President Donald Trump is struggling to find a compelling rationale for his reelection ahead of the final presidential debate, firing off wild, scattershot attacks against an expanding list of perceived political enemies.
On a day of vitriol and stunts, the President's base-stoking narrative of anger and personal persecution targeted Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Lesley Stahl of "60 Minutes," the Commission on Presidential Debates, the Supreme Court and Dr. Anthony Fauci. At an evening rally in Pennsylvania, he even took a shot at "Crooked Hillary." He also intensified pressure on Attorney General William Barr to launch criminal probes into Biden.
But Trump's quest for distractions simply underscored how he is ignoring the true and most dangerous adversary facing America -- the pandemic that has buckled his false reelection narrative of a nation on the rebound and has left millions out of work. His frantic efforts to save his presidency lacked the focus of his populist, nationalist economic arguments in 2016 -- and an opponent in Hillary Clinton, who he was conveniently able to cast as a villain for his outsider message.
This year's Democratic nominee, whose polling lead has survived all Trump's claims that he is corrupt and a Trojan horse for radical leftists, is a more elusive target. The former vice president spent another day huddled in his Delaware home prepping for Thursday's debate -- the last scheduled set-piece event of an often bizarre 2020 campaign.
Trump, in the middle of a grueling set of rallies after recovering from the virus, traveled to Erie, where he needs to outperform his strong 2016 showing to cut Biden's current lead in Pennsylvania, potentially the pivotal 2020 swing state.
"You guys aren't even open yet. What the hell is going on with your state?" Trump said at the rally, accusing Pennsylvania's Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf of keeping the commonwealth shut down for no reason. After reducing its case and death numbers from its initial bout with the virus early in the year, Pennsylvania is now seeing its cases of Covid-19 rise again, all across the state.
The pandemic's haunting presence in the final days of the campaign was underscored when first lady Melania Trump was forced to cancel her own plans to attend the rally, owing to the aftereffects of her Covid-19 infection.
And while Trump slams his opponent as soft on China, the latest New York Times report on his own tax records reveals that the President has extensive interests in the country and even maintains a bank account there.
The Chinese account, the newspaper said, is controlled by Trump International Hotels Management and it paid $188,561 in taxes in the country from 2013 to 2015. Earlier Times disclosures have shown how the President has paid almost no US federal tax on his fortune for years. Trump insists he has paid millions to the Treasury.
Trump creates a scene during '60 Minutes' interview
Trump had spent the day performing antics that might appeal to his most loyal voters and provide fodder for conservative media but threaten to further alienate more moderate voters he needs to attract.
The President sat for a CBS "60 Minutes" interview -- an age-old staple of campaigns -- but sources said he walked out after 45 minutes and refused to complete a segment with Vice President Mike Pence. Trump walked out of the interview because he was frustrated with Stahl's line of questioning, one source said. Another person said the bulk of the interview was focused on coronavirus.
Soon after he walked out, Trump tweeted a gotcha photo of correspondent Stahl not wearing a mask in the White House.
A person familiar with the situation told CNN that the image from the tweet shows Stahl with her producers immediately after Trump had ended the interview, before she had gone back to get her personal belongings to put her mask back on. She had a mask on from the time she entered the White House and just before the interview began.
Then, in another sign of frivolity, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany sent out a photo of herself handing Stahl a thick book that she said listed all the President's achievements on health care. Later, Trump, in a show of presidential whining, tweeted that he might release the interview before Sunday's air date to prove what a "FAKE and BIASED interview is all about."
The spectacle of a White House ambushing a TV reporter would be extraordinary in normal times, but it shows a profound lack of seriousness in the middle of a domestic crisis that has killed more than 220,000 Americans and as experts say an alarming rise in Covid infections may be a week away.
Trump demands action from Barr
Earlier, in a phone call to Fox News, the President called on Barr to open a preelection probe into his false claims that the former vice president is guilty of corruption in Ukraine -- the country that Trump tried to coerce into interfering in the election to damage Biden in an abuse of power that got him impeached.
"We've gotta get the attorney general to act. He's gotta act. And he's gotta act fast," Trump said in the interview. "This is major corruption and this has to be known about before the election."
The demand was the latest indication of how Trump has no compunction about using the powers of his office -- meant to be reserved for the American national interest -- to try to damage his political foes in full public view.
In the same interview, Trump took another shot at Fauci, the government's top infectious diseases specialist, who is warning that a feared fall and winter spike of Covid-19 is already materializing. On Monday, an unchained Trump described the respected doctor as an "idiot" and a "disaster."
He followed up Tuesday by tarnishing the apolitical reputation that Fauci has built in decades of service to six presidents.
"He's a nice guy. The only thing I say is he's a little bit, sometimes not a team player. But he is a Democrat and I think that he's just fine," Trump said.
Fauci is not registered with any political party.
Expert sees rapid escalation in Covid cases
Trump's attacks on Fauci underscore his most intractable problem in his effort to finally settle on an attack that negatively defines Biden and could broaden the President's appeal wider than the fervent support of his most faithful voters. Trump's failure to properly manage the pandemic and his constant denial about its impact on American life means he is at a disadvantage on the issue that appears likely to define the election. Experts are now warning of a fast-worsening situation across almost the entire nation just at the moment the President wants to declare victory over the emergency.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, is predicting a swift escalation of infections, which have recently raced back to average around 50,000 a day.
"It's going to be a difficult fall and winter. I think we're about two or three weeks behind Europe -- so we're about a week away from starting to enter a period where we're going to see a rapid acceleration in cases," Gottlieb told CNBC's Shepard Smith on Monday.
After several days of criticizing NBC's Kristen Welker, who will moderate Thursday's debate in Nashville, Trump is now grumbling about the decision by the presidential debate commission to mute the mics for a portion of the encounter after his boorish interruptions in the first debate.
"These are not good people. This commission -- a lot of funny things go on with them," he said on Fox.
"I think the whole thing is crazy."
A source close to Biden told CNN that the Democratic nominee is getting ready for Trump to "bully and deflect" onstage and is preparing for him to go after his family as well.
Throughout this campaign cycle, Trump has tried and failed to disqualify Biden from the presidency. The veteran Democrat has proven remarkably resilient, and Tuesday was another case study in why, as it showed all the ways that the President is limiting his own potential appeal.
Biden has a clear path to 270
Another riotous day at the White House unfolded with Trump, who is desperate not to be the first President since George H.W. Bush ousted after a single term, trailing Biden in enough swing states to cost him the election.
CNN Poll of Polls averages across 10 key battleground states suggest tight races heading into the final two weeks of the campaign in seven states and Biden ahead in the other three. Crucially, the averages suggest Biden holds a sizable lead in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which could form a path for him to get to the magic number of 270 electoral votes.
In Pennsylvania, Biden averages 52% support to Trump's 43% in polling conducted between September 20 and October 5. In both Wisconsin and Michigan, the averages show Biden with 51% and Trump with 43%.
Trump's hopes in Pennsylvania took a further blow with Monday night's Supreme Court decision that means mail-in ballots -- mostly preferred by Democrats -- can be counted in the Keystone State for up to three days after Election Day on November 3. He called the decision "ridiculous" and "very strange."
Across multiple states, voters are not waiting until November 3 to make their choices. Early voting records are tumbling everywhere.
More than 675,000 absentee ballots have been returned in Ohio, nearly double the figure at the same point four years ago.
More than 2 million voters have already cast ballots in North Carolina, a state where Trump tried to raise doubts about the legitimacy of early voting.
More than 27% of registered voters have already cast their ballots in Texas, and New Hampshire has seen nearly double the number of absentee ballots returned in all of 2016.
It is not possible to deduce exactly which candidate may have the advantage in early voting. The eagerness of voters to make their choices does reflect strong support for democracy even in the most extreme circumstances. And it makes one thing clear: The election is beginning to be decided right now, and the capacity of either candidate to change its dynamics is increasingly limited.
Still, Trump is putting his hopes in the kind of late surge that helped him beat Clinton in 2016 and is scheduling a flurry of swing state rallies to try to build momentum, even though the events will put his supporters -- and people they will later meet -- at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19.