Analysis: Donald Trump's campaign team want Robert F Kennedy Jr neutralised as his popularity grows

Donald Trump and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Donald Trump and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Photo credit: Getty Images.

ANALYSIS: As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. sustains his support in public polls and makes steady progress on gaining ballot access in states across the country, his independent presidential bid is confounding the campaign of former President Donald Trump and its Republican allies.

In recent weeks, Kennedy has gone from a perceived nuisance to a political problem that the Trump campaign is eager to swiftly extinguish, according to conversations with multiple people close to the former president.

Trump himself has noticeably escalated his attacks on Kennedy in recent weeks, including posting a lengthy video to social media on Thursday that labeled him as a "Democrat plant" who will pull votes away from his campaign to help President Joe Biden, and urged Republicans not to cast a "wasted protest vote."

The shift comes as recent polls show that Kennedy could cut into Trump's support just as much as he could draw votes away from Biden, with the results serving as an apparent warning for Republicans who have dismissed the independent candidate thus far, the sources say.

The consensus held by Trump's top advisers and allies had long been that Biden has more to lose from the presence of independents, and Kennedy specifically, in November.

But the former president's team has taken notice of Kennedy's standing in some state polls and uptick in media attention, including regular appearances on conservative networks like Newsmax and Fox News, during which he's openly courted anti-establishment voters.

That's sparked a more concerted effort from Republicans to try and prevent Kennedy from eating into any pro-Trump support.

Trump's advisers and those close to the former president told CNN they still view Kennedy as likely hurting Biden more. However, they privately acknowledge that his impact on Trump's candidacy varies on a state-by-state basis. They also dismiss the notion that he could be perceived as a serious threat to the former president, but they argue their increased attacks against Kennedy are more an effort to halt any consideration from current or potential Trump supporters from casting their vote for the independent candidate.

"RFK is a problem, not a threat," one senior Trump adviser told CNN, who singled out Pennsylvania as one critical battleground state where Kennedy could hurt Trump, arguing voters in the Keystone State may be drawn more to a candidate who is neither Trump nor Biden.

As CNN previously reported, there are some in Trump's orbit who are concerned about Kennedy qualifying for the presidential debates and believe that having earlier debates would make it easier to keep Kennedy off the stage before he could gather further momentum in the polls.

"It's not that he's a threat. A lot of it depends on the state, and it's still not clear who he's taking more from," a person close to Trump said. "If we can make people on the right, who might be open minded to him, hate him very easily because he's so liberal. Why not weigh him down as much as possible with conservative or conservative leaning voters?"

CNN has reached out to Kennedy's campaign for comment.

Trump's team created a playbook months ago to go on offense against Kennedy and define him as a "liberal parading in conservative's clothing," as one senior Trump adviser described him to CNN, pointing to a series of his policies on climate change and abortion to paint him as part of the progressive wing of the Democratic party.

But in the months since, the messaging has varied. While Trump's team and Republican National Committee officials stuck to the script and painted Kennedy as a far-left Democrat who doesn't embody conservative values, the former president himself often had a different take.

At a campaign stop at a Harlem bodega during Trump's criminal trial last month, the former president ignored questions about whether he would consider Kennedy as a potential running mate, after Kennedy suggested emissaries of Trump's had reached out about the prospect — something Trump's campaign adamantly denied. Trump instead offered mild praise of Kennedy.

Days later, he called Kennedy "a nice guy" during an interview with Real America's Voice, adding he wasn't sure whether Kennedy hurt him or Biden more.

"Well, I think he's a nice guy. I've known him. He's extremely liberal. He's more liberal than anybody," Trump told the radio host. "They say he hurts Biden, I think, I'm not sure that that's true. But he might hurt Biden a little bit more, you don't know."

Flash forward to May, and Trump has adopted a more aggressive stance toward his independent rival. He has repeatedly attacked Kennedy on Truth Social, including labeling him as "a Radical Left Lunatic" and calling him "the dumbest member of the Kennedy Clan," as well as needling Kennedy's positions on vaccines and environmental policy, among others.

Asked about Trump ratcheting up his attacks, a Trump campaign adviser told CNN: "We've seen an uptick in the amount of coverage he's getting. And you know, we just want to reiterate our message. We want Trump to do what he does, what he does with everyone else. He separates the person from the politician."