The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s illness halts campaign just when it needs an October boost

The Fix’s Aaron Blake analyzes how the first presidential debate and President Trump’s positive coronavirus test could impact the final month of the campaign. (Video: The Washington Post)

This story was featured in Drop Me The Link, our one-story election newsletter. Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

For President Trump’s reelection campaign, October was supposed to be the turnaround month. After trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden all year, Trump thought this past week would be his slingshot to securing a second term by disqualifying his opponent at their first debate together, expanding his coalition of voters, raising more money and staging bigger rallies.

It has not worked out the way he envisioned.

The past seven days have dealt the incumbent one setback after another — the extraordinary revelation in the New York Times that he had paid little to no federal income taxes in recent years; a belligerent debate performance that risked turning off many voters; the arrest of his recently demoted campaign manager in Florida; and finally the president’s hospitalization for covid-19 because of an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in a White House that has made a mockery of public health guidelines and offered contradictory accounts of Trump’s health.

All the while, Biden’s sizable financial advantage has allowed the Democrat to dominate the television airwaves, and some recent polls show his lead over Trump holding steady or even growing.

Despite the rosy prognostications of his physician over the weekend, Trump’s illness has effectively stalled his campaign with just four weeks until Election Day and with voters already casting early ballots in many states.

“This effectively freezes the campaign at a point where the president’s at a deficit,” said pollster Neil Newhouse, who does not work for the Trump campaign but advises many other Republican candidates. “This is the period in time we were hoping to close the gap, and this makes it more of a challenge.”

President’s oxygen levels dropped twice in recent days, doctors say

Trump aides acknowledge that the president’s illness has been unhelpful because it draws national attention to his administration’s handling of the pandemic. They also say that the president being hospitalized undercuts what he views as his main attribute over Biden: That he appears stronger and tougher.

“Anytime the conversation is about coronavirus, it’s not helpful for us,” said a senior administration official, who like some others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.

Biden has sought to focus attention on the pandemic and present a contrast in leadership. For instance, he has committed to releasing the results of all his coronavirus tests, a contrast to the lack of transparency surrounding Trump’s test results and medical history, both recent and past.

Biden’s campaign has prided itself in working to take a disciplined approach that resists shifting strategy based on news developments despite how significant they seem. His strategy to model best practices with the pandemic has drawn some criticism for being low-energy and casual, as if cosseting the candidate, but Biden’s advisers see recent developments as affirming.

“Did we let it change our approach? No,” senior adviser Anita Dunn said of the criticism. “At the end of the day, we’ve made a fundamental decision to model what a president should do.”

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said the past week has affirmed for many voters that “this whole act is getting old.” After Tuesday’s debate, which was held in Cleveland, Ryan said, he heard that some residents of Youngstown, in his congressional district, took down their Trump signs and that some Republican voters stopped by Biden campaign sites to pick up signs.

“It was the debate,” Ryan said. “A lot of people just said, ‘I can’t do this. We can’t do this for four more years.’ ”

Their president is hospitalized, but that hasn’t changed Trump supporters’ view of the coronavirus

No matter the head winds, members of the Trump team said they have not lost hope. Veterans of his 2016 campaign recall that Trump appeared doomed after the “Access Hollywood” video showing him bragging about sexual assault was revealed by The Washington Post, but Trump recovered and secured a victory in the electoral college.

“The Billy Bush tape was released on October 7,” said one Trump campaign adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “You have to remember that. We are not prognosticating. We will just be making strategic and tactical decisions as best we can.” 

Jason Miller, a campaign adviser, said the president is “chomping at the bit” to hit the road again for in-person campaign events. “As soon as the doctors clear him, he’s going to be out there.” Miller said he spoke to him late Sunday.

He also said Trump was planning to “lead on the virus” because he is a “senior citizen who has beat it.”

Trump has been in touch with advisers about the state of his campaign from the hospital. He has told allies that whenever he resumes campaigning, he will change his message on the pandemic to speak in personal terms about how he beat the virus, advisers say.

Trump said in a video shot at the hospital and distributed Sunday afternoon: “I learned a lot about covid. I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school; this isn’t the let’s-read-the-books school. And I get it. And I understand it. And it’s a very interesting thing. And I’m going to be letting you know about it.”

In addition, the president and his campaign plan to continue to emphasize the importance of having a vaccine quickly.

“You would think that returning to discussing the pandemic is a place four weeks out he doesn’t want to be, but is there an amount of sympathy he’ll receive as a result of some gallant effort to return to the campaign trail at some point?” said Al Cardenas, a Republican strategist and former chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Still, Trump has a sizable deficit to make up, according to recent public polls. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey released Sunday had Biden leading Trump nationally by 14 percentage points among registered voters, 53 percent to 39 percent. The poll showed Biden’s lead nearly doubling after last week’s debate, with an overwhelming majority of voters saying Biden had the better temperament to be president.

Mike Murphy, a GOP strategist and critic of the president who advises Republican Voters Against Trump, said Trump’s electoral problems are compounding.

“He’s falling down the stairs going faster and faster, which makes it harder and harder to regain his footing,” Murphy said. “He really needed a September reset, but instead he was broke and incompetent, and his debate was a disaster. And now he’s in quicksand in October and unable to even work the politics of a serious presidential illness correctly while the clock mercilessly ticks.”

Trump had planned visits to swing states between now and the Nov. 3 election, and probably more than a dozen stops have been canceled. Aides do not expect to have him back on the road for at least 10 to 14 days.

At least 209,000 Americans have died of coronavirus

The Trump campaign, which is facing a cash crunch relative to Biden’s well-funded operation, also had to cancel upcoming fundraisers, a Republican official said.

In the president’s absence, the Trump campaign has launched “Operation MAGA” — an initiative named for Trump’s “Make America great again” slogan that will dispatch prominent surrogates across the country to hold events keeping supporters engaged. The push will begin with a virtual event for grass-roots supporters on Monday night, with in-person events resuming on Thursday.

“We can’t lock down the whole country,” said Tim Murtaugh, the campaign spokesman.

Vice President Pence, who is scheduled to debate Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris on Wednesday, is expected to maintain an aggressive travel schedule, along with Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, and other Trump family members, according to the campaign. Bus tours with indoor events are expected to continue.

Pence’s team has no problems with the vice president traveling and appearing at large events, according to a person close to Pence.

The Trump campaign will encourage — but not require — mask use at events and would provide hand sanitizer, according to Murtaugh. “We have always socially distanced the vice president and president,” he said. 

Biden, meanwhile, plans to continue campaigning over the next month, and Dunn defended that decision by pointing to the fact that the Trump campaign has been fundraising, airing negative ads and ramping up surrogate travel despite the president’s illness.

“They’re going to continue to run their campaign, and we’re going to continue to run our campaign,” Dunn said. “This is the time in the campaign where Biden wants to present his plans for the future.”

Dunn would not say whether or when Biden’s campaign will put back its negative TV spots, which it suspended following the president’s hospitalization.

Outside efforts to boost Trump continue apace, including a canvassing push by social conservatives under the banner of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

“We’re currently knocking on 100,000 doors a day and sending out hundreds of thousands of text messages a day,” said Ralph Reed, the coalition’s founder and chairman. “We ramped up in early August, we’ve never slowed down, and we’re not slowing down now.”

From his quarters at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Trump encouraged his supporters to gather to show support for his recovery, as many did outside the hospital in the Washington suburb of Bethesda.

“I really appreciate all of the fans and supporters outside of the hospital,” Trump tweeted Sunday afternoon. “The fact is, they really love our Country and are seeing how we are MAKING IT GREATER THAN EVER BEFORE!”

There are no plans for Pence to assume temporary authority, say administration officials

A couple hours later, Trump paid a surprise visit to them, leaving the hospital in his motorcade to wave to his fans and give them a thumbs up.

“When I look at the enthusiasm, and we have enthusiasm like probably nobody’s ever had,” Trump said in a prerecorded video. “Our people that love the job we’re doing, we have more enthusiasm than maybe anybody.”

Trump’s advisers and allies are trying to use his hospitalization to galvanize his base. Corey ­Lewandowski, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, sounded a call on Fox News on Saturday night: “We’re asking everyone to stand in the breach and fight for President Trump as he has done for us unwavering and 24 hours a day, seven days a week through everything that has been thrown at him.”

On Sunday, Trump Jr. sent an email to the president’s supporters asking for campaign money.

“We are in the final stretch of this Election, and while my father is working hard to get back on the road as quickly as possible, it’s up to us to keep our movement strong for his EPIC RETURN,” he wrote.

National security experts describe a distracted and potentially vulnerable country

But coordination has been difficult, as Trump campaign officials have been largely out of the loop regarding the outbreak, according to White House and campaign officials. Even senior figures on the campaign did not learn about Trump’s diagnosis or that of Hope Hicks, counselor to the president, until about the same time the public did.

“It’s like a bad television show, which in fact it is,” Tom Rath, a longtime Republican strategist and elected official in New Hampshire, said in assessing the past week for Trump. “The data suggest that the American people, the public, have just about had enough. Unless [the Trump campaign] significantly change the direction and dynamic of this race — and nothing they have done so far has been able to do it — we are headed towards a pretty significant change in government come November.”