with Brent D. Griffiths

Good morning to the social distancers only. Tips, comments, recipes? Reach out and sign up. Thanks for waking up with us. 

The Campaign

THE BLAME-SHIFTING GAME: President Trump is planning to target China in a new thrust to win reelection as his handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic has taken center stage. 

Trump made the new tactic abundantly clear at his daily White House briefing on Tuesday, announcing the suspension of U.S. contributions to the World Health Organization because he claims it didn't act aggressively enough to curb the spread of the virus and is too close to China. 

  • “Had the WHO done its job to get medical experts into China to objectively assess the situation on the ground and to call out China's lack of transparency, the outbreak could have been contained as a source with very little death, very little death, and certainly very little death by comparison,” Trump said yesterday in the Rose Garden. “This would have saved thousands of lives and avoided worldwide economic damage.”
  • “Instead the WHO willingly took China's assurances to face value, and they took it just at face value and defended the actions of the Chinese government, even praising China for its so-called transparency. I don't think so,” Trump added. “The WHO's reliance on China's disclosures likely caused a 20-fold increase in cases worldwide, and it may be much more than that.” 

Earlier in the day, a fundraising committee for Trump's reelection campaign amplified his anti-China messaging, urging supporters to “hold China accountable by contributing to his campaign” — “the first instance of his campaign using an anti-China message to raise money,” according to our colleague Michelle Ye Hee Lee. 

  • “China has been lying and doing everything they can to cover up the spread of covid-19 in their country. It’s absolutely disgraceful and we can’t stand by and do nothing,” according to the mailer.

On Monday, Trump reverted to using the term “Wuhan virus” to tie the global pandemic to a geographic location. And last week, his campaign released a controversial and misleading attack ad against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden using out-of-context clips to paint the former vice president as supportive of China. The ad repeats accusations Biden and his son Hunter have financial interests with the Chinese government when there is no evidence of such relationships. 

Two-pronged attack: Trump campaign sources confirmed to Power Up the campaign has recalibrated its message to focus on China in two ways: as the culprit of the global pandemic, and as a cudgel against Biden. It's a strategy intended to buoy a president under fire for his handling of a virus that has killed nearly 25,000 people in the U.S. and sent the country into an economic recession, which isn't good for Trump's reelection hopes.

  • Spelling it out: “The thinking is after all of this is said and done, the American people are going to look for answers and for someone to blame — we obviously know where the blame is going: it’ll go on China and their lack of openness and being forthcoming,” an adviser to the Trump campaign told Power Up. “That’s the big messaging point so tying Biden to that is going to be critical.”
  • “I think you can see it in our messaging already — [Biden] has a history of being soft on China,” a Trump campaign spokesperson told us. “He did not support Trump’s travel restrictions and opposed Trump describing it as the Chinese virus. [Trump] is engaged in a war against the coronavirus and Biden has decided to serve as the opposition.”

Trump's own public statements however, praised China's response and President Xi Jinping. And his claims Biden opposed his order to restrict travel from China are also false — Biden has never made such a statement. In fact, the vice president issued several public warnings hinting at China's efforts to conceal the true extent of the outbreak in February: 

  • “And here's the deal. I would be on the phone with China and making it clear, we are going to need to be in your country; you have to be open; you have to be clear; we have to know what's going on; we have to be there with you, and insist on it and insist, insist, insist,” Biden said during the Democratic debate at the end of February. 

And Biden hit back at the attack line: “Donald Trump was soft on China when it mattered most to the American people: by failing to press them about the coronavirus outbreak and to insist our experts had access like Joe Biden and a host of experts urged him to do. That is malpractice of historic proportions, and our country is paying a horrible price for it,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates told us.

Bates added that Trump prioritized U.S.-China trade negotiations over handling the outbreak. 

  • Trump and other senior officials were wary of further upsetting Beijing,” the New York Times reported over the weekend. “Besides the concerns about the impact on the trade deal, they knew that an escalating confrontation was risky because the United States relies heavily on China for pharmaceuticals and the kinds of protective equipment most needed to combat the coronavirus.” 
  • Trump tweeted on Jan. 24: 

China bashing is a tried-and-true tactic from some politicians on both sides of the aisle. But strategists doubt American voters will buy into Trump's blanket blame of China instead of point the finger at the president for his own response to containing the virus.

  • Already, Trump's “net approval rating among voters is nearly back to what it was before the rally around the flag effect took hold,” CNN's Harry Enten pointed out. “Historically, it's one of, if not the, fastest abatements of an effect I've seen going back since World War II.”

Political prognosticator Charlie Cook wrote in August of 2019 Trump already faced a number of structural and historical challenges that positioned him as a potential historical underdog for reelection. The coronavirus only increases those headwinds, according to Cook. 

  • “I certainly can understand why the Trump campaign would want to change the venue of this election onto China but I’m skeptical that they can be that successful at doing that,” Cook told Power Up. “I think that the pandemic and the economic impact are going to be the elephants in the room.”
  • Cook suspects that with the economy in steep decline, Trump will have an even harder time attracting voters beyond his base of fixed support: “You’ve got roughly half of the country pretty committed against him and a bit over 40 percent in absolute support for him,” Cook added. “There's a sliver in the middle of people who had been — notice I used past tense — giving Trump a lot of credit for a strong economy but at the same time had real reservations about Trump as a person, his character, his leadership style, the chaos and the confusion. The personal leadership style and the economy balanced each other out as long as the economy was good.”

Nevertheless, the GOP and conservative media outlets have echoed Trump's rhetoric on China: GOP lawmakers like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have amplified conspiracy theories surrounding the origins of the virus and Senate Republicans announced a probe into the pandemic earlier this wee mainly focused on China. 

  • “Where did this all start from? Was this transferred animal to human? Was this from a lab in China? Might have been the best of intentions trying to come up with the different cures, with the different therapies for the coronavirus in general,” Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) n told Politico's Burgess Everett and Marianne Levine. “We need to know what role WHO might have had in trying to cover this thing up.”
  • “We don’t know where it originated, but we do know that we have to get to the bottom of that,” Cotton said on Fox News in February. “We also know that just a few miles away from that food market is China’s only biosafety level 4 super laboratory that researches human infectious diseases. Now, we don’t have evidence that this disease originated there, but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says. And China right now is not giving any evidence on that question at all.”
  • What he meant: Cotton believes the most likely path of the virus was "natural" animal to human transmission that could have come from an "accidental breach" in a Chinese lab with poor safety practices. He advanced several "hypotheses" in a February tweet thread he said were not "conspiracy theories."
  • Other experts agree: “There’s absolutely nothing in the genome sequence of this virus that indicates the virus was engineered,” Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, told our colleague Paulina Firozi. “The possibility this was a deliberately released bioweapon can be firmly excluded. ”

Note to readers: We have updated our story to reflect Sen. Tom Cotton's (R-Ark.) belief that the most likely source of the novel coronavirus was animal to human transmission, perhaps from poor safety practices at a Chinese lab.

At The White House

SIGN OF THE TIMES: “The Treasury Department has ordered [Trump’s] name be printed on stimulus checks the Internal Revenue Service is rushing to send to tens of millions of Americans, a process that could slow their delivery by a few days, senior IRS officials said,” Lisa Rein reports. Trump himself privately pitched the idea of emblazoning his John Hancock on the checks to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin whose department oversees the IRS.

  • A Treasury Department representative disputed that any checks would be delayed: But “computer code must be changed to include the president’s name, and the system must be tested, these [senior IRS] officials said,” Lisa writes. "‘Any last minute request like this will create a downstream snarl that will result in a delay,’ said Chad Hooper, a quality-control manager who serves as national president of the IRS’s Professional Managers Association.”

This is unprecedented: “It will be the first time a president’s name appears on an IRS disbursement, whether a routine refund or one of the handful of checks the government has issued to taxpayers in recent decades either to stimulate a down economy or share the dividends of a strong one,” our colleague writes.

  • Why presidents don't sign checks: “It is standard practice for a civil servant to sign checks issued by the Treasury Department to ensure that government payments are nonpartisan.” Trump is not authorized to sign the checks himself so they “will instead bear Trump’s name in the memo line, below a line that reads, ‘Economic Impact Payment,’ the administration officials said."
President Trump claimed on April 13 that he has the final say in reopening states amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some states’ governors disagree. (The Washington Post)

MAY DAY: “Trump has all but decided to begin declaring the country ready to get back to business on May 1, two current and two former senior administration officials said, but a scramble is underway inside the White House to determine how to stagger a reopening of the economy amid the novel coronavirus pandemic while also protecting Trump from any political fallout,” Philip Rucker, Robert Costa and Ashley Parker report.

  • The president has been adamant the country reopen next month: “The White House is in the process of modeling testing results, death rates and other data to help guide a decision. Aides stressed that, despite the president’s fixation on May 1 as a reopening date, the timing remains fluid and no final decision has been made,” our colleagues write.

Trump said he would “authorize” each governor to implement a plan to reopen their states. That is not the same as ordering them to do so, a declaration the president made Monday that he walked back last night: “He said more than 20 states are in ‘extremely good shape’ and are poised to reopen their economies very soon, ‘maybe even before the date of May 1.’”

  • It's unclear if Trump still believes he has “total authority (he does not): During last night's briefing, “Trump offered conflicting statements about which entity had the authority to reopen, seeming to backtrack from his claim Monday but at the same time insisting the federal government would have the final say,” Seung Min Kim, Josh Dawsey and Brady Dennis report. “The president’s claim, first conveyed in a tweet Monday morning and underscored at a White House news conference and subsequent social media posts, caught his aides off guard and prompted them to study whether Trump would have such authority in a time of emergency like the ongoing pandemic.”

FEMA and the CDC already have a draft strategic plan: “The plan lays out three phases: Preparing the nation to reopen with a national communication campaign and community readiness assessment until May 1. Then, the effort through May 15 would involve ramping up manufacturing of testing kits and personal protective equipment and increasing emergency funding. Then staged reopenings would begin, depending on local conditions. The plan does not give dates for reopenings but specified ‘not before May 1,’” Lena H. Sun, Josh Dawsey and William Wan scooped after obtaining the document. (Read the plan yourself).

  • The first priority would be reopen care for children, including K-12 schools, daycare centers and local summer camps.
  • Not so fast: "The plan also carries this warning: ‘Models indicate 30-day shelter in place followed by 180 day lifting of all mitigation results in large rebound curve — some level of mitigation will be needed until vaccines or broad community immunity is achieved for recovering communities.’”

BUT: "The president has not committed to following the guidelines delineated in the draft," our colleagues report.

TESTING CONTINUES TO LAG: “The number of coronavirus tests analyzed each day by commercial labs in the U.S. plummeted by more than 30 percent over the past week, even though new infections are still surging in many states and officials are desperately trying to ramp up testing so the country can reopen,” Politico's David Lim reports.

  • What might be behind the delay: “One reason for the drop-off may be the narrow testing criteria that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last revised in March. The agency’s guidelines prioritize hospitalized patients, health care workers and those thought to be especially vulnerable to the disease, such as the elderly. Health providers have been turning away others in part due to shortages of the swabs used to collect samples,” Politico reports. What is clear, per Politico's reporting, “after being overwhelmed for weeks, commercial labs say they are now sitting with unused testing capacity waiting for samples to arrive.”

Trump continues to say states must do testing on their own: “ … The governors are responsible, they have to take charge, they have to do a great job, and we're going to suggest that they check people through tests or otherwise coming into their states, and they run their states very strong,” the president told reporters during his daily briefing.

  • But governors say they can't ramp up testing capacity by themselves: “When I tell you I can't do something, it's the first time you've heard me say that since I've been governor. But I'm telling you, we can't do this,” New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said earlier in the day on testing.
Former president Barack Obama endorsed his former vice president, Joe Biden, in an April 14 video. (Joe Biden/YouTube)

The People

OBAMA RETURNS, BACKS BIDEN: “Joe Biden’s week-long rollout of endorsements from a series of boldfaced political names is intended to emphatically place him as the leader of a Democratic Party whose factions are newly allied against a common opponent: [Trump],” Sean Sullivan, Annie Linskey and Michael Scherer report.

The former president is easily the biggest name to endorse Biden thus far: “In a video that served as part endorsement and part political blueprint, Obama called on Americans to unite in a ‘great awakening’ in November and attested that his former vice president ‘has the character and the experience to guide us through one of our darkest times and heal us through a long recovery,’” our colleagues write. (You can read Obama's entire 12-minute message here)

  • Others are expected to jump in soon: “Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another former rival, plans to throw her support to Biden in the near future, according to a person with knowledge of her plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not cleared to discuss those plans publicly. Hillary Clinton, the party’s last nominee, also is expected to back Biden soon, according to a person familiar with her thinking who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss campaign strategy.”

In the Media

Real talk: we could be dealing with this for awhile: “The US may have to endure social distancing measures -- such as stay-at-home orders and school closures -- until 2022, researchers projected … That is, unless, a vaccine becomes quickly available,” CNN's Leah Asmelash and Maggie Fox report of new findings from researchers at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

  • Key quote: ""Intermittent distancing may be required into 2022 unless critical care capacity is increased substantially or a treatment or vaccine becomes available," they wrote in their report.

Another sobering observation: "I think people haven’t understood that this isn’t about the next couple of weeks,” Michael Osterholm, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota told the Atlantic's Ed Yong about just how long this could drag out. “This is about the next two years.”

IMF expects a global recession: “The International Monetary Fund said the pandemic is causing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s …,” David J. Lynch reports. “The new forecast represents an abrupt reversal from just three months ago, when the fund said the global economy would expand this year by 3.3 percent.”

Viral

THE WILD THINGS ARE WHERE WE USED TO BE: “For centuries, humans have pushed wildlife into smaller and smaller corners of the planet. But now, with billions in isolation and city streets emptied, nature is pushing back,” Terrence McCoy reports this morning.

With many Brazilian beaches closed due to stay-at-home orders, environmentalist Herbert Andrade has witnessed sea turtle hatchings like never before. (The Washington Post)