One might say it’s not surprising that the Hunter Biden emails got no traction, because they haven’t been verified. But that’s not strictly true: The Biden camp hasn’t claimed the emails are fake, though there are no records corroborating that Democratic nominee Joe Biden did discuss his son’s business interests in Ukraine while vice president. Still, an October surprise often affects votes regardless of its accuracy. In a normal election, during a normal presidency, this story would likely have enough legs to affect the final weeks, even as its veracity is in doubt.
The explanation for Trump’s failure to generate an October surprise lies elsewhere — in the president and his party’s choices and record.
Trump has made clear in the past that he expects his staff to shield him politically — as when he blasted former attorney general Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation. But by valuing partisan loyalty over competence, he has neutered staff members’ power to affect public debate. The Comey letter, for example, turned out to be nothing more than incredibly poor judgment from the FBI director. But James B. Comey was respected and trusted, so it affected voters’ thinking. In contrast, Trump appointees such as Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and Attorney General William P. Barr have torched their credibility from the beginning. Thus when Ratcliffe alleged last week that Iran was sending threatening emails to voters to hurt the president, what would normally be earth-shattering news landed with a thud.
And then there’s the president’s embrace of partisan media. The continued rise of insular right-wing outlets has lowered the standards for conservative scandalmongering even further. Fox News and the like have seen a parade of allegations against Democrats that never quite pan out. Meanwhile, respectable publications have — at least somewhat — learned from breathless coverage of attacks against Hillary Clinton, in no small part because Republicans’ charges so often fell flat. Like the boy who cried “wolf,” Republicans have falsely accused Democrats of scandal so many times that such claims are no longer taken seriously.
Most important, though, there’s Trump and his family. The president himself has made more than $8 million from U.S. taxpayers and his political backers since he took office. His family continues to do business around the world. The conflicts of interest are legion: All the profiteering and corruption Trump accuses Biden and his family of, he and his family are already doing — and then some. Trump’s tenure has thoroughly vindicated the argument Democrats made to the biggest Clinton-skeptics in 2016: Whatever you might think of his opponent, Donald Trump is worse.
Thus Trump’s hoped-for October surprise has flopped, leaving him in an even worse position in the polls than he was four years ago. But Democrats know better than kick back and expect a Biden victory. In fact, the true ace up Trump’s sleeve may come after votes are cast, with the judiciary. In Harris County, Tex., for example, Republicans have asked a federal judge to toss out 100,000 ballots cast through curbside voting. The Supreme Court’s rulings have so far been mixed, but with three Trump appointees now further bolstering its conservative majority, that could change after Election Day.
In a year of terrible twists, one of the worst may be yet to come.
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