It's his job to criticize President Trump, but how do you do that during a pandemic?

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent


Guy Cecil. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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WASHINGTON – It’s Guy Cecil’s job to criticize President Trump, but that’s become a much more complicated job than it was a month ago, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

At a moment when the world is engulfed in a historic crisis, the dominant instinct of many Americans is to root for the country’s leaders to be successful in meeting the challenge.

Cecil, in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast, said he shares that sentiment and is incorporating it into his role as head of one of the biggest Democratic organizations in the country.

“I want the president to be successful. I don't want 100,000 people to die. I want this administration to be truthful. I want them to get the equipment that they need to the places where it needs to be,” said Cecil, chairman of super-PAC Priorities USA.

But, he added, he also has a job to do that he feels is part of the solution to the coronavirus: getting Joe Biden elected president.

“We are in this position, in part, not in total, but in part because of who the president is and … we’re going to have an election in November. And we need to do the things necessary to prompt a change in leadership at the very top,” Cecil said. “There are obviously lives at risk in this situation. If the president wins reelection, there will continue to be lives at risk.”

Joe Biden. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Priorities USA Action, an arm of Priorities USA, spent $190 million in the 2016 presidential election on Hillary Clinton’s behalf. Over the past week, they’ve put about $7.5 million behind TV and digital video ads critical of the president’s response to the pandemic in the five key states that will likely decide the 2020 election: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona.

Priorities has one ad that contrasts Trump’s handling of the pandemic with how Biden, the former vice president and leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, would handle such a situation.

The other main Priorities ad simply highlights Trump’s multiple statements downplaying the seriousness of the coronavirus and praising himself while showing a graph that demonstrates the dramatic rise in cases in late March. The ad ends with Trump’s statement at a March 13 Rose Garden press conference in response to a question about the failure to have enough coronavirus tests: “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he said.

Cecil said Priorities tried to walk a fine line between making a case that the president’s leadership has been unsatisfactory, without going too far. “In politics, there's always this sort of itch to go over the top and I don't think that's necessary here,” he said. “We are using the president’s words. This isn't another political figure coming on and making some argument. It’s not a black-and-white scary narrator.”

Cecil, a seasoned Democratic strategist, said he’s as uncertain as anyone else of how to navigate a political landscape turned upside down by a historic crisis.

“There is no playbook for this,” Cecil said. “We need to constantly balance sensitivities around what people are experiencing in their homes and how they're processing all of the things that are happening that are foreign to them, and just how they’re coping.”

But Cecil said that historic comparisons to past crises, when the American people have often rallied around the president at moments when the nation is tested, are “a little bit different than the situation we find ourselves in.”

He pointed to Trump’s erratic public statements, and his use of daily press briefings to engage in self-promotion, as unprecedented uses of the presidential bully pulpit at a moment of national emergency.

“We have not had something like that, where the country needs the truth, they need clarity, they need direction and instead they’re getting propaganda,” he said.

Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The White House press briefings have evolved into marathon sessions that often last much longer than one hour. They are scheduled for late afternoon and spill into the early evening, putting Trump in viewers’ homes during prime time.

“The balance of that time is given essentially to be a new version of a Trump rally, where he wraps himself in self-congratulation and, in the process, shares misinformation,” Cecil said.

Nonetheless, despite an initial bump in public attitudes about the president’s handling of the coronavirus, the latest polling numbers showed a majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s performance, with 52 percent expressing a negative view compared to 47 percent approval in an ABC News/Ipsos survey released Friday.

Trump’s overall approval rating has also moved up in recent weeks, from 42 percent to 45 percent.  

Cecil said that even with the jaw-dropping 6.6 million Americans applying for unemployment benefits over the last two weeks and other seismic impacts on the economy from the coronavirus, he is not expecting anything other than a hard-fought fall election.

“I think even now we expect a very close election and a very close Electoral College vote. It’s hard to predict the future given all of these dynamics, from a public health challenge to an economic challenge. But our country is locked in a partisan divide,” Cecil said. 

“I suspect that we'll continue to see very close election numbers for the foreseeable future.”

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