For seven months, President Donald Trump’s team has been searching for something — anything — to take the nation’s attention away from the coronavirus outbreak.
His aides are hoping they finally have it.
With a Supreme Court nomination fight that will generate attention for much of the next six weeks, Trump — at least for now — has latched onto a topic his boosters believe will shift focus from the coronavirus, even as the pandemic on Tuesday claimed its 200,000th death.
While Trump’s allies and aides were careful in more than half a dozen interviews to avoid appearing as if they were celebrating the death of the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, they all acknowledged the political windfall of the unanticipated event for a president who has seen his approval rating dip during the pandemic. One called it “super.” Another said the coronavirus has now been relegated to “noise.”
“He didn’t wish her dead and he didn’t kill her. But her death and the opening it created is clearly going to benefit the president,” said a Republican who is friends with the president. “Any conversation about coronavirus leads to discussion of his handling of it. The most generous person in the world would say it has been mixed.”
The Supreme Court fight is the latest look-over-here subject for Trump during the pandemic. He previously has, at various points, trained his non-coronavirus messaging firepower on everything from the economy, to China, to “law and order,” to Confederate states and mail-in voter fraud. Yet each time, the coronavirus has ultimately resurged as the predominant 2020 story — a fact Joe Joe Biden’s campaign has been trying to present as America’s leading problem. “I don’t think Covid can truly be displaced,” a former White House staffer agreed.
Still, the White House and Trump campaign are now concentrating their messaging infrastructure on the Supreme Court confirmation battle, blanketing surrogates with talking points, dedicating social media feeds to the issue, scheduling interviews about the president’s “moral” and “constitutional” duty to fill the vacancy and swiftly manufacturing “Fill That Seat” t-shirts that are now for sale on the Trump campaign website.
On Facebook, the message was blasted out in ads. “FILL THAT SEAT!” blared one that began running Monday. “The President is right, we have an obligation to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, without delay!”
Trump’s campaign even turned the issue on Biden, Trump’s Democratic rival, criticizing him for not releasing a list of his own potential Supreme Court nominees. They cited a pledge Biden made in June to release a list, though he didn’t say when.
“Joe Biden is hiding his list of people he would consider if he were president,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said. “Biden knows that he is an empty vessel for the radical left and that’s why he’s refusing to be honest with the American people about who he would want on the court.”
Biden, who has been trying to turn the election into a referendum of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, has kept attention on the pandemic in speeches and events since Ginsburg’s death. On Sunday, the Democratic National Committee erected light displays across the country that said, “Trump Lied, 200,000 Died.” But by then much of the nation’s attention had shifted to the nation’s highest court.
“It helps Republicans for one reason — they were losing,” said John Pudner, a Trump supporter who worked for Republican presidential nominees Mitt Romney in 2012 and George W. Bush in 2000 and now leads Take Back Our Republic, a group that aims to use conservative solutions for political reform. “You want the story to change.”
Trump had once expected to campaign primarily on the economy, including a rising stock market and job growth. But he has faced criticism for downplaying the virus, failing to quickly produce tests and supplies and pushing governors and educators to reopen before certain federal benchmarks had been met.
In both national and battleground state polls, Trump has been lagging behind Biden since the pandemic caused economic shutdowns in the spring. He’s even lost his edge in traditionally red states.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Americans are still dying each day as experts warn of a second wave this winter. The United States is expected to pass 300,000 deaths by December and 378,000 by the end of 2020, according to the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
“Obviously we’d rather be talking about the Supreme Court than Covid,” said a former Trump campaign aide.
Trump allies are pushing an undisciplined president to stay as focused as he can on the Supreme Court while also pushing his two other messages — the economy and law and order — that have polled well internally.
On Saturday, Trump is expected to nominate a woman to the nation’s highest court, just three days before the first presidential debate. He interviewed Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit Monday and is expected to meet former Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Lagoa, now a federal appeals court judge.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed that Trump’s nominee will receive a Senate floor vote, a prospect that looks almost certain despite the opposition of two GOP senators and every Democrat. The decision has led to claims of hypocrisy from Democrats, who note that McConnell in 2016 refused to hold a vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee for a Supreme Court vacancy, citing the election year.
“If the president frames this as making the Supreme Court work when we really need it most, it’s beneficial,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz said. “If it is framed as a focal power play, it will hurt him.”
A Supreme Court vacancy isn’t just a distraction for Trump.
It reminds skeptical Republican voters who may be turned off by Trump’s tweets and chaotic style that he can still deliver on conservative issues, including nominating the judges that can alter the U.S. for generations to come. At his campaign rallies, enthusiastic supporters have begun chanting “Fill that seat!” after Trump announced he would nominate a replacement.
“I will soon announce a nominee for the United States Supreme Court,” Trump told a crowd outside Toledo, Ohio, Monday night. “They say it is the most important thing a president can do.”
Trump frequently touts the hundreds of federal judges, including Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, appointed and confirmed during his tenure, even if he often inflates the total number.
“As far as accomplishments for the president, there is nothing more important,” a former Republican Senate aide said.
Trump released his first list of potential Supreme Court picks during the 2016 campaign, a move that helped bring some social conservatives into his camp.
“This is Republican gold,” said a former White House official.
The issue is also inspiring vocal opposition from Trump’s critics. In recent days, protesters have been gathering outside Republican senators’ homes, urging them to oppose the president’s eventual nominee. The demonstrations are expected to grow after Trump’s names his pick.
Trump and his fellow Republicans have mocked progressive protesters for their large gatherings, which took off this summer in response to the killing of a Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of Minneapolis police. Trump has held numerous rallies in defiance of local crowd-size restrictions, claiming that the events are also just political protests.
“It’s amazing how organizing peaceful protests cured the coronavirus in Democrats' minds,” said Mike Davis, president of the Article III Project, a group pushing to confirm Trump’s judicial nominees that also helped push through Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. “The Democrats care about coronavirus only when it’s politically advantageous to care about.”