Trump’s closing argument on Covid-19 comes as Joe Biden and his surrogates pound the president over his early handling of the pandemic, his inconsistent public health messaging, his inaccurate claims about the threat and his pledges of a vaccine arriving far sooner than health officials expect. It’s also coming just as the U.S. hits new daily records of coronavirus cases ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
Trump aides and allies increasingly acknowledge that anyone who is seriously concerned about the virus threat won’t vote for Trump anyway. The campaign is not changing any of its political strategy, including its messages to address the surging Covid-19 cases throughout the Midwest and rural areas — or the new outbreak among officials in the vice president’s office.
“If you think Covid is a big deal, then you are not voting for the president,” one former senior administration official said. “We’ve gotten through the president of the United States having Covid. I don’t think Marc Short having Covid is a game changer,” the official added about the vice president’s chief of staff, who is currently in quarantine after getting a positive test result on Saturday.
Trump campaign officials have justified their relative indifference toward Covid-19 by claiming the economy is on the forefront of voters’ minds in the final sprint to Election Day, even as states including Wisconsin, North Dakota and Montana see record daily case counts and polls show older Americans are more interested in halting the spread of the virus compared to other issues.
“Regardless of cases going up, people are just sick of this s—,” said a person close to the Trump campaign. “It’s been eight months now and there’s coronavirus fatigue setting in. Three months ago, people said their No. 1 issue was the virus. But now they say it’s the economic recovery.”
The White House press office said the administration’s focus is on both. “President Trump’s goal is to protect as many people as possible from both the virus and the devastating effects of lockdowns,” said Sarah Matthews, White House deputy press secretary. “We’re in a much better position to manage the virus now than we were at the beginning of the pandemic in terms of knowledge of mitigation efforts, treatments, adequate PPE, and a forthcoming vaccine in record time. We’ve always strongly advocated that Americans, especially those in high-risk populations, take extra care to implement appropriate additional precautions in their daily lives such as social distancing, maintaining best hygiene practices, and mask wearing.”
The latest polls show a challenging picture for Trump’s message. An average of 57.5 percent of Americans disapprove of the Trump administration’s handling of Covid-19, according to the polling tracker by the site FiveThirtyEight.
Roughly 56 percent of Americans said they were worried about the public health concerns associated with Covid-19, whereas 34 percent of Americans said they worried about the coronavirus’s effect on the stock market and unemployment, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll last week.
The president keeps trying to convince Americans the country is “rounding the corner” on the virus. “Other than the fake news wants to scare everybody, we are absolutely rounding the corner,” Trump told reporters Monday as he departed the White House for rallies in Pennsylvania.
In a tweet Monday, he blamed the news media for “riding COVID, COVID, COVID, all the way to the Election. Losers!” And at a rally that day, he argued, “I mean, I got it and I’m here. We have great medicines and therapeutics. The first lady got it…you know who else got it? Barron.”
Several Trump advisers argue the outbreak in Vice President Mike Pence’s office will play little role in the coming days, since the Trump orbit already survived the much more high-profile infections of the president, first lady and several top aides including Hope Hicks, Stephen Miller and Kayleigh McEnany. Trump allies say so many Americans voted early that news of the Pence outbreak should have little bearing on who they choose for president.
The Trump campaign is trying to do its best to appear more sensitive at rallies to the dangers of the virus by featuring supporters behind the president’s podium wearing masks. When Trump is not speaking, though, many of them can be seen before the rally mingling without masks in close proximity.
Still, the president’s cheerleading and generally nonchalant attitude about the virus masks the deep unease several White House aides feel about the administration’s handling of Covid-19. Many aides do not feel they’ve been properly informed about the Covid-19 infections in the West Wing, or given good access to contact tracing or superior testing.
Masks remain the exception rather than the rule inside the West Wing, and some staffers question whether the president’s top aides have learned anything from the two outbreaks within the White House’s top ranks.
“It calls into question whether the administration can be trusted to keep Americans safe if we can’t even keep our own staff safe,” said one senior administration official. “We supposedly work in one of the most secure places in the world.”
Gabby Orr contributed to this report.