It’s a revisionist version of recent history belied by hours of videotape in which the president minimized the threat of the virus for months, falsely predicted that it would “disappear” with warmer weather, promoted several unproven miracle cures, pushed states to reopen before meeting federal government benchmarks, equivocated on mask-wearing, defied social distancing guidelines and repeatedly told Americans that everything was under control.
With the pandemic still ravaging the country just 10 weeks before Election Day, the president is mounting his most ambitious effort yet to change Americans’ minds about his handling of the crisis — relying on his background in reality television and show business to create an alternative reality that edits out his mistakes and magnifies those of his opponents.
“The RNC is taking a ‘Mission Accomplished’ approach to coronavirus, but the fact [Trump] can’t even hold a regular convention says otherwise,” said Amanda Carpenter, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and a Trump critic who wrote a book titled “Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies To Us.”
“American life as we know it has been shut down since last March because of his magical and paranoid-style of thinking, campaigning and governing,” she said.
While Trump has previously touted his coronavirus response with misleading videos, charts and quotes during news briefings and in campaign ads, the Republican National Convention gives him a platform unique in its scope and reach. Over the course of four nights, the GOP will have 10 hours of prime time coverage, with cable and broadcast networks airing large chunks of the program uninterrupted.
It is perhaps Trump’s last best chance to present an unfiltered affirmative case for a second term in a race in which a majority of voters disapprove of his handling of a pandemic that has battered the economy and upended Americans’ lives.
It is likely to be a difficult task.
Government forecasts predict the country’s coronavirus death toll could surpass 200,000 by mid-September; schools continue to struggle with reopening plans as mini-outbreaks across the country shut down classes and frustrate parents; the economy continues to suffer from recession-level unemployment and desperation; a safe and effective vaccine is at least months away; and a flu season looms that public health experts say will only worsen an already precarious situation.
Trump’s positive portrayal this week of his pandemic response is also undermined by the fact that the convention is mostly virtual despite the president’s best efforts to have an in-person gathering. Still, Trump has found ways to flout public health guidance or at least to show a disregard for social distancing. He plans to have a large crowd at the White House to watch his speech Thursday on the South Lawn.
The broadly accepted view that Trump has mishandled the virus is a political liability for the president, as polls show his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, leading nationally and with key voting groups that will determine the outcome. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month found that nearly two-thirds of registered voters say they are worried that they or their families might contract the coronavirus, and half of Republicans expressed that concern. Many of those respondents plan to vote for Biden.
Much of Monday’s convention program appeared designed to appeal to such concerned voters by convincing them they should not worry.
During one of his appearances in Monday’s program, Trump spoke with a group of front-line workers to thank them for their efforts in combating the virus.
“Well, I’m for the nurses, I’m for the doctors,” Trump said. “We just have to make this China virus go away, and it’s happening.”
The remarks echoed comments Trump has been making since January, in which he has repeatedly claimed the virus was receding or under control as it spread through the country.
“We have it totally under control,” Trump said in January when asked by a CNBC host whether he worried about a pandemic. “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
A month later, he praised his administration for “a pretty good job we’ve done,” predicting that the number of confirmed cases in the country would soon decline to zero. The next day he declared “one day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”
As cases surged by the thousands in the spring and throughout the summer — leaving the United States with the most coronavirus deaths in the world — Trump continued to tout his own handling of the virus and refer to it in the past tense. He regularly made announcements of breakthrough treatments that ultimately did not prove effective, including the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine and ultraviolet rays.
He held rallies and avoided wearing a mask at a time when public health experts said social distancing and face coverings were the country’s best tools to contain the virus.
More recently, Trump has pushed for schools to reopen, claiming falsely that children are essentially immune from catching and spreading the virus. Multiple schools have shut down in-person learning in recent weeks as hundreds of students contracted the virus. The president continues to promote the false idea that case numbers are rising mostly because of more testing. And on Sunday, Trump called an impromptu news conference to announce a “historic breakthrough,” touting a convalescent plasma treatment about which scientists have expressed doubt.
In the video that aired at the convention Monday, Trump was praised for instituting travel restrictions on China and leading an effort to quickly produce personal protective equipment and a vaccine. In the narrator’s telling, only Trump’s perceived opponents and critics were at fault for the country’s predicament.
“From the very beginning, Democrats, the media and the World Health Organization got coronavirus wrong,” the narrator says in the video, which features clips of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio commenting on the novel virus in February and early March.
The video, like others Trump has touted, does not include comments from the president in February, when he publicly dismissed concerns about the virus despite receiving briefings and warnings from top aides and the intelligence community. Trump also praised Chinese President Xi Jinping in January for “transparency” in comments that are now out of step with the president’s tough-on-China stance.
Democrats, who used much of their convention last week to slam Trump as mishandling the pandemic response, said Monday’s program was proof that the president continued to lack a coherent plan to solve the country’s topmost problem.
“The truth is that his failed leadership has needlessly cost over 177,000 Americans their lives, tens of millions of Americans their jobs, and left the United States the hardest hit country by the pandemic in the whole world,” Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said in a statement.
Trump has been his chief spokesman in defending his coronavirus response — with his own public health experts regularly contradicting him publicly — but this week’s convention provided an opportunity for the president to showcase other voices that support his boasts of handling the crisis flawlessly.
“As a health-care professional, I can tell you without hesitation, Donald Trump’s quick action and leadership saved thousands of lives during covid-19,” said Amy Johnson Ford, a nurse in West Virginia, who spoke of the Trump administration’s move to expand access to telemedicine.
Though public health experts have criticized the president as failing to take the virus seriously at the beginning of the year, Ford said Trump “recognized the threat this virus presented for all Americans early on and made rapid policy changes.”
Other speakers praised Trump for his administration’s efforts to ramp up production of PPE and testing kits, countering criticism he has received for the country’s shortages at the height of the pandemic.
First lady Melania Trump was the only speaker at the convention so far to highlight the toll the pandemic has taken on the country, although she defended her husband’s job managing the response and desire to find a vaccine.
“The invisible enemy, covid-19, swept across our beautiful country. And impacted all of us. My deepest sympathy goes out to everyone who has lost a loved one and my prayers are with those who are ill or suffering,” she said Tuesday night. “I know many people are anxious and some feel helpless. I want you to know you are not alone.”
Trump has tried to cast criticism of his response as partisan politicking, using a speech in Charlotte to accuse Democrats of locking down states to hurt his electoral prospects.
“These Democrat governors love shutdowns until the election is over because they want to make our numbers look as bad as possible for the economy,” Trump said during a 50-minute speech that included several baseless charges.
Nancy Rosenblum, a professor of ethics in politics and government at Harvard University, said the president’s willingness to embrace conspiracy theories during a pandemic has hampered the country’s ability to mount an effective public health response. It’s a far cry from the traditional response to a crisis, in which Americans band together across political lines, she said.
“It’s a kind of polarized politics that has now reached down into every aspect of our lives, even to life itself,” said Rosenblum, co-author of “A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy.”
In a second video that aired during the convention, the narrator took on a more bipartisan tone while still praising Trump’s “swift action” to save lives during the pandemic.
“We are America. Despite unpredictable events, we as Americans work together to overcome challenges and write our own stories,” the narrator said.
But with the death toll continuing to mount and just weeks to go before voting begins in several states, Trump’s attempt to rewrite the script will have limited impact on voters, Carpenter said.
“Four nights of Trumptastic reality TV won’t change the dystopian reality we are living with Donald Trump as president,” she said. “People believe their own eyes and ears over Trump.”
The number of deaths is likely to surpass the benchmark Trump set for success earlier this year just ahead of the election.
“If we can hold that down to 100,000 . . . it’s a horrible number, maybe even less, but to 100,000, so we have between 100 and 200,000, we all together have done a very good job,” he said during a March 29 news conference.
The president, who is to meet with medical professionals Wednesday to discuss the pandemic, has said he will use his acceptance speech at the convention Thursday to set the record straight on his handling of the crisis.
“So we’ll be talking, because really the job that we’ve done is incredible,” Trump said Monday in Charlotte. “It’s incredible, and none of us get any credit for it, and that’s okay.”