The last time coronavirus cases were surging in the United States, President Donald Trump pressed his advisers to allow him back on the trail and in front of the massive rally crowds he believes are his political lifeline.
Back then, they were successful in holding him off.
“No, sir, you shouldn’t right now,” his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, told him during an Oval Office huddle with top advisers, according to a source familiar with the meeting. “But we can see what it looks like in the fall.”
The fall looks bleak. But neither Stepien nor anyone else in the President’s inner circle appears willing or able to rein in a reckless strategy as November 3 approaches. Instead of pulling back, the President and his campaign have flung caution to the wayside,inviting thousands of supporters to pack airport tarmacs and hangars multiple times a day — with no social distancing or masks required — in a bid to salvage Trump’s slipping reelection chances.
Running behind his rival, Joe Biden, in national polling and intent on replicating his surprise 2016 victory, Trump has embarked upon a breakneck schedule of rallies in battlegrounds — including many states in the so-called “red zone” identified by his task force as in the middle of a surge in cases.
The open defiance of his own government’s recommendations on how to prevent the spread of coronavirus encapsulates the President’s electoral predicament two weeks from Election Day: While his woes are tied mainly to his failures in responding to the coronavirus, he in unwilling — and, in his mind, politically unable — to change course.
After months of halting efforts to reset his campaign by focusing on the pandemic, there is now a resigned sense among Trump’s advisers that nothing will change between now and Election Day.
“It’s the last two weeks. F**k it,” one Trump adviser said, describing the thinking inside the campaign. “If he doesn’t get out there and motivate the base and get the earned media off this, then what the f**k’s he gonna do?”
Trump offered a similar — if less profane — explanation of his thinking on a Monday morning call with campaign staffers, characterizing the mitigation measures recommended by his own government as burdensome annoyances that normal Americans are prepared to let slide.
“People are tired of Covid. I have the biggest rallies I’ve ever had, and we have Covid,” Trump said, dialing in from his namesake hotel on the Las Vegas strip ahead of two campaign rallies in Arizona. “People are saying whatever. Just leave us alone. They’re tired of it.”
Most visible example
The rallies are among the most visible examples of Trump’s unwillingness to alter anything about his messaging or strategy, even as Republicans grow increasingly concerned he is placing both himself and control of the US Senate in peril. While finger-pointing has already begun among the President’s allies about who is to blame, Trump himself seems primarily responsible for steering a strategy that even his closest political advisers fear is aggravating, not helping, his situation.
The medically risky strategy has caused at least mild consternation among some of the President’s campaign aides, who wonder about their own health and that of the supporters, contractors and Secret Service agents who are required to carry it out.
But even as the task force warns states that a failure to implement social-distancing and mask-wearing “will lead to preventable deaths,” the President’s campaign has made the calculus that a schedule jam-packed with mega-rallies and a message focused on downplaying the risks of the coronavirus is their only shot at victory.
The average of daily coronavirus cases is now just 9,000 shy of the 65,000 daily cases in July and rapidly rising. It was Stepien, along with Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman, who advised Trump against mega-rallies during that July Oval Office meeting, according to two sources. But neither has sought to convince Trump to pare back the current large-scale rallies, sources close to the campaign said. Stepien, McDaniel and Trump all contracted coronavirus last month.
An RNC spokesman declined to comment on private conversations.
The Trump campaign declined to comment on the July meeting but spokeswoman Courtney Parella said the campaign takes “strong precautions for our campaign events,” noting that attendees get their temperatures checked and are “instructed to wear” masks. Few attendees wear the masks and the campaign does not enforce its request.
Stepien did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump is also surrounded by aides who amplify his downplaying of the pandemic. The White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and Trump’s longtime body man Johnny McEntee — whom the President considers a Trump base whisperer — have encouraged his full return to the campaign trail.
Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist without a background in infectious disease, has supplanted any of the government health experts on the task force as Trump’s principal medical adviser. He has encouraged the President’s view that mask mandates and social distancing guidelines are unnecessary and overblown.
In conversations with advisers about his political strategy, Trump has cited Atlas’ views as confirming his belief that rallies are safe, according to a person familiar with the conversations.
The value of the rallies isn’t particularly clear. While Trump’s campaign says they are useful in registering supporters who might otherwise go untapped, and they garner local coverage, they are no longer aired on national television. The President’s shocking attacks on political rivals and the news media have become so familiar they longer garner much attention. When they do, it only amplifies the concerns about Trump’s behavior that have caused his standing to slip among women and seniors.
What they do provide, aides say, is a venue for the President to air the litany of grievances and conspiracies that seem to be growing as the election nears. On Monday, Trump seemed in a particularly foul mood, cursing repeatedly on a campaign call with staffers and later using bullying language on Twitter against Dr. Anthony Fauci, whom he mocked for wearing a Washington Nationals mask.
‘I’m not running scared’
One person who traveled with the President on a Western swing over the weekend said Trump appeared alternately furious at stories describing the concerns of Republicans heading into the election and exhausted from repeated campaign rallies that stretched more than 90 minutes each.
“I’m not running scared,” Trump told reporters on a baking hot tarmac in Arizona on Monday as he headed to his second rally of the day. “I think I’m running angry. I’m running happy and I’m running content because we’ve done a great job.”
As he makes a final push for a second term, Trump is working to replicate the heady last days of his only previous political campaign, even though he is now the incumbent and the political calculus has shifted dramatically. Of his team, Trump is currently the most optimistic about his chances of victory: “He thinks he’s doing really well,” an adviser said.
Like the President himself, many of Trump’s top advisers — particularly those who were around in 2016 — are motivated by the belief that he will defy polling just as he did four years ago. While there is an acknowledgment the situation is different this time around, primarily because Biden is a more well-liked rival, the upset mindset still pervades.
“We’re in the hunt,” one Trump adviser said.
Four years ago — and particularly as he worked to re-win voters after the “Access Hollywood” scandal — Trump hammered on issues such as immigration and trade that he said were unfairly advantaging the elite to the detriment of blue-collar Americans. His focus and message narrowed as the campaign wound to a close.
But this time, Trump seems more aggrieved at what has happened to him than what has happened to the base of people who support him. He has railed at “deep state” misdeeds he claims weigh on his presidency and warrant an extension of his term. He complains at length about what interviewers have asked him and the tone in which they asked it. And he repeatedly insists he’s given up millions of dollars in income by serving as President.
While various attempts have been made over the past several weeks to hone Trump’s message in the final days of the campaign, there is little evidence he plans to deviate from the playbook he thinks is serving him in the final stretch.
It’s a different story on the airwaves. The Trump campaign has seen its television ad messaging evolve significantly for the final weeks of the race. While over the summer the campaign hammered law and order themes, in the final weeks it has pivoted to messaging on health care, coronavirus recovery efforts and attempts to shore up support with senior voters.
Coronavirus — not even a top-10 ad theme for the Trump campaign through the end of September — is now the third most-referenced theme in advertising since October 1, featured in more than 40% of Trump’s TV spots, according to a CNN analysis of CMAG data.
Prescription drugs has emerged as the second biggest ad theme, featured in more than 60% of Trump campaign TV advertising, part of a clear effort to appeal to senior voters, among whom Biden has made significant inroads.
Law and order messaging about the left-wing mob and defunding the police has all but disappeared, replaced by ads with a sunnier disposition. Among the top two is an ad touting Trump and America’s joint recovery from coronavirus, which features out-of-context sound from Fauci that he has demanded the Trump campaign stop running.
The message coming from Trump himself is starkly different. There has been nothing sunny about his rally performances over the past week, which have included dark rhetoric accusing Biden of being a criminal, a suggestion that covering the coronavirus pandemic extensively makes CNN “dumb bastards” and a “lock her up” chant directed at Michigan’s governor, who the FBI said was the target of an attempted kidnapping plot by militia members.
And while his campaign ads use Fauci as a character witness to Trump’s pandemic efforts, Trump himself deemed the highly trusted infectious disease specialist a “disaster” in his Monday morning campaign call.