coronavirus

Trump works to rewrite narrative on coronavirus response

The president’s team is working to quickly blunt criticism of his handling of the outbreak.

Donald Trump


Team Trump is rushing to rewrite the early narrative about the president’s response to coronavirus.

Faced with endless video clips of Donald Trump downplaying the escalating outbreak, Trump aides and allies are working furiously to instead highlight the president’s recent actions and comments.

Their effort comprises three tactics: Blanket supporters with detailed timelines of every action the Trump administration took. Amplify praise of those actions. And forcefully push back against anyone who criticizes those actions.

Just over seven months from the November election, Trump’s aides and allies realize the president’s campaign for a second term has been completely transformed in a matter of weeks. It will now come down to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his response to a devastated economy, according to seven people familiar with the situation, including four who speak directly with the president.

“The president and his performance is the campaign. It’s the only thing that matters,” said Scott Jennings, who worked for President George W. Bush and is close to the Trump White House. “There is nothing to do if you are the sitting president of the United States but to get it right. If you get it right, what better argument for reelection than this unprecedented crisis?”

The Trump campaign had wanted to focus on a long list of other issues as the president launched a general election race against Democrat Joe Biden: the president’s impeachment acquittal, Biden’s acuity and overseas actions by Biden’s son Hunter.

Instead, it has shifted almost entirely to rehabilitating Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

“The watchword from here has to be action,” said a Republican who speaks to Trump. “Checks on the way. Treatments being tried. Travel bans in place. Information conveyed, in real time.”

Trump allies who were confident about the president’s reelection prospects just weeks ago — thanks to a strong economy and record stock market — have begun to fret as they see him being blamed by state and local leaders, members of Congress and public health officials for failing to quickly test patients and distribute masks, ventilators and other supplies. The number of confirmed cases in the U.S. stood at nearly 50,000 by the end of Tuesday with more than 600 deaths — and the worst has yet to come.

Already, Trump critics are blasting Trump for his handling of the crisis. Priorities USA, the Democrats’ leading super PAC, is launching a $6 million ad campaign on Tuesday in the battleground states of Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Republicans for the Rule of Law, conservatives who oppose Trump, aired its first ad on coronavirus last week.

Still, there’s some indication the Trump team’s efforts are working. Fifty-five percent of Americans approve of his management of the coronavirus outbreak, compared with 43 percent who disapprove, according to a ABC/Ipsos poll released late last week. The numbers were nearly reversed the week before when 43 percent approved and 54 percent disapproved.

Trump has been fighting back through his now-daily news conferences at the White House, boasting his administration has done an “extraordinary” and “incredible job,” while falling back on a familiar tactic of blaming the media.

Trump allies said the campaign had no choice but to do what it always does when a crisis engulfs the presidency, from impeachment to the threat of war with Iran: quickly and quietly follow the president’s lead — pushing out new talking points, buying new Facebook ads and lining up voices to defend the president forcefully.

“I think the president's people are adjusting their campaign very quickly,” said a Republican who is a friend of the president.

The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee have scrapped MAGA campaign rallies and other events, shifting training and other events online, including last week’s national day of action and national week of training. But their main task these days is coronavirus.

They‘ve been sending rapid-response emails to reporters, firing off emails and text messages to millions of supporters, issuing daily talking points to surrogates, posting social media messages and booking surrogates on TV and radio, according to a RNC official.

“The American people have seen President Trump respond to this crisis with bold leadership and decisive action, and he will emerge from this with a strong record of results, putting him in a stronger position than any Democrat candidate,” RNC National Press Secretary Mandi Merritt said.

The Trump campaign’s rapid response team has churned out hundreds of tweets in recent weeks — noting that Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York praised Trump, blasting congressional Democrats for holding up an economic rescue package, accusing the “liberal media” of spreading lies for reporting on Trump’s infamous “hoax“ comment at a rally less than a month ago — when the president called Democrats‘ criticism of his coronavirus response “their new hoax,” likening it to impeachment and the Russia investigation.

“They want to try to control that narrative as much as possible,” said a Republican who speaks to Trump. “It’s irresponsible to do anything else.”

The campaign also released a detailed list of nearly 80 actions by the Trump administration to fight the virus since Jan. 6, a week after China reported the discovery of the coronavirus to the World Health Organization.

“President Trump is fighting for Americans every day!” it wrote in a recent post. “His second coronavirus relief law provides free testing to all Americans, and makes sure families, workers, and businesses impacted by the Chinese virus are taken care of.”

Conservative groups, including America First Policies, which supports Trump’s policies, and Tea Party Patriots, are amplifying Trump’s message and actions and fact-checking the media through media appearances and social media, the groups said.

Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, said Americans can tell Trump took the coronavirus situation seriously because his administration announced restrictions on travel from China in late January. “That was a sign that President Trump was taking the potential threat the coronavirus posed to America very seriously,” she said. “At the time, many Americans kind of scoffed at that drastic action and yet now worldwide we’re seeing that same exact action happening in country after country worldwide.”

Trump supporters hope they can counter statements from the president himself during the same period dismissing the threat. A week before the travel restrictions, Trump said “we have it totally under control. ... It’s going to be just fine.” Just a day before the travel move, Trump said the “very little problem” was under control and maintained “we think it’s going to have a very good ending for it.”

Several Trump allies said the president and his campaign must convey that the economy will rebound from coronavirus in part because it had a strong foundation due to the president‘s actions over the past three years.

“For our campaign, it will be key to convey to the people that America entered this crisis with enormous advantages and economic momentum,” one of the Republicans said.

The campaign is also attempting to drag Biden into coronavirus, though it doesn’t appear to have garnered much attention — accusing him of “plagiarizing” Trump‘s plan to combat the coronavirus, defending China (where the virus first emerged) and confusing this virus with Ebola, which the Obama administration fought while Biden was vice president.

“Joe Biden sows fear and division as President Trump conveys optimism and hope,” the campaign wrote in one email.

Michael Caputo, who served as a campaign adviser in 2016, said he worries Biden can blame Trump for his response to coronavirus while having to take no responsibility himself because he’s not in office. “They can criticize him for every move he makes,” he said of Biden’s team.

An outside adviser said he has urged the campaign to return to discussing other issues, including Joe and Hunter Biden, to take the attention off Trump’s response to coronavirus and the tanking economy. “I don’t think those issues will ever be gone,” the person said.