?
The danger for Democrats is that Biden is the actual president (sorry, Donald), and voters tend to blame whoever holds the White House for failures in Congress, even if they’re caused exclusively by the opposing party. Attacking Trump over the inability to secure funding for Ukraine and to address the migrant crisis could backfire. It could seem like buck-passing, making Biden look weak. But the reward is much greater than the risk.
As the president and ex-president, Biden and Trump have the shared disadvantage of being known quantities, which explains why neither has managed to generate much enthusiasm beyond their core supporters. But voters also have short memories. They know exactly what a Biden presidency entails, yet they might have forgotten how it felt during the Trump administration to wake up every day to more news of infighting and madness. Trump is giving them a little taste of it, but it’s up to Biden to make it visceral again.