Trump tweets that ex-Starbucks chief Howard Schultz lacks the guts and smarts to be president

Mr Howard Schultz, the former chief executive of Starbucks, is a self-described "lifelong Democrat" but plans to run as an independent candidate. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST, NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump took a few jabs on Monday (Jan 28) at former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, saying he lacks the guts and smarts to be president.

Trump's assessment, delivered in a morning tweet, followed a segment on Sunday night on CBS's 60 Minutes in which the billionaire Schultz confirmed that he is preparing to launch an independent 2020 campaign for president.

"Howard Schultz doesn't have the 'guts' to run for President!" Trump wrote. "Watched him on @60Minutes last night and I agree with him that he is not the 'smartest person.' Besides, America already has that!"

During the interview, Schultz was asked what a CEO of a global coffee chain knows about being commander in chief. "I have a long history of recognising I'm not the smartest person in the room, that in order to make great decisions about complex problems I have to recruit and attract people who are smarter than me and more experienced, more skilled, and we've got to create an understanding that we need a creative debate in the room to make these kind of decisions," Schultz said.

Trump has repeatedly touted his own smarts both as a candidate and president, famously declaring: "I alone can fix it" during his speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

In his Monday tweet, Trump also alluded to a Starbucks location in Trump Tower in Manhattan.

"I only hope that Starbucks is still paying me their rent in Trump Tower!" the President wrote.

Schultz, a self-described "lifelong Democrat", said on Sunday (Jan 27) that he had already begun the groundwork required to be on the ballot in all 50 states.

Schultz, in an interview with The New York Times, also said he planned to criss-cross the country for the next three months as part of a book tour before deciding whether to enter the race.

Schultz would face a difficult road despite his considerable wealth: Few independent candidates have mounted successful challenges for the White House.

"We have a broken political system with both parties basically in business to preserve their own ideology without a recognition and responsibility to represent the interests of the American people," Mr Schultz said in the interview.

"Republicans and Democrats alike - who no longer see themselves as part of the far extreme of the far right and the far left - are looking for a home," he added. "The word 'independent', for me, is simply a designation on the ballot."

Mr Schultz, in his new book, From The Ground Up, had criticised Trump for being "not qualified to be the president".

The possibility of Mr Schultz's candidacy as an independent has drawn condemnation from Democrats, who said that an independent run would split the vote on Election Day 2020 and hand Mr Trump a second term.

"I have two words for Howard Schultz on a potential run for president as an independent: Just don't," Ms Tina Podlodowski, chairman of the state Democratic Party of Washington, said last week as speculation mounted about Mr Schultz's plans.

Neera Tanden, president of the Centre for American Progress and a former adviser to Hillary Clinton, said on Twitter, "If he enters the race, I will start a Starbucks boycott because I'm not giving a penny that will end up in the election coffers of a guy who will help Trump win."

Schultz said he was well aware of the criticism, but said it was misplaced.

"I am certainly prepared for the cynics and the naysayers to come out and say this cannot be done," he said. "I don't agree with them. I think it's un-American to say it can't be done. I'm not doing this to be a spoiler."

Asked if he would consider changing his mind and run as a Democrat, he said, "I feel if I ran as a Democrat I would have to be disingenuous and say things that I don't believe because the party has shifted so far to the left."

"When I hear people espousing free government-paid college, free government-paid healthcare and a free government job for everyone - on top of a US$21 trillion (S$28.3 trillion) debt - the question is, how are we paying for all this and not bankrupting the country?" Schultz said.

"It's as big of a false narrative as the wall," he added. "Doesn't someone have to speak the truth about what we can afford while maintaining a deep level of compassion and empathy for the American people?"

Schultz, who grew up in the public housing projects in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, became a billionaire by building Starbucks from seven stores in Seattle into a global coffee chain with over 350,000 employees.

He was known as a progressive corporate leader, offering full health benefits for full- and part-time employees and their domestic partners, and Starbucks became the first privately owned US company to include part-time workers in its stock-option programme.

With an estimated net worth of US$3.3 billion, Schultz, 65, is one of several billionaires who had been mentioned as possible presidential contenders.

Former hedge fund titan Tom Steyer, who had been eyeing a run, announced this month he would focus his energies on a private effort to impeach Mr Trump. Mr Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, is contemplating a presidential run as a Democrat.

Even before Schultz's announcement, Senator Bernie Sanders and Democrats including Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has already announced her candidacy, delivered pre-emptive strikes at billionaires, specifically citing those who self-fund their campaigns.

Bloomberg, with an estimated net worth of nearly US$48 billion, has said he would self-fund any campaign. Mr Schultz is expected to fund some of his own campaign, but would also likely seek public donations for a race that could cost more than US$1 billion.

Schultz's consideration of entering the race as an independent evokes the 1992 campaign by eccentric Texas billionaire Ross Perot, also a political neophyte. Perot, for a time, was the leader in the polls and gained almost 19 per cent of the popular vote, the most for an independent candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.

Like Schultz, Perot expressed concern about the national debt and vowed to reduce it. He failed to win any electoral votes.

Schultz, who pointed to a recent Gallup poll showing that 42 per cent of voters identified as politically independent, scoffed at the comparisons to previous efforts of independent candidates.

"This is a very different time in America today in terms of how divided we are and the need for the country to come together," he said. "I've done the work this year to unequivocally remove, if I decide to run, any concern regarding ballot access."

Schultz is relying in part on a small team of outside advisers, including Steve Schmidt, the former campaign strategist for John McCain's 2008 presidential effort.

Schultz's success or failure may lie in who emerges as a top contender in the Democratic Party.

If Joe Biden, who is seen as a moderate, decides to run, it would probably make it difficult for Mr Schultz. However, he said he sees a clear opportunity if a far-left candidate emerges.

"If you have a choice between President Trump and a far-left progressive Democrat," he said, "many people think President Trump will get re-elected."

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