Even in the West Wing, all politics is local.
President Donald Trump — raised in Queens, made in Manhattan — in the past week is finding his latest targets back home, turning New York political leaders into liberal punching bags that offer him familiar and useful foils ahead of the midterm elections.
It’s an old political playbook — attack elite, liberal New York, and the heartland loves you — but it’s also personal for Trump, whose relationships with some of New York’s political leaders go back generations.
On Monday, the president deliberately attacked New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is fighting for his third term, as a presidential wannabe. He told attendees at a fundraiser in Utica that Cuomo once promised he would “never run for president against” him and then urged him to get in the race. “Oh, please do it,” Trump goaded. “Anybody who runs against Trump suffers.”
Trump then quickly capitalized on a nuclear-level gaffe from Cuomo, who in a speech on Wednesday noted that America “was never that great,” tweeting that Cuomo was “having a total meltdown!”
In between Trump’s attacks and taunts directed at Cuomo, he managed to ding New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand as a do-nothing. And his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, told reporters that the strongest Democratic nominee for president in 2020 would be former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
For a president whose actions are often driven by knee-jerk responses to criticism, rather than any planned political strategy, running against New York is seen as a mix of opportunity, muscle memory and method. It also fits with Trump’s instincts, which are to play political small ball even when he’s on the biggest international stage — this time by focusing on the characters his family has interacted with for decades, who also happen to be potential 2020 challengers.
It’s not without an upside.
“It’s a wise move,” said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. “After 9/11, it was impolitic to attack New York, but it’s lost its immunity. If you attack New York, you attack New York values and you stand up for the rest of the country. It looks like he’s attacking the elites and Hillary’s allies.”
On Friday, Trump’s focus on New York and its political leaders is likely to continue when he travels to Southampton for a speech and a fundraiser thrown by Manhattan developer Howard Lorber, the executive chairman of the hot dog company Nathan’s Famous.
While Trump’s approval rating has jumped up nationwide, he remains at about 30 percent in New York
Trump does not have many opportunities to return to his blue home state, whose only importance in an election year to Republicans is as a place to hold fundraisers. His appearance in front of state Republicans on Monday occurred because of his official visit to Fort Drum to sign the defense authorization bill.
But for Republicans in New York, there’s also an in-state benefit to Trump’s interest in localizing his presidency. “Cuomo is hurting here in New York State,” said Ed Cox, chairman of the New York Republican State Committee. “President Trump has made clear by responding to him that what he’s really doing is running a presidential campaign. In attacking him like that, Trump is making it clear that Cuomo is leaving New York.”
It’s also a helpful turnout strategy in up-for-grab congressional districts, said Cox, who added: “There are a good number of Trump supporters who we need to get to the polls. I believe this will get them to the polls.”
Cuomo advisers, meanwhile, said the fight elevates the New York governor. While Trump’s approval rating has jumped up nationwide, he remains at about 30 percent in New York, according to recent polls.
“From the day he was elected, Donald Trump picked a fight with the people of New York when he came after us on SALT, immigration, women’s rights and Puerto Rico,” said Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for Cuomo’s reelection campaign. “This is a fight Governor Cuomo will take on any day of the week and twice on Sundays.”
Advisers to Bloomberg, who have floated the idea of their boss running for president as a Democrat in 2020, said they were confused by Lewandowski’s mention of the billionaire former mayor as a top adversary.
“There’s only one name I would choose, and I think that person could have a very competitive race,” Lewandowski told reporters at a breakfast in Washington, D.C. hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “His name is Michael Bloomberg.”
Bloomberg emerged as a leading Trump critic during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, where the self-made billionaire was trotted out to attack Trump as a con man and “dangerous demagogue” whose self-made businessman story started was actually bankrolled by his father.
One Bloomberg adviser speculated that it was a fundraising ploy: reminding Republican voters that Trump could face-off against a businessman with unlimited resources could motivate donors.
But instead of taking the bait and engaging with Trump — as Cuomo and Gillibrand have done — they chose to keep Bloomberg’s intentions a question mark.
“Too busy focused on taking the House to comment at this point,” Bloomberg adviser Kevin Sheekey said in an email, signing off with a smiley face emoji.