As audio of his comments plays, a chart shows the soaring spread of the virus in the United States, which now has the highest number of confirmed cases worldwide.
As Democrats escalate their general-election campaign against the president, they have targeted his failure to act urgently to deflect the damage the coronavirus is inflicting on lives and the economy while he brushed aside intelligence briefings and warnings from health officials, held fundraisers and gathered thousands of his followers at rallies.
Their greatest ammunition? Trump’s own comments, aired daily in the marathon coronavirus briefings where he commands center stage.
“It’s important when you have a president who’s literally just lying, misinforming, mismanaging, that you use the president’s own words,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, the Democratic super PAC that has spent more than $7.5 million running the ad in states likely to determine the November outcome. “And you help people understand that we are in this position now because the administration didn’t take it seriously.”
“We could run a 10-minute ad every hour and still not scratch the surface of how the president has misinformed people and sent contradictory messages,” Cecil said.
The Priorities ad — the original was updated with higher casualty figures — is only the start of a Democratic effort to convince voters that the president who rode a wave of controversy, disruption and showmanship to win the White House in 2016 is ill suited to lead the country through a pandemic and an economic meltdown.
While Trump has attempted to mock Democratic delegate leader Joe Biden as “sleepy” and not up to the task of being president, the general election is quickly turning into a referendum on Trump’s handling of twin national crises, each of which is worsening rapidly just seven months before voters head to the polls.
As even Trump is forecasting the possibility of hundreds of thousands of American deaths and economists warn of the danger of a full-scale depression, the pandemic and its fallout have heightened Democratic enthusiasm about retaking targeted states and opened the possibility of expanding the map on which the party may be able to compete. It has also heartened Democratic candidates running for Republican-held U.S. Senate seats.
“In my view, politically, nothing else matters. And, in fact, I have never seen a time when an opponent is more irrelevant. And that’s not an insult to Vice President Biden,” former New Jersey governor Chris Christie said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
“But in the end, the American people are going to decide, has the president of the United States stood up to this crisis and done right by them and protected their lives and their property, or hasn’t he?” Christie added.
“This is going to be the election,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “If we’ve gotten to a place where coronavirus is fully behind us — which it may not be — as a daily health concern, and the economy is really showing signs of coming back, then that’s an argument for the president. If it’s not — well, that’s going to be a problem for him.”
Sound bites from Trump’s “rally-type” news conferences could be “extremely effective” in Democratic ads attacking his response as unfocused and lackluster, Heye said.
Trump’s daily televised briefings, which usually stretch beyond an hour, have managed to dominate the political airwaves at a time when his Democratic rivals are unable to hold campaign events and have limited power to shape a federal response. Biden has been taking part in interviews with assorted shows from his basement office, while his last competitor for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has held variety-show-style video appearances. Neither has competed in visibility with the president.
Trump has used the briefings to highlight a slight improvement in his approval ratings, with some polls showing almost 50 percent approve of the job he’s doing. But Trump has gained nowhere near the approval surges enjoyed by governors in some of the states hit hard by the virus or the appeal that other presidents have achieved in times of crisis.
“Trump has failed miserably, at a moment of national crisis, to transcend partisanship,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who has worked for Priorities. “And in fact, it’s fair to say that his conduct has exacerbated partisanship as opposed to overcoming it. Presidents in a moment of crisis are supposed to be figures of unity, and that has happened to the most slight and marginal degree for Trump.”
The president’s allies are attempting to shift blame for a slow initial response by the White House to the Democratic Party.
“While irresponsible Democrats were focusing on impeachment, President Trump was taking early and unprecedented action to stop the spread of the coronavirus,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement.
But impeachment had concluded weeks before Trump began to focus on the coronavirus’s arrival — and in the approximately five weeks between the end of impeachment and his declaration of a national coronavirus emergency, Trump appeared at seven fundraisers and five reelection rallies and played two rounds of golf, according to a Washington Post review of data gathered by factba.se, which tracks Trump’s statements and actions.
Even some top Republican strategists are worried that Trump’s performances — which now represent most of his public appearances — are too long, too unruly and too partisan. They’ve also been concerned that Trump has failed to rise to the occasion.
“I think part of the mistake that Trump made is — not only on the seriousness of it — but the political impact of it,” said one top Republican strategist who is close to the White House and spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution from the president. “And I think it’s recognizing that this is a moment to be a hero, an unlikely hero. But I think he appears to be warming up to the role — not playing it anything close to flawlessly, of course, but recognizing the moment and starting to respond to it.”
But all of Trump’s performances are scooped up by Democratic super PACs — which employ entire teams dedicated to watching the president and logging his comments. The most damaging sound bites have begun to form the drumbeat of the November election.
In late January, Trump said the United States had the virus “totally under control.” A few weeks later, in early February, he predicted that the virus would “disappear” by April when “it gets a little warmer.” (On Friday, he denied saying that.) At the end of February, he was bragging about the strength of the stock market.
After touring Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early March, he declared: “Anybody that wants a test can get a test” — a statement that remains false a month later. In mid-March, Trump said the virus is “something that we have tremendous control over.”
When he has acted — or considered acting — his pronouncements have been at times scattershot. After initially asking Americans to lie low for 15 days, he announced he hoped that they would be able to crowd into churches for Easter on April 12. Then, one week ago, he extended the social distancing advisory for an additional 30 days. By Saturday, he returned to insisting that the country needed to get back to normal sooner rather than later.
He and his aides also have not been able to put to rest questions about the adequacy of the administration’s response. On Thursday, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, touched off a fresh round of criticism when he said the Strategic National Stockpile is not intended for governors who lack supplies. “It’s supposed to be our stockpile,” Kushner said from the White House briefing room. Asked about Kushner’s statement in his Friday news conference, Trump belittled the reporter and did not answer her question.
Cecil, of Priorities USA, said the ad the group is running “works across the board” and has been particularly effective with persuadable voters who sided with President Barack Obama in 2012 and then backed Trump, or those who chose Mitt Romney in 2012 and then Hillary Clinton.
Democrats say Trump came into the coronavirus crisis lacking credibility when it comes to health-related matters because of his ongoing efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Democratic victories in the 2018 midterm elections were powered by candidates pushing back against the president’s attempts.
Trump’s campaign has used footage from the president’s briefings — albeit different segments — to cut positive ads painting Trump as a decisive commander in chief leading the country into battle against a deadly virus.
“The one that really deserves the credit are the American people,” the digital ad quotes Trump saying from the briefing room. “Our message is to all Americans: We love them, we’re with them, and we will not let them down.”
Trump has praised his administration’s handling of the pandemic, using his daily briefings to announce new presidential actions ranging from dispatching Navy hospital ships to afflicted cities to using war-era legislation to rally the private sector to boost production of medical equipment.
He can also point to signing into law three relief packages, including one that promises checks for at least $1,200 to about 80 percent of the country. That measure also boosts the size of weekly unemployment checks and vastly expands who can receive that benefit.
Trump regularly appears next to top business leaders, health experts and military officials, images that could bolster his support with some voters wishing to rally around a president in times of national trauma, Heye said.
America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC, is scheduled to begin running ads later this month in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin attacking Biden. Spokeswoman Kelly Sadler said the $10 million ad buy was an attempt to “provide cover” for Trump as he faces an onslaught of criticism over his management of the crisis.
That criticism has grown louder as the impact of the pandemic has spread across the country, crippling the economy and taxing hospitals. Some Republicans worry that the fallout from Trump’s response to the virus will affect other GOP races.
“There are a certain number of Senate candidates and many in the House who are going to need to distance themselves from the president,” said former senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has tangled with the president. “It’s difficult for them to do that right now. And they may not have a chance — depending on when we really get back to campaigning — to make that pivot. There’s really no distance right now. And there’s going to need to be.”
But Democrats have witnessed Trump evade responsibility for his actions repeatedly and have misjudged his appeal in the past.
“It is vitally important not to give Trump a free hand to write his own coronavirus narrative,” said Garin, the Democratic pollster. “Democrats have to hold him accountable not just for his past failures, but his current ones. And not give him a free hand to write Paul Bunyan stories about his role in addressing this.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.