Trump is a ringmaster of multiple sideshows as Biden cranks up pace of reelection bid

CNNDonald Trump is running one of the strangest general election campaigns America has ever seen.

He’s hawking Bibles, attacking judges, making billions in the stock market and boasting about his golf game. On Thursday, the ex-president traveled to New York to attend the wake of a fallen police officer – on a trip that allowed him to deepen his characterization of a nation adrift and plagued by crime under President Joe Biden.

But there wasn’t much in Trump’s busy week that resembled a conventional general election campaign – certainly not one that might address some of his biggest liabilities as he seeks a return to the White House.

That’s a sharp contrast to Biden, who this week wrapped up his post State of the Union tour in North Carolina. The state was in Trump’s column in 2020 and 2016, but Democrats think they can put it back in play. On Thursday night, the president put on a show of Democratic unity and invoked the party’s glory days at an event in New York with ex-Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama that the campaign said ahead of time had raised more than $25 million. Those big bucks could be critical in what is likely to be a tight race with Trump that could be decided by a few hundred thousand votes across a handful of states.

One attendee told CNN after leaving the off-camera fundraiser that the three presidents spoke repeatedly about the threat a second Trump term would pose, with Biden saying the former president would tear up the Constitution and alluding to Trump’s comment that he’d only be a dictator on “day one.” Videos released by the Biden campaign Friday morning showed a light-hearted moment in which moderator Stephen Colbert contrasted Biden’s busy schedule with Trump’s golf activities, as well as Biden’s warning that democracy is “literally at stake.”

Biden and his team have also been aggressively taking the campaign to Trump on policy. For instance, they used this week’s Supreme Court arguments over restricting access to an abortion drug to accuse the former president of ripping away women’s reproductive services with his construction of a deeply conservative majority whose overturning of Roe v. Wade has set off a cascade of consequences.

Trump – breaking all the rules, as usual

Trump has always been an outlier. And his refusal to play by the rules of a normal campaign is the key to his political appeal among supporters who despise governing elites. Biden is working in a traditional campaign lane, seeking to repair cracks in his coalition among young people, Black voters and disaffected Democrats. But the presumptive Republican nominee’s strategy can best be understood at this point as a merger of his legal defense in multiple cases – in which he claims he’s the victim of political persecution – and as a series of photo ops meant to harness the attention he craves.

On Monday, for instance, the former president chose to show up in court in New York and then threw a tantrum when a judge set an April 15 trial date in a case related to a hush money payment to an adult film star. Trump was back in his former home state on Thursday, attending a wake for a fallen police officer on Long Island. Afterwards, he described the officer’s murder as a “sad, sad event” and used the occasion to spell out a searing message. “We have to get back to law and order,” he said, seeking to portray the US under Biden as a crime-ridden dystopia. But characteristically, while he used pointed rhetoric, the ex-president failed to offer specific policies to improve the situation as a typical presidential candidate might.

On Thursday, the ex-president criticized his successor for not showing up at the wake, and tried to revive the Republican narrative that Democrats are insufficiently supportive of the police that his party used repeatedly in the aftermath of nationwide protests about incidents of police brutality against Black men. “I think that politically he can’t support the police. I think he’s also making a mistake,” Trump said of Biden in the interview recorded after the wake. “But I think politically, his base won’t let him support the police. And I support the police.”

Trump will certainly crank up the pace of his rallies as November’s election approaches and he needs to drive his voters to the polls. And next week, he plans to stop in a critical swing state – Michigan, which he won in 2016 and lost four years later. The former president plans to deliver remarks on Tuesday on “Biden’s border bloodbath” in what promises to be an intensification of his extreme approach to immigration.

Despite its currently sluggish pace, the former president’s campaign was far more professional in this year’s primaries than it was during his upstart bid for the presidency in 2016. It’s too early to say whether unseen work that the Trump campaign is doing to build organizations in key states is paving the way for a successful run back to the Oval Office. There’s been little effort so far by Trump to win over supporters of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is still winning significant votes in primary elections despite suspending her campaign.

And the ex-president’s recent takeover of the Republican National Committee seems as much designed to find extra resources to fund his legal defense as to build a political operation. In a sign of how Trump’s false claims of voter fraud have fully infected his party, those seeking employment at the RNC have been asked in recent job interviews whether they believe the 2020 election was stolen. The substance of the interview questions was first reported by the Washington Post.

But Trump’s time will shortly not be his own. While the former president has used pre-trial hearings in his multiple legal cases to stage photo-ops and to portray himself as a hounded victim, he will have no choice about being in court, starting April 15, for four days a week as long as his first criminal trial lasts. That could be between six and eight weeks – during which Biden will largely have the campaign trail to himself.

That looming trial – over charges of falsifying business records related to the hush money payment – might offer a clue to another one of Trump’s possible motivations for honoring the fallen officer Jonathan Diller – namely attracting favorable media coverage In New York weeks before a jury is seated to deliberate his fate.

Trump, who is now under a partial gag order prohibiting him from attacking court staff, prosecutors and their families, has also launched biting social media attacks on Judge Juan Merchan and even referred to his daughter by name in a post on his Truth Social network. Merchan’s daughter has done work for Democratic campaigns and the former president has demanded the judge recuse himself from the case as a result. Trump’s verbal attacks are not simply designed to intimidate. They may well affect the safety of those he targets, and they are all part of his wider efforts to portray any institution – legal, political or media – that tries to hold him to account as illegitimate and out to get him.

Yet another distraction from his campaign will come next week when the fate of Trump’s real estate empire returns to the spotlight. The former president looked on the verge of seeing some of his properties seized by New York Attorney General Letitia James on Monday as a deadline approached for him to post a bond worth nearly half a billion dollars to allow him to appeal his civil fraud trial loss. But the ex-president got a break when an appeals court allowed him 10 extra days to find the funds and reduced the amount to $175 million.

The highlight of Trump’s wild week may have been the moment a merged firm including his media properties started trading on the Nasdaq, earning him several billion dollars – at least on paper. There’s a catch, however. The ex-president can’t sell his stock for six months. And if he eventually does so, he’s likely to crash its value – potentially costing him as well as all his MAGA fans who bought in.

Biden tries to build on State of the Union performance

Unlike Trump, Biden has been campaigning in a way that leaves no doubt about the stakes of the coming election. His swing state tour in the wake of his strong State of the Union address earlier this month saw events as varied as the unveiling of a huge investment in an Intel chip processing plant in Arizona and the launch of a new health care push in North Carolina.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have targeted Black voters, women voters and younger voters – partly in response to polls that have shown weaknesses with his winning coalition in 2020. As he seeks to showcase his policy wins – including a bipartisan infrastructure bill that the White House says will ignite a renaissance in heavy industry – Biden is being hampered by a feeling among many voters that they are not enjoying the benefits of a rebounding economy.

The president’s campaign has also been relishing harsh attacks on his rival this week, adopting a tone of mockery apparently designed to bruise Trump’s dignity and to get under his skin. Biden, for instance, quipped about Trump’s “orange hair” during a closed-door fundraiser in Raleigh. And after Trump posted on social media that he had won two recent golf tournaments, the president posted, “Congratulations, Donald. Quite the accomplishment.”

While Biden’s team is clearly enjoying poking fun at Trump, the growing intensity and aggressive tone of their strategy suggests the president – who has been trailing in many swing state polls – hopes to use a period when Trump is distracted by his legal quagmires to inflict serious early damage on his campaign that could be significant later in the year.

Biden’s joint event with his two predecessors is likely to be a prelude by the top Democrats – and their spouses – to aggressively rally Democratic voters behind the president in the fall when more voters begin to tune into the race.

Yet ahead of the president’s appearance at Radio City Music Hall with Clinton and Obama, hundreds of protesters gathered outside, angry at Biden’s support for Israel and its war against Hamas that has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza health ministry. Several protesters inside the venue also interrupted Biden’s remarks. The fury over the impact of Israel’s offensive, launched after terror attacks on Israeli soil in October, threatens to harm turnout among progressive voters and Arab Americans in Michigan – one battleground Biden can ill afford to lose.

Even with Trump seemingly focused this week on just about anything other than the general election, the president cannot escape his own grave political problems.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that RNC interview questions regarding the 2020 election apply to those who were reapplying for positions with the committee.

CNN’s MJ Lee and Donald Judd contributed reporting.