The president who believes he can control events is confronted by further evidence that he cannot.
With just eight months until Election Day, President Donald Trump is having a bad week.
Despite Trump's concerted efforts to paint Joe Biden as corrupt — an attempt that led directly to his own impeachment — the former vice president pulled off one of the most remarkable political comebacks in recent history Tuesday night, reemerging as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination and Trump's opponent in November.
The stock markets tumbled again Tuesday amid fears about the ongoing spread of the coronavirus around the world, and by midmorning Wednesday, yet another case of the virus was confirmed in New York.
But futures markets bounced up with the news of Biden's victories, after he won states across the South and Midwest by large margins and dealt a serious blow to the prospects of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
For Trump, whose belief in his own ability to shape external events is a source of comfort, it means now confronting a moment when almost nothing is in his control.
He has dealt with the coronavirus, the first external crisis of his administration, by repeating a string of falsehoods rather than delivering reassurance. And his insistence that his administration deserves an "A+++" for its response has done little to calm the rattled markets or an anxious electorate.
Biden even won the primary in Texas, a state that several Trump advisers saw as a bellwether given the makeup of its electorate.
The president's aides said they are now preparing for a scorched-earth campaign against Biden in the coming months, even as voters Tuesday appeared to favor a candidate who projected calm stability over upheaval and uncertainty.
A sign of Trump's frustration was evident in one of his early-morning tweets Wednesday — a screed against Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general who was forced into a runoff Tuesday night for his old Senate seat Alabama, and whom Trump still blames for the two-year probe into possible conspiracy between the president's 2016 campaign and Russian officials.
"This is what happens to someone who loyally gets appointed Attorney General of the United States & then doesn't have the wisdom or courage to stare down & end the phony Russia Witch Hunt. Recuses himself on FIRST DAY in office, and the Mueller Scam begins!" Trump posted on Twitter, after Sessions fell short of securing a majority in the Republican primary in the senate race.
In a moment of uncertainty, Trump appeared to be grasping at the equivalent of comfort food: attacking Sessions. It was also a way for Trump to highlight a race in which his sustained attacks on Sessions before the campaign ultimately affected his ability to cleanly win the race.
It was clear that as the Democrats dealt with their own divisions, Trump's attempt to dictate the contours of their race has had little comparable effect.
For months, Trump has told aides he believes he can shape the Democratic race to his own advantage by focusing on specific candidates. And he has been more overt than any incumbent in trying to influence the nominating contest of another party, training his Twitter feed on his potential rivals and trying to deepen authentic divisions in the Democratic Party by stoking fears that the establishment was trying to rob Sanders of the nomination.
He began pushing the theory in January, when he floated the idea that the Senate impeachment trial was designed to keep Sanders grounded in Washington instead of campaigning in Iowa ahead of the caucuses there.
"They are rigging the election against Bernie Sanders, just like last time, only even more obviously," Trump tweeted. That month, Trump aides also began to see Sanders as their ideal Democratic opponent in November and sought to elevate his profile.
Trump began singling out Sanders at rallies and highlighting his surges in the polls on Twitter. "Bernie is going up," Trump said at a rally in Toledo, Ohio, in January. "He's surging. Crazy Bernie is surging."
Another target was Michael Bloomberg, a longtime rival from New York who had no compunction contrasting his wealth with Trump's.
On Tuesday, as polls opened in 14 states, Trump attempted a directive to voters in Texas and Oklahoma: "Mini Mike Bloomberg will kill your drilling, fracking and pipelines," he wrote. "Petroleum based 'anything' is dead. Energy jobs gone. Don't vote for Mini Mike!"
Bloomberg's withdrawal from the race Wednesday morning may provide Trump with a small measure of comfort. But it also presents a looming challenge for his campaign, as Bloomberg has promised to spend $1 billion to help the Democratic nominee and immediately threw his support to Biden.
But Bloomberg was not the main concern of Trump and his advisers. For months, they fanned the flames about Biden's younger son, Hunter, and his work for Burisma, a problem-plagued energy company in Ukraine. That effort that was central to the impeachment inquiry into whether Trump tried to pressure Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens in exchange for releasing military aid.
The damage to Trump was obvious, but the former vice president's candidacy also suffered in the process. His poll standing fell as he struggled to answer questions from reporters and voters about his son.
But the revival of Biden — who was buoyed by black voters, a core Democratic Party constituency, in several states — illustrates the limits of Trump's influence.
"I think Democratic primary voters are numbing to Trump's buffoonery — black voters in particular," said Addisu Demissie, who managed Sen. Cory Booker's presidential campaign. "They are the ones who have breathed life back into Biden's campaign and, if anything, they may relish seeing Biden take him down."
There has long been a disconnect between the way Trump sees politics and the way his more seasoned advisers do. Privately, several Trump advisers Wednesday said that they were not surprised that voters coalesced around Biden, even if the president was.
And they anticipated an ugly slog of a campaign going forward, with the brutal 2016 general election with Hillary Clinton serving as a reminder of how Trump will try to damage his rivals. Biden's family will become a focus again, they said, as the former vice president battles with Sanders for a delegate majority to become the Democratic nominee.
Still, Democrats argue that Trump's impact is overstated, aside from ensuring that electability was a chief concern for voters.
Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, said, "I would describe him as Sideshow Bob in this process. There's no evidence that he's commanding a large army of voters who are affecting Democratic primaries."
Written by: Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni
Photographs by: T. J Kirkpatrick and Tamir Kalifa
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES