Trailing in the polls, stricken with the novel coronavirus and stuck in isolation at the White House, President Trump has tried to project an image of strength and normalcy that belies his troubled circumstances.
“I want you to get the same care that I got,” Trump said in a video message to senior citizens released Thursday afternoon on Twitter. “You’re going to get the same medicine — you’re going to get it free, no charge.”
But the president’s attempts to depict a back-to-normal presidency were punctured when the Commission on Presidential Debates announced Thursday morning that next week’s scheduled town hall meeting with Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would take place virtually rather than in person.
The commission’s move came amid uncertainty over Trump’s infectiousness, given his recent diagnosis and hospitalization with the deadly virus. Trump immediately lashed out, telling Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo that he would not participate in a “ridiculous” virtual debate.
The commission’s decision seemed to spark a frenzy of aggressive acrimony from Trump, and claims that were notable even by the president’s standards.
During his hour-long interview with Bartiromo, Trump twice called Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris a “monster,” made baseless spying accusations against his predecessor and attacked several members of his own Cabinet.
He claimed that federal law enforcement was “watching” the Nevada governor and an unidentified New Mexico official for potential voter fraud as he continued to assail voting by mail as inherently corrupt.
He also continued to downplay the pandemic, describing the virus that has killed more than 212,000 Americans as little more than an inconvenience.
“And, remember this, when you catch it, you get better. And then you’re immune, you know?” Trump said, adding that he believed he could have recovered from his sickness without the cocktail of multiple drugs he received.
By the end of Trump’s tour-de-force, Vice President Pence’s performance at his debate the night before had become little more than an afterthought and, for many Republicans, a fleeting memory of normalcy in a presidential campaign.
Biden, meanwhile, continued to campaign across the country, traveling to Phoenix after receiving another negative test for the virus that has kept Trump sidelined for a week.
Though he was just released from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday, Trump is eager to do campaign events, according to four advisers, who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The president would like to be back on the road starting Monday, advisers said.
But even as he has asserted that he’s “clean” and does not believe he is contagious, his doctors have offered only limited information about his condition. It remains unclear when the president last tested negative for the virus — a question White House officials dodged for a fifth consecutive day Thursday. White House doctors have also declined to release information about the viral load detected within the president.
White House physician Sean Conley, who has released only brief memos describing Trump’s status since Monday, said earlier this week that he would like to monitor the president through this coming weekend to ensure his health does not relapse. On Thursday, Conley said he believed Trump was on track to safely return to public engagements by Saturday. Citing Conley’s memo, Trump’s campaign released a statement Thursday night demanding that the debate be held in person on Oct. 15 as previously scheduled.
Officials from the Republican National Committee, White House aides and some outside political advisers have warned Trump that it might be best to slow down. “We can’t be having a rally yet,” said a senior campaign official.
One adviser who spoke to Trump on Tuesday said the president is impatient and frustrated that he can’t be on the road yet. “He’s pushing them every day, and he’s being told, you have to test negative before you can go back out,” the adviser said.
But Trump has been convinced that he is fully healed, telling Bartiromo he is no longer taking most of the medications prescribed to him to fight the disease. Trump planned to join conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh on Friday for a virtual rally.
While Trump has been working from the Oval Office, many West Wing staffers are working remotely and steering clear of the president and colleagues who are infected. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Trump’s social media director, Dan Scavino, are among the few officials who have spent time with Trump in recent days.
With the president isolated, several campaign surrogates stepped up their campaigning. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. headlined a crowded rally Thursday in Panama City Beach, Fla., with several dozen people gathered indoors. Few wore masks.
Pence was in Arizona on Thursday holding events, and planned to travel to Ohio and Wisconsin early next week. Pence’s Arizona trip came after a vice-presidential debate in which Pence and Harris squared off in Salt Lake City on a variety of issues, including health care, climate change and abortion.
While Pence’s aides believe he fared well in his sole debate this year, some were frustrated that Trump spent the next morning creating a fresh set of controversial headlines that quickly eclipsed his running mate’s time in the spotlight.
Despite the president’s decision to pull out of the Oct. 15 town hall after it went virtual, Trump’s campaign is eager for an opportunity to debate Biden, aides said.
Trump’s initial response — to pull out of the town hall with Biden — came before he had talked the issue through with advisers. He said he was taken by surprise by the commission’s announcement and found it offensive that the decision was made without first consulting his campaign.
Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chair of the debate commission, confirmed Thursday that each campaign was only given five minutes of notice before the move was announced to the public.
But after talking to advisers, Trump relented to say that he would be willing to participate in a town hall a week later, on Oct. 22, an event Biden previously had agreed to.
In a response to Trump’s late Thursday demand for the in-person debate to occur next week, Fahrenkopf said the commission would only consider the request if Biden agreed and the Cleveland Clinic said it passed “medical muster.”
“I don’t think they’re interested,” he said of the Biden team.
Trump’s advisers have told him how valuable the debates are, citing viewership that far exceeds his typical rallies. Some aides have struggled to get Trump to understand that a debate, which is likely to draw more than 60 million viewers, is far more impactful than a rally that airs exclusively to a Fox News audience of less than 4 million, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly.
With Trump’s deficit against Biden in polls growing in recent days, aides said the president should shift tactics at the next debate and let his rival speak more.
Trump allies Kellyanne Conway and Chris Christie — who both helped the president prepare for the last debate — are among those encouraging him to allow Biden to talk more, officials said. The idea is that Biden is more likely to stumble on his own, and the president will not come away looking like an aggressor by frequently interrupting.
Less than a month before Election Day, Trump has shown few signs that he plans to change his blustery style.
He has frustrated many Republicans by continuing to tout unapproved drugs as cures for covid-19 and not championing basic public health guidelines such as mask-wearing and social distancing. In the four days since he returned from Walter Reed, Trump has not expressed any contrition or humility over the outbreak of the virus in the West Wing. Instead, he has called his own infection a “blessing from God.”
Advisers have been conveying to Trump the importance of using his time in isolation to project a sense of compassion and present himself as a sympathetic character. Instead, Trump has continued to act like a brawler and create controversial headlines.
During his interview with Fox Business, Trump suggested he may have contracted the virus from Gold Star families who had visited the White House and could not keep themselves from hugging and kissing him.
White House spokeswoman Alyssa Farah tried to clean up those remarks later Thursday, saying Trump was “absolutely not” blaming the relatives of fallen service members for his diagnosis.
Some Republicans have begun to publicly break with the president over his handling of public health measures — laying the blame for the outbreak on the White House. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said he had not been to the White House in several weeks in part because of its lax public safety measures amid the pandemic.
“I haven’t actually been to the White House since August the 6th, because my impression was their approach to how to handle this is different from mine,” he said at an event in Kentucky. “And what I insisted that we do in the Senate, which is to wear a mask and practice social distancing.”
The Senate went into recess this week after three senators tested positive for the coronavirus — including two who had been at crowded, unmasked events at the White House recently.