Trump’s advisers, by contrast, are seeking ways to reframe his response to the coronavirus — even as the president himself largely seeks to avoid the topic because he views it as a political loser. They are sending health officials to swing states, putting doctors on TV in regional markets where the virus is surging, crafting messages on an economic recovery and writing talking points for allies to deliver to potential voters.
The goal is to convince Americans that they can live with the virus — that schools should reopen, professional sports should return, a vaccine is likely to arrive by the end of the year and the economy will continue to improve.
White House officials also hope Americans will grow numb to the escalating death toll and learn to accept tens of thousands of new cases a day, according to three people familiar with the White House’s thinking, who requested anonymity to reveal internal deliberations. Americans will “live with the virus being a threat,” in the words of one of those people, a senior administration official.
“They’re of the belief that people will get over it or if we stop highlighting it, the base will move on and the public will learn to accept 50,000 to 100,000 new cases a day,” said a former administration official in touch with the campaign.
Trump campaign officials and advisers recognize that the administration’s coronavirus response presents one of their biggest political challenges in coming months, as voters generally disapprove of Trump’s handling of the virus and the push to reopen, while still giving Trump higher marks than Biden on the economy.
Faced with some of Trump’s tide of problematic comments — such as suggesting lungs could be cleaned of coronavirus with disinfectants — the administration also plans to rely on surrogates to speak on the issue, including Vice President Pence and White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx. Several advisers have proposed coronavirus events in upcoming weeks that Trump has agreed to participate in that will highlight a potential vaccine and economic recovery, according to two campaign advisers and a White House official.
Several advisers said Trump is still shellshocked by the faltering economy, protests over racial injustice and his declining political fortunes. Some close to Trump, including a range of Republican senators and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), have encouraged him to focus on blaming China for the pandemic and to emphasize the administration’s successes in the response, including preventing a widely feared ventilator shortage and increasing the country’s testing capacity to 500,000 tests a day.
“Anytime you’re an incumbent, you kind of own these things more than the challengers,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), adding that the election will hinge on whether the economy has made a robust recovery, which can happen only if the outbreak comes under control.
Biden has ramped up attacks on Trump’s response and outlined how he would place the federal government at the center of the response if he is elected, a contrast to Trump’s decision to largely leave it to the states to procure testing kits and personal protective equipment and decide when and how to reopen. Trump reiterated his belief on Wednesday that the virus would simply “disappear,” despite new daily infections surpassing 50,000 for the first time last week and more than 127,000 Americans dying from the disease.
“From really January on, Vice President Biden has been laser-focused on the rising risk to the American people presented by this pandemic,” said Biden campaign adviser Ariana Berengaut. “You can almost imagine them side by side — Trump’s leadership and Biden’s leadership. . . . Trump has no plan for tomorrow, no plan for a week from now, so there is absolutely no plan for the fall, and that’s what encapsulates the whole arc of that contrast.”
Polls have shown Americans growing increasingly worried about the course of the outbreak. A Gallup poll released Thursday found a new high of 65 percent of Americans saying that the coronavirus situation is getting worse — up from 48 percent the week before.
And Trump’s approval rating has steadily slipped since March. In a Washington Post average of polls, Biden led Trump by 11 points in June, up from an eight-point lead in May and a six- to seven-point lead between February and April.
“Trump is increasingly defined in voters’ minds by his failing response to the coronavirus crisis, and virtually every action and position he’s taken have been wildly out of sync with where the public is at on what should be done,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. “Biden now has a remarkable opportunity to contrast himself with this failure of leadership that a large majority of voters see so clearly.”
Biden delivered a 20-minute speech on Tuesday outlining actions he would take as president to bring the outbreak under control and criticized Trump for having “surrendered” to the virus and refusing to wear a mask in public.
Biden’s campaign plans to continue hammering Trump for what they perceive as his failed response and highlighting many of his most controversial statements, including his claim that he asked officials to “slow down the testing,” his push of unproven drugs, his accusation that health-care workers were stealing masks and his sidelining of scientists.
They also plan to put out policies and proposals as the course of the virus changes, one Biden campaign adviser said, to continue making the case that “the country would be in a much different place today . . . if Joe Biden had been the president in January.”
“Make no mistake: We are still in a deep, deep jobs hole because Donald Trump has so badly bungled the response to the coronavirus and now has basically given up responding at all,” Biden said Thursday. “Millions more Americans would still have their jobs today if Donald Trump had done his job. And many of the jobs that have now come back should never have been lost in the first place.”
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said the campaign plans to highlight the “radical ramping up of testing,” along with private-sector collaboration that secured more ventilators than the country eventually needed.
“Every time he opens his mouth, he gives the same speech,” Murtaugh said of Biden. “They act as if Biden is sitting in some position of authority to be armchair quarterbacking on this.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews said in a statement that “President Trump’s response has marshaled the power and might of the greatest mobilization since World War II” to combat the coronavirus and that he “will rebuild the most inclusive economy in history.”
A key problem is that Trump himself has resisted focusing on the pandemic as deaths have climbed, saying that no matter what he does, it will not be a “good story” for him, one senior administration official said.
Trump has attacked Biden for the Obama administration’s response to the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak and what the former vice president said after Trump decided on Jan. 31 to ban most travel from China to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
From April 2009 to April 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there were about 12,500 deaths from the swine flu — far fewer than the 30,000 to 90,000 deaths once projected.
Trump has also repeatedly referenced Biden’s comments following the China travel ban. “We are in the midst of a crisis with the coronavirus. We need to lead the way with science — not Donald Trump’s record of hysteria, xenophobia and fearmongering. He is the worst possible person to lead our country through a global health emergency,” Biden wrote on Twitter on Feb. 1, the day after the China travel restrictions were announced.
Communications aides hope to work with Trump so that he can talk about his administration’s response in a more effective and comprehensive way and are planning coronavirus-focused events for coming weeks, according to two senior administration officials, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The campaign and White House have compiled extensive talking points in an effort to reframe the administration’s response — or, at the very least, “fight it back closer to a draw,” one of the senior administration officials said.