WASHINGTON — Opening an ugly new chapter in the 2020 campaign, President Trump and allies in the Republican Party and on Fox News have swiftly gone all-in on sexist and personal attacks against Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, from Mr. Trump demeaning her as “angry” and “horrible” to commentators mocking her first name to comparing her to “payday lenders.”
Hours after Ms. Harris was announced, Mr. Trump described her as “nasty” or “nastier” four times — terms he often uses for female opponents — and complained that her tough questioning was disrespectful to Brett M. Kavanaugh during Supreme Court confirmation hearings. And on Wednesday, after Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Ms. Harris held their first joint appearance, Mr. Trump claimed without evidence that Ms. Harris was furious when she left the Democratic primary race after falling in the polls.
“She left angry, she left mad,” he said. “There was nobody more insulting to Biden than she was.”
One right-wing commentator, Dinesh D’Souza, appeared on Fox News to question whether Ms. Harris, the junior senator from California and a child of immigrants from Jamaica and India, could truly claim she was Black. And on Tuesday night, Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, mispronounced her first name, even growing angry when corrected.
“So what?” he said, when a guest told him it was pronounced “Comma-la.” (Fox News declined to comment on the exchange.)
On Twitter, Eric Trump, one of the president’s sons, favorited a tweet, which was later deleted, that referred to Ms. Harris as a “whorendous pick.” Jenna Ellis, a senior legal adviser to the Trump campaign, noted during Ms. Harris’s first speech as Mr. Biden’s running mate on Wednesday, “Kamala sounds like Marge Simpson.”
Mr. Trump added to the barrage with a racist tweet on Wednesday morning claiming that Mr. Biden would put another Black leader, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, in charge of low-income housing in the suburbs. That tweet did not mention Ms. Harris, but it continued Mr. Trump’s tactic of playing into white racist fears about integration efforts as he declared, “The ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me.”
“They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood,” Mr. Trump wrote. “Biden would reinstall it, in a bigger form, with Corey Booker in charge!” The president did not explain why he referred to Mr. Booker, whose first name he misspelled.
But the harsh personal criticisms, and a fixation on Ms. Harris’s race, reflected a serious problem for the Trump campaign — its inability to launch a clear attack on the Biden-Harris ticket. The lack of a frame to respond to the significance of the Harris selection underscored how the president and his campaign, without any senior strategist, is floundering as they try to decipher what their own re-election message should be.
Standing in the White House briefing room on Tuesday, Mr. Trump read from some prepared notes, assailing Ms. Harris for being against fracking and “very big into raising taxes.” At another point, Mr. Trump appeared unfamiliar with his own campaign’s line of attack. When a reporter with The New York Post asked the president about his own campaign ad calling Ms. Harris a “phony,” the president asked for clarification.
“She was a what?” Mr. Trump said.
And hours after the campaign called Ms. Harris the “most liberal” member of the Senate, the Republican National Committee sent out an email blast saying that progressives hated her because she was not progressive enough.
Ms. Harris ran her own presidential campaign last year, and was widely seen as the most obvious pick for Mr. Biden: at once a conventional and groundbreaking choice. Despite plenty of time to prepare for her, Mr. Trump and his allies appeared to be caught without a coordinated game plan, lurching from one attack to another, when the Democrats finally announced their ticket on Tuesday.
Mr. Trump’s high-profile female surrogates like former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota were notably absent from any coordinated response to the announcement, choosing to remain silent.
“Steve Bannon offered a populist North Star for them in the 2016 campaign, and Hillary Clinton gave them a lot of fodder for populist attacks,” said Tim Miller, a former top strategist for former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. He was referring to Mr. Bannon, the strategist who worked for Mr. Trump in 2016 and helped frame him as the populist candidate on the right.
A 2016 version of Mr. Trump might have attacked Ms. Harris as a Wall Street-funded, coastal elite, and a former cop, in an attempt to undermine the Democratic ticket with working-class voters, while also trying to suppress the Black vote. Sam Nunberg, an adviser to Mr. Trump’s campaign early on in 2015, noted that Mr. Trump donated twice to Ms. Harris when she was a candidate for attorney general in California, where he has business interests. Mr. Trump, he said, could have argued that “he knew how to play the game and he played her,” Mr. Nunberg said. “You can’t trust her because she was there at Trump Tower groveling for cash, just like Hillary.”
Instead, the campaign and the R.N.C. were trying to make the argument that the Biden-Harris ticket is both a tool of the far left and despised by it. “They wanted Bernie and Warren,” Mr. Miller said. “That would have made the attack that the party is enthralled by the left easier. It’s a hard sell to say Joe Biden is a puppet for Kamala Harris, who is a puppet for the Squad.”
Tim Murtaugh, the communications director for the Trump campaign, disputed there was any confusion about what the selection of Ms. Harris represented. “She pushes Biden further to the left than he had already moved by himself,” Mr. Murtaugh said, noting her support for sanctuary cities, her opposition to the death penalty even for MS-13 gang members, and her decision as a prosecutor to hand out plea deals while homicides in her city were on the rise.
He said the campaign was not responsible for news releases from the R.N.C. or for commentary on Fox News. “We are focused strictly on talking about how she completes the radical leftist takeover of Joe Biden,” he said.
A new ad released by the campaign ran through a list of accusations against Ms. Harris, several of them false, saying she wanted to “confiscate your guns by force” and “give cop killers a pass” — more conventional Republican attempts to stir passions on public safety and social change.
But that flag was not being waved by the campaign’s usual echo chambers. Instead, there were disparate messages. On Tuesday night, Mr. Carlson said that there were “time-share salesmen you could trust more” than Ms. Harris and “payday lenders who are more sincere,” alluding to an institution long accused of exploiting poor communities of color.
On Fox News, Mr. D’Souza said that because Ms. Harris’s Jamaican father had traced his ancestry to a slave owner, her racial identity as a Black woman was in question.
The Fox News host Sean Hannity, meanwhile, called Ms. Harris a senator with a “radical extremist record” whose selection “solidifies what’s the most extreme radical far-left out-of-the-mainstream ticket of any major political party in American history.”
Some Trump allies even praised her, in an attempt to raise expectations ahead of the fall campaign. Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is one of the president’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, called Ms. Harris “smart” and “aggressive” and predicted she would be a “formidable opponent.”
But some Republicans, including ones often critical of the president, cautioned that presidential tweets and pundit chatter would not have nearly the impact on voters that advertising would. And the Trump campaign’s ability to be more focused and consistent in its messaging online and on television is where it can do the most potential damage by defining a running mate who remains a blank slate for many Americans.
“They can’t control Trump,” said Mike Murphy, a media adviser to several Republican presidential candidates. “He’ll be tweeting, name calling — and the difference between this time and last time is that Trump has half a billion dollars in resources at his disposal from the R.N.C.”
Mr. Murphy said that Ms. Harris, and her support for certain policies, would be easier for conservatives to attack than their initial, disjointed, response suggests. “The machinery under the Trump campaign knows how to do the mediocre, standard version of this,” he said. “Kamala Harris is the pick. Here’s the résumé: As attorney general she opposed the death penalty, even for cop killers; as senator, she supported reparations for slavery and said she would take away private health insurance. She is the future.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Biden made it clear he expected the campaign to go in the opposite direction, and become more personal.
“Donald Trump has already started his attacks, calling Kamala ‘nasty,’ whining about how she’s ‘mean’ to his appointees,” he said. “Is anyone surprised Donald Trump has a problem with strong women across the board? We know that more is to come.”
But Mr. Trump has struggled to define Ms. Harris with that kind of precision since the Democratic primary, when he failed to land on a quick-hit way to undermine her candidacy. The president reveled in battering Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as “Pocahontas” and making fun of Mr. Biden’s mental acuity by referring to him as “Sleepy Joe.”
Ms. Harris never earned a nickname — in part, because she never managed to break out, for long, as a serious threat. Instead, Mr. Trump complimented the large crowd size at her kickoff rally. And his few attempts to criticize her were vague. “She’s got a little bit of a nasty wit,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Hannity in an interview during the primary, a comment that could be taken as a criticism or a compliment.
If Ms. Haley and Ms. Noem were not available as surrogates on Tuesday, at least one prominent Republican woman was ready to defend Mr. Trump.
On Wednesday, Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the R.N.C., tried to dampen critiques of sexism by defending Mr. Trump’s use of the word “nasty” to describe a woman in power.
“If not ‘nasty,’ what is the politically correct term for calling your opponent a racist on national TV for having the same view as you on busing so you can hawk campaign T-shirts,” Ms. McDaniel tweeted, drawing attention to the most heated debate exchange between Mr. Biden and Mr. Harris, when she confronted him about his record on busing and segregation.