Trump still enjoys the sizable advantages afforded an incumbent president and, particularly in his own era, five months can feel like several lifetimes.
“He didn’t think he would win in 2016, he doesn’t think he can lose in 2020,” one senior White House official said.
Consumed with what he views as unfair coverage of his administration, Trump hasn’t articulated a new plan to contain the spreading virus and last spoke to his top public health advisers weeks ago, those advisers said this week. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease specialist, last spoke with Trump three weeks ago. Trump tweeted a swipe at Fauci this week, citing his high approval ratings.
As case counts reach record highs, some states are returning to lockdown — including Texas, whose governor is a close Trump ally — which could threaten the White House’s promised economic boom.
Trump downplayed the surge in cases on Thursday as he was visiting Wisconsin.
“If we didn’t test, we wouldn’t have cases. But we have cases because we test,” he said, an assertion that runs counter to reality.
Trump continues to refuse to wear a face mask in public, even as polls show a majority of Americans say they should be used to prevent the spread of the virus. Even as some of Trump’s political aides quietly assert he would score political points by wearing a mask — like Vice President Mike Pence did on Thursday in Ohio — Trump hasn’t shown signs of budging.
“He will never change on the mask. He doesn’t want that picture,” one White House official said. “He knows masks are important, but he doesn’t want that image or to admit he is wrong.”
A person familiar with the White House coronavirus task force discussions noted Thursday how Dr. Deborah Birx — the coordinator of the administration’s response effort — has almost vanished from the national scene. While the task force has convened periodically over the past week, the nationwide spike in cases does not appear to have prompted an urgent return to daily briefings.
“The facts speak for themselves,” the person said of the task force’s diminished role.
‘All this whining’
As the pandemic worsens, Biden has begun attacking Trump’s handing of it, including during remarks Thursday in Pennsylvania.
“He’s like a child who can’t believe this happened to him. All this whining and self-pity,” Biden said.
Trump advisers are mixed on whether the pandemic will ultimately torpedo the President’s reelection chances. Some aides are ignoring the latest national and battleground polls that show widespread disapproval of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, putting their faith instead in internal polling. Others, however, fear the effects of a lingering virus that has already eroded Trump’s political standing, and say the disappointing turnout at Trump’s rally in Tulsa was a sign many Americans — even Trump supporters — aren’t yet ready for the return to normal Trump is promoting.
Inside the White House, Trump’s attitude has been defensive when it comes to those shortcomings, which several of his close allies have identified to him in private conversations. Even as campaign advisers present polls showing Trump trailing Biden badly in critical battleground states, Trump has questioned their accuracy and insisted his problems lie mostly in negative news coverage rather than his own behavior.
Scanning cable news coverage over the weekend, Trump was surprised to find a pair of his own actions had quickly become swirling controversies. Aides said Trump did not appear to fully understand why his dismissal of the top federal prosecutor in New York was generating outrage. And he was surprised to learn his claim that he’d asked his administration to slow down coronavirus testing was being declared criminal.
Chalking up the controversies to “fake news,” Trump shrugged them off as another attempt to diminish his reelection prospects. Yet as he enters a summer season of health calamity and racial unrest, a growing number of Trump’s advisers and allies worry he is blind to the self-destructive behavior that appears to be eroding his chances at a second term.
“He’s good with the base,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said Wednesday. “But all of the people who are going to decide in November are the people in the middle, and I think they want the President at a time like this … to strike a more empathetic tone.”
“It’s been a couple bad weeks, and structurally we got to up our game,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a top ally of the President’s. “I just think sort of the cultural wars, the Democrats are on the wrong side of that. But at the end of the day, I think a little more message discipline would help.”
“Sometimes he undermines himself,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, another Trump ally.
Staying on message
While some advisers say Trump is slowly coming to the realization he needs to do something different, they believe he has not fully grasped how dramatic those changes must be. And while he has acknowledged the importance of shifting the political conversation to Biden, he hasn’t demonstrated an ability to stay on message instead of reverting to race-baiting and distractions.
Aides say they are hopeful they can replicate the circumstances toward the end of Trump’s 2016 campaign, when he moderated his attacks and used Twitter more carefully, a strategy that ended in a victory surprising even to the candidate. Many of the aides who surrounded the President then have been folded back into his inner circle.
Yet so far those attempts have fallen short.
Trump has resisted changing course even as the consequences of his actions are hardening. Instead he has insisted that his instincts on how to approach race and the coronavirus pandemic will prove him right in the end.
In recent weeks, Trump’s frustration at media coverage of the nation’s problems — and his handling of them — has appeared to some aides to be reaching new levels. He has fixated on specific segments from cable news for extended stretches, complaining that no one is defending him on the airwaves.
Trump hopes to focus more intently on the economy, and White House advisers continue to believe a major rebound in unemployment and growth will provide a lifeline to the President’s campaign by the time the election enters its final stretch in the fall.
But plans to schedule a series of rallies that could redirect Trump’s focus toward his reelection campaign and defining Biden were upended when the debut event in Tulsa left Trump fuming over empty seats and several campaign aides with coronavirus. Rallies will resume at some point, aides said, but their size and look will likely be different than the arena event Trump attempted unsuccessfully in Oklahoma.
“Tulsa showed Trump was mortal,” one campaign adviser said.
After the Tulsa disappointment, many of Trump’s allies agitated for a campaign shakeup, including during public appearances on Fox News. “This is, no question about it, it’s a mess for the campaign,” said Lou Dobbs on his Fox Business Network program. “Should heads roll?”
So far heads have not rolled, and Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale has dismissed rumors his job is in jeopardy.
Trump, meanwhile, continues with official travel to critical battleground states — including places he won in 2016 but where he now appears vulnerable.
“We put no stock in public polls of any kind,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told reporters on a conference call Thursday. “With these public polls, we don’t put any stock in them, because the only polls that we trust are the ones where we trust the methodology. We spend a lot of money on polls, and we don’t spend it to get lied to.”
The focus on official events rather than rallies has stemmed partly from necessity as the country remains gripped by coronavirus. Yet some of Trump’s advisers hope the more formal roundtables and factory visits can help project a more commanding portrait of Trump than his freewheeling rallies or his conspiracy-ridden Twitter feed, which many believe are turning off moderate voters.
In conversations, many advisers harken back to the period at the end of Trump’s 2016 campaign, when — facing daunting poll numbers and apparent attempts by Hillary Clinton’s campaign to provoke an outsized response — Trump moderated his tone and struck to script.
“We’ve got to be nice and cool, nice and cool, right? Stay on point, Donald, stay on point. No sidetracks, Donald. Nice and easy,” he said during a rally on November 2, 2016, in Pensacola.
Trump has recently begun reminiscing about his first campaign more, according to people familiar with the conversations, waxing nostalgic about a period where he basked in adoring crowds night after night unencumbered by the burdens of governing. Trump has reconvened aides who surrounded him during that stretch, including senior adviser Hope Hicks and body man John McEntee, both of whom recently returned to the White House, and senior adviser Jason Miller, who rejoined the campaign.
Leading the culture wars
White House and campaign aides view the powers of the office as a potent tool as Trump seeks to triage eroding political support, particularly among groups he won in 2016. After polls showed him down severely among voters older than 65, Trump designated a special senior citizens’ appreciation day, highlighted anti-elder abuse efforts in the Cabinet Room and touted federal government efforts to make insulin for affordable.
“Sleepy Joe can’t do this,” Trump said during the insulin announcement in the Rose Garden. “I hope the seniors are going to remember it.”
Yet those efforts — and similar ones meant to highlight efforts on religious freedom, police reform and the economy — have competed for oxygen against the divisive rhetoric and race-baiting that Trump has returned to with renewed focus over the past two weeks, leaving many of his Republican allies slack-jawed and dismayed.
Asked if using such charged language, such as “kung flu,” was helpful to his effort to court middle-of-the-road voters, GOP Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana said: “I’m gonna say probably not; it wouldn’t be my choice of words.”
Braun said he expected the campaign to look at its internal poll numbers and make a decision about how to change tactics.
“It looks like something needs to be adjusted,” he said.
CNN’s Manu Raju and Jamie Gangel contributed to this report.