The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Emboldened by his covid-19 recovery, Trump pushes return to normalcy

A Secret Service member, wearing a face mask, keeps watch as President Trump speaks at the White House on Saturday.
A Secret Service member, wearing a face mask, keeps watch as President Trump speaks at the White House on Saturday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump is using his recovery from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, to reinforce the message that the pandemic is receding and Americans should return to work — resisting entreaties to change his tone and behavior three weeks ahead of the presidential election.

Despite the outbreak at the White House that also infected the first lady, their son and nearly a dozen top aides, Trump and his allies continue to downplay the virus, arguing that the country is “turning the corner” and holding campaign events with thousands of supporters even as cases are increasing rapidly, especially in the Midwest.

Several advisers hoped Trump’s experience would move him to speak more empathetically about a virus that has killed at least 215,000 Americans and infected nearly 8 million. Instead, Trump has seemed further emboldened, flouting public health guidelines to convince voters that life is returning to normal, according to current and former administration officials.

President Trump on Oct. 12 held his first rally since being hospitalized with coronavirus weeks earlier. (Video: The Washington Post)

Recent polls show Trump trailing Biden by double digits, with the pandemic proving to be his biggest political vulnerability. A majority of voters also harshly judged Trump for failing to take adequate protections to avoid contracting the virus.

 Yet none of that seems to have changed Trump’s posture. During a rally in Sanford, Fla., on Monday night, Trump declared himself “immune” from the virus less than two weeks after testing positive. He joked that he wanted to walk into the audience to hug and kiss “the guys and the beautiful women” in the mostly maskless crowd.

On the same day, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows — who was in close contact with the president and several top aides who tested positive — refused to speak with reporters on Capitol Hill after they asked him to wear a mask first.

And during a campaign event in Philadelphia later that night, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, packed into a small room with dozens of supporters without wearing a mask. Several of the president’s family members and surrogates also have traversed the country, speaking in packed halls with maskless crowds.

“People don’t die of the disease anymore,” Giuliani declared on the same day that about 300 Americans died.

Some White House and campaign officials have seen Trump’s doubling down as a missed opportunity to relate to millions of Americans who have suffered from the disease or lost loved ones to it, said one senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a frank assessment. These officials had also hoped that the president would incorporate the importance of basic health protections against the virus into his messages.

“He looks completely out of touch,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican consultant close to former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and campaign manager Bill Stepien, both of whom were infected with the virus. “He doesn’t appreciate what it would be like for a regular person. He gets the best medical treatment of everyone in the world and is acting like he’s Superman. It really reinforces a lot of negative notions about him and how he handled coronavirus from the beginning.”

The White House disputed that characterization, saying the president is projecting strength and optimism.

“Any suggestion that the President of the United States has not taken the threat of covid-19 seriously is completely false,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. “As the entire country has confronted covid-19, President Trump has never wavered in his message of strength and optimism to the American people, and as he personally defeated the virus the President has once again reminded the nation that he is a fighter and that if we all fight together we will defeat this.”

Deere also pointed to the president’s decisions to limit travel from China, shut down the country in the spring, expand testing and push the development of therapeutics and vaccines as evidence that Trump has taken the virus seriously. On Monday night, Trump tossed masks to supporters from the stage.

Private polling shared among campaign advisers, as well as public polls, shows Trump’s handling of the pandemic remains his biggest albatross — and is among the top concerns for voters in swing states.

Those internal findings are buttressed by a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week that showed Trump’s handling of the pandemic is his biggest vulnerability. Only 41 percent of registered voters said they approved of his response, while 58 percent said they disapproved.

The poll also showed that many judge Trump harshly for failing to take what they regard as adequate protections to avoid contracting the virus. Almost 2 in 3 voters say he did not take appropriate precautions, and 6 in 10 say they do not trust the administration to provide complete and accurate information about his health. A similar percentage said they do not trust what he says about the pandemic.

Several experts and former administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, said the White House outbreak was a result of carelessness and disregard for safety measures. Trump and most White House aides rarely wore masks, did not social distance and relied entirely on a rapid diagnostic test that is not highly accurate and would not detect the virus in newly infected people.

About 200 people gathered in the Rose Garden on Sept. 26 to celebrate the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court — violating Washington’s ban on gatherings of more than 50 people — and participating in what experts later said appeared to be a superspreader event.

Trump had to have oxygen administered at least twice and stayed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for four days. Yet even from the hospital, he was defiant, sketching out potential rallies and trips with advisers and “raring to go,” in the words of campaign adviser Jason Miller. In the White House, there is a sense that the crisis has been overblown because most everyone has recovered already — or is recovering — including the president, said two advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal private discussions.

Trump complains that reports of rising case counts are a political ploy to undermine his reelection changes and that he has not gotten sufficient credit for the steps he contends he has taken, those advisers said.

One senior administration official noted that the Trump White House rarely reverses course and would not risk a headline “that implies that should have been the plan all along.”

“These are absolutely not the people you want running a coronavirus response because even when they see something with their own eyes, they still cannot process it cognitively,” said Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease expert at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

White House officials have repeatedly refused, for example, to say when the president last tested negative for the virus, key to ascertaining whether he remains contagious as he returns to campaigning.

Even while Trump was hospitalized and contagious, he drove in a car with Secret Service agents to greet supporters outside the hospital. And on his first chance to model good behavior after returning to the White House, he immediately ripped his mask off before speaking to the cameras. The White House has still not mandated masks, and administration officials say that although most people wear them now, some still do not.

His campaign, meanwhile, is planning multiple packed events, including a rally in Iowa later this week, even though the state is experiencing record hospitalizations and a surge in infections.

And the president continues to get advice on the virus from Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist and fellow at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution, while freezing out the administration’s infectious-disease experts Deborah Birx and Anthony S. Fauci. Atlas frequently appears in public without a mask and has advocated that the young and healthy should return to work and school, while the elderly are protected until most Americans develop immunity to the virus — a strategy experts say could result in hundreds of thousands of excess deaths.

Campaign officials say they are running ads in a range of swing states, including Pennsylvania, that highlight the administration’s response to the virus, including the early decision to ban most travel from China.

But without Trump indicating that he has been transformed in some fashion by his own experience, officials admit it’s a tough sell to convince voters that he has done enough.

“The smart move for him politically is to say, ‘I’m a changed man,’ ” said one former senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a candid assessment. “People just saw him get access to drugs no one else has — they’ll ascribe his recovery to that — and if he doesn’t say, ‘Hey this is a bad disease, I was lucky, but I feel your pain, America,’ then he is toast. But maybe I’m wrong.”

Michael Steel, a longtime GOP strategist, said that while some of the president’s supporters appreciate his willingness to jab a proverbial finger in the eye of the establishment, many Americans are still suffering because they lost their jobs or cannot see family members. Steel, and others, attributed his drop in popularity among senior voters — a key constituency — to his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

“The president’s illness was an opportunity to show leadership, empathy and compassion,” Steel said. “If he had come out of the hospital humbled, chastened, empathetic, that was a real opportunity to connect to the American people who are dealing with this horrible pandemic and its impact.”