President Donald Trump wants to reopen parts of the U.S. economy hit by the coronavirus outbreak. Allies close to his 2020 campaign operation are raising red flags — warning it could be imprudent to inject more uncertainty into an already unpredictable crisis.
Those concerns intensified this week when Trump identified Easter Sunday as his target date for relaxing some of the social distancing guidelines his administration has put in place to slow the spread of the virus. The prospect of watching Americans shuffle into “packed churches” on April 12, an image Trump said he hopes to see, has alarmed some of his closest supporters who fear that rushing to end the economic clampdown — without full support from public health experts — could have catastrophic consequences on his bid for reelection.
“What worries me is if this goes south,” said former White House press secretary Sean Spicer. “If he’s right and there are no new cases, and the business community starts to say how amazing that is, then he’s going to look like a hero.”
“But if he opens up Nebraska because there aren’t that many cases there, and more cases suddenly start popping up, he’s going to pay a price,” he said.
A premature “mission accomplished” moment during the Iraq War plagued President George W. Bush the rest of his time in office. Now that same fear is percolating among some Trump allies during his war against coronavirus, countering pressure the president faces from elements of his base to lift restrictions as soon as possible. Moving too soon could exacerbate the health crisis and create an even larger problem for him to overcome closer to the November election.
Anxiety about the direction Trump is headed in, as he looks to revive sectors of the economy slammed by Covid-19, does not extend to everyone in his orbit. Some campaign officials have expressed skepticism themselves regarding the need for long-term restrictions on economic activity and large-scale campaign events. One senior campaign aide even said the president’s signature rallies, where thousands of his supporters often pack elbow-to-elbow inside loud and overheated arenas, are likely to return before the November election, despite dire warnings from top health officials that such gatherings present ripe opportunities for community transmission of the virus.
“We’ll get back to them,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign. “Everybody is in this social distancing situation right now — all campaigns included — but it will pass.”
For the time being, the Trump campaign has put a moratorium on physical gatherings, volunteer events and fundraisers — taking what was once partially a road show, with the president’s rallies and robust voter registration effort, and moving it entirely into the digital sphere.
Plans to open “community centers” for African American voters were halted earlier this month when landlords stopped allowing site visits to retail spaces available for lease, and state and local officials began placing restrictions on nonessential businesses and social gatherings.
“Office openings will wait,” said one Trump campaign official, noting that some leases have already been signed and officials are still searching for additional locations.
Those who are directly involved in keeping the president’s reelection effort afloat during the global pandemic have billed his digital operation — a project that campaign manager Brad Parscale and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner have invested heavily in over the past four years — as a survival tool of sorts.
“Obviously freezing a presidential campaign is unexpected, but a lot of the plans and strategies we have are able to adapt because the lifeblood of this campaign is its data and digital elements,” a second campaign official said.
Yet a sophisticated digital operation is unlikely to rescue Trump from political peril if his decision to reopen the economy in the midst of a lethal virus proves to be premature.
“That’s just the structure, and structures are only vehicles for delivering messages,” said Rick Tyler, a former spokesman for Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign. “We are at the most basic level of disruption — people are furloughed, at home and struggling to find toilet paper — and the question is whether Trump can communicate through this platform that either things would have been far worse if it wasn’t for him, or that America will be back to business-as-usual by the end of the summer.”
Some White House allies have started stress-testing voters to help determine whether the president is striking the right tone by declaring that the cure for protecting Americans from the coronavirus “cannot be worse than the problem itself.”
America First, the primary super PAC dedicated to Trump’s reelection, began asking respondents in a series of polls this week if they fear “catching the virus” more than “losing their jobs,” according to a person familiar with the effort.
“We don’t want to be tone-deaf to where the American public is, or where our voters are,” this person said.
Senior administration officials, including Cabinet secretaries and members of the coronavirus task force, have been working to develop a range of options for Trump to pursue if he does urge businesses to reopen next month. Any announcement about changes to existing guidelines would occur after March 30 — the official end of the administration’s “15 Days to Slow the Spread” campaign — and would not supplant efforts by state and local officials to combat the virus in their own communities, according to a White House official.
“America will again — and soon — be open for business. Very soon, a lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting. A lot sooner,” Trump said at a news conference Monday night.
Campaign officials who support Trump’s aggressive timeline still acknowledged the risk it carries. So far, testing shortages have made it difficult to determine precisely how many Americans are infected with the virus at any given time, opening the door for further transmission if asymptomatic carriers return to work. Moreover, a sudden surge in cases could prolong America’s battle with the virus and ultimately do further long-term damage to the economy.
“If he handles this well, I definitely think he’s going to have another topic to talk about. But if there was another economic collapse, it could also really change our course,” the second campaign official said.
“In terms of how this affects the campaign, I would just say it’s too early to tell,” this person added.
Despite the uncertainty accompanying Trump’s desired timeline for an economic rebound, his campaign has done little to prepare for a scenario in which the president’s plans backfire. Officials refuse to let on publicly to any concerns they may have, while privately insisting the coronavirus crisis will have evaporated by the time the Republican Party’s nominating convention occurs in late August.
Two campaign officials who spoke with POLITICO said they were unaware of any discussions about how the campaign will proceed if the virus is not contained in the coming months, thus affecting how the general election is conducted. A bipartisan stimulus bill passed by the Senate late Wednesday contained about $400 million to help promote mail-in voting — a development that could harm Trump’s shot at a second term if it boosts voter turnout this fall, according to Tyler.
“If it’s easier to vote, more people will do it and I don’t think that’s good for Trump based on his approval rating,” Tyler said, adding that the campaign “ought to develop a contingency plan” in case Covid-19 doesn’t wane or disappear this spring, as Trump has previously suggested it might.
Many of the president’s unsubstantiated claims about the virus have occurred during task force updates at the White House, where he and an entourage of infectious disease experts and Cabinet officials have fielded questions about the administration’s response and announced new measures to combat it.
The daily briefings — which have lasted anywhere from 45 minutes to nearly two hours — have also drawn mixed reactions among the president’s allies. On one hand, campaign officials and die-hard Trump fans view them as an ideal substitute for his “Keep America Great” rallies, arguing that they have allowed him to speak to even larger audiences and drown out his leading Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, who has been livestreaming campaign speeches from a library in his Delaware home.
“At a rally, you're talking to a tens of thousands of people,” Spicer said. “Online and on network TV every single day you can be talking to millions at once.”
“Trump’s poll numbers have seen a 10-point swing and Biden is nowhere to be found,” Spicer continued. “The guy launched a podcast the other day just to stay relevant.” (Fifty-five percent of respondents in an ABC News/Ipsos poll released this week gave Trump positive marks for his response to COVID-19, up 12 points from the previous week. The president has received mostly positive ratings for his handling of the coronavirus in other polls as well.)
There are others, however, who worry about overexposing voters to Trump, particularly as his campaign impugns Biden’s mental state and fitness for office. The president’s comments from the podium have been rife with unfounded predictions, contradicting statements and premature announcements about public-private partnerships, the effectiveness of potential coronavirus treatment drugs and the availability of personal protective equipment for health care workers.
“It’s a liability,” a Republican close to the White House said. “Can you imagine if he reopens our economy and then suddenly disappears from the briefing room because things don’t go as planned?”