Trump sidesteps grim coronavirus surge to sell a happier message

Trump sidesteps grim coronavirus surge to sell a happier messageJune 26, 2020

Top political officials in Florida, Arizona, Texas and numerous other states are grappling with a rapid surge in coronavirus cases, facing the threat of an out-of-control outbreak that washes over their citizens and overwhelms their health care systems.

Top political officials in the White House say it’s business as usual from their perspective.

President Donald Trump and his top aides sought Thursday to minimize the threat of the coronavirus to the public’s health and the U.S. economy despite alarms blaring across two dozen states — including many overseen by Trump-friendly leaders.

Aides insisted there would be no change in White House strategy to fight the pandemic, and no additional money or new resources given to states dealing with spikes in cases. “In only 3 percent of the counties across the country are we seeing an increase in cases,” said a senior administration official. “The vast majority of the country is not experiencing that. When they turn on the TV and see maps full of red and then they go out into their communities, that is not what they see.”

Some health officials in the Trump administration are engaging with states and contemplating how to bring the latest surge under control, given that many of the stricken counties are the most populous in each state. But Covid-19 is no longer front and center for Trump or most of his White House, in part because it’s viewed as an unwieldy and losing issue for a president who has always felt much more comfortable playing economic cheerleader than delving into the nuances of health issues, according to interviews with half a dozen current and former senior administration officials and Republicans close to the White House.

The virus has claimed more than 121,000 American lives and no vaccine is imminent. But Trump and his aides are continuing to present a relatively rosy picture of the pandemic by touting a slower pace of deaths nationally even as new cases soared by 47 percent over the past week with surging case counts in key states including Florida, Arizona, Texas, California, Georgia and North Carolina.

Even cases on Trump’s own team don’t alarm the president. Trump’s indoor rally in Tulsa, Okla., last weekend led to positive diagnoses for at least eight Trump staffers. That did not slow the White House push to resume life and reopen businesses across the country — with the assumption Americans take responsibility for their individual health risks, and states responsibility for the response efforts.

“We’re going to see these things. But the economy is not going to be closed down again,” National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told reporters at the White House on Thursday, echoing a view widely shared by other top White House aides and the president himself.

“The health experts are not telling us there’s a second wave, and we have the tools to deal with this much more expeditiously than we had two or three months ago,” Kudlow said earlier in the day on Fox Business.

Health experts are generally not calling the latest surge a second wave — that event could come in the fall. But they’ve expressed deep concern about the spike in cases as the country tries to quell the first wave. The U.S. has had one of the world’s most severe and persistent outbreaks.

One official in the administration said it continues to stockpile supplies to fight Covid-19. The coronavirus task force now meets once or twice a week, with Vice President Mike Pence doing a weekly call with governors on the virus.

Still, the influence of top health officials around the president has waned inside the West Wing, with Dr. Anthony Fauci seen as an object of much derision among some aides who frame the latest concerns as fearmongering.

Trump aides are clear that the president does not want to bring the coronavirus response under greater federal control, preferring to leave key decisions — and the political fallout — to state and local leaders as he travels across the country campaigning for reelection for the next four months.

Critics, including some Republicans and many Democrats, argue Trump and his team have abandoned responsibility for fighting the virus at a time just when stronger leadership is needed.

“We’re going to have to learn how to live with this virus for a while, and to suggest that we’re beating it or we’re winning just doesn’t have an appreciation for what a public health emergency is,” said T.J. Petrizzo, a Republican lobbyist. “Just accept it, own it. You can’t close your eyes and say there’s no boogeyman in the closet because the truth is that this virus does not go away.”

Trump spoke about the virus sparingly over the past week as he attended a campaign rally in Oklahoma, visited the border wall in Arizona, hosted the president of Poland at the White House and flew to Wisconsin to visit a shipbuilding factory and headline a Fox News town hall with ally and friend Sean Hannity.

When he did speak about Covid-19, he touted what he viewed as his administration’s stellar response and for the second time in a week invoked a racist nickname for the virus — “kung flu.”

“Someday, it’ll be recognized by history. Someday,” Trump said on Tuesday in Arizona about the administration’s coronavirus efforts. “But our actions and your selfless sacrifice — and that’s what it was — saved hundreds of thousands of lives. We had to do it. And we did the right thing. And I’ll tell you what, we did the right thing. Now we open.”

At his event Thursday, Trump repeated one of his go-to explanations for the rise in cases — attributing it to more testing, even though many health experts note the rising case count is far outpacing the jump in testing.

A new poll out this week from The New York Times and Siena College showed Trump’s political exposure on his handling of the virus, with 58 percent of registered voters surveyed expressing disapproval and 38 percent approving.

Trump did much better when voters were asked about his performance on the economy, with 45 percent disapproving and 50 percent of voters approving. White House and campaign aides are deeply aware the president’s reelection prospects hinge very much on the state of the U.S. economy — and have urged him to turn toward that message as much as possible leading into November, even as the U.S. is consumed by the pandemic, economic downturn and protests.

Veering from that course risks turning off Trump voters and key Republicans who pressed the administration to open up the economy during the shutdowns in March and April.

“Having been on the road for the last three weeks in half a dozen states undertaking door-to-door efforts, Americans are, broadly speaking, moving onto the next stage with their lives,” said Tim Phillips, president of the conservative activist group Americans for Prosperity. “They want to discuss issues and politics, so I think that is something the White House and other political campaigns for the Senate and the House understand at this point. Americans are impatient to reopen and tackle big issues.”

Back in Washington on Capitol Hill, Republican senators expressed greater skepticism of the White House’s handling of the virus than they have in previous weeks — a notable difference for lawmakers who tend to align themselves squarely with the president.

“I think we should talk more about getting the medical supply chain back,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close ally of the president. “I’d like to be talking more about all the efforts to develop a vaccine. The day that people hear that a vaccine is available, even though it may not be available today it’s going to be available, anxiety changes. He’s got an opportunity here with China to discipline China. So those are the things I’d like him to focus on.”

Marianne LeVine and David Lim contributed to this report.

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