In the days after President Donald Trump’s poorly attended rally in Tulsa, Okla., senior campaign aides repeatedly assured their optics-obsessed boss it was a one-off debacle.
They demoted a longtime staffer who had managed logistics for the failed campaign comeback. They went to work locating the perfect site for a do-over MAGA rally large enough to quell suggestions of declining enthusiasm among Trump’s base. And they quickly settled on New Hampshire, the state that jump-started Trump’s political movement four years ago and managed to dodge the brunt of Covid-19 during its rapid spread across the Northeast this spring.
Then it all fell apart with a Friday afternoon phone call from campaign manager Brad Parscale.
The abrupt cancellation of the airport-hangar event — which the Trump team blamed on an incoming tropical storm that never materialized, but three officials privately attributed to concerns about attendance — underscored the recurring challenge Trump aides face: recreate the president’s marquee campaign rallies amid a once-in-a-century health crisis without upsetting a boss who views crowd size as a leading metric for evaluating his campaign’s success.
It also raised questions about the fate of down-ballot Republicans if the coattail effect — an incumbent president’s ability to attract votes for other candidates in his party — is no longer guaranteed.
In New Hampshire, for instance, some congressional GOP candidates were invited to attend Trump’s rally as warm-up acts or front-row participants, providing an opportunity to appear before larger-than-normal crowds in their own backyard. One of them, congressional Republican candidate Matt Mowers, had been scheduled to speak at the rally prior to Trump’s remarks and greet him when he arrived in the Granite State, according to a person familiar with the planning.
“Everybody benefits from the president coming here. It’s a huge help in terms of earned media opportunities, bringing additional dollars in, and boosting down-ballot candidates as well,” Michael Biundo, a New Hampshire-based former senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, said just hours before the president called off last Saturday’s rally.
At this point in 2016, Trump was already holding several rallies each week, including a double-header in Nevada and Arizona on June 18 and a three-day span in late July that featured six rallies in four states over 72 hours.
By comparison, the president has only attended two large campaign gatherings — his Tulsa rally and a “Students for Trump” event in Phoenix — since his March 13 Oval Office address about the novel coronavirus. The Trump campaign had hoped to be averaging two rallies per week by June 2020, according to a person involved with the president’s reelection.
“President Trump was a machine in 2016 and he wants to be that same candidate this cycle. Unfortunately, coronavirus has interfered with our plans to contrast his tremendous stamina with Sleepy Joe’s,” this person said, referring to Trump’s 2020 challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Two people close to the Trump campaign said its primary issue is locating areas where local and state officials are both willing to permit large-scale campaign events and unlikely to blame the president if an outbreak of the virus occurs once he’s come and gone. Trump aides felt blindsided early last week when New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, publicly stated that he would not attend the Portsmouth rally out of precaution for himself and his family.
And when Oklahoma reported a record number of Covid-19 cases three weeks after Trump’s June 20 rally, state health officials said the president’s appearance — combined with protests that broke out in response — “likely contributed” to the surge. “In the past few days, we’ve seen almost 500 new cases and we had several large events just over two weeks ago, so I guess we just connect the dots,” Tulsa Health Department director Dr. Bruce Dart, said at the time.
Some states that will play a pivotal role in the 2020 election have rolled back their plans for reopening in response to rising cases of the deadly virus. In Florida, where Republicans are expected to hold a portion of the party’s nominating convention next month, three counties have tightened restrictions on restaurants and bars, and issued stricter guidance on mask-wearing for residents. In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has paused further statewide reopenings and mandated masks in most public spaces. Whitmer previously said it would be “a long time” before she felt comfortable permitting Trump or Biden to host crowded campaign events in her state.
The changes and reversals to statewide reopenings bring to the fore obstacles that Trump campaign officials are not only still grappling with, but racing to overcome before public opinion about the president’s response to Covid-19 deteriorates further. At the beginning of July, a Reuters-Ipsos poll found that 7 in 10 Republicans were personally concerned about the deadly virus, marking a 10 percentage point increase from prior weeks. More than a quarter of respondents in the same survey said the top factor determining which presidential candidate they will support this November is their plan to help the U.S. recover from Covid-19 – a shift from previous polls in which more respondents said reviving the economy was their top priority.
One senior administration official said the lack of recognition some of Trump’s top aides have paid to coronavirus has done irreversible damage to his reelection campaign. Internal divisions over how much focus Trump should lend to the virus have plagued the White House in recent weeks. Chief of staff Mark Meadows and senior adviser Jared Kushner have both pushed the president to focus on communicating a strong second-term agenda, including measures he would take to help bring the U.S. economy roaring back to life, while others have encouraged him to focus on combating the virus itself given its widespread impact on most people’s lives.
“If you solve the virus problem, almost everything else will solve itself,” said the senior administration official.
Instead of attending meetings with health officials alongside Vice President Mike Pence, the president has been eager to resume a demanding campaign schedule that mirrors his approach in 2016. When Trump has weighed in on the viral pandemic, it has been tangential: Last week, he hosted a White House event to discuss the reopening of schools this fall. But he has consistently attributed the rising number of cases in southwestern states to increased testing capabilities, even as other administration officials acknowledge that testing alone cannot statistically account for surges in most areas.
In an interview with CBS on Tuesday, Trump said Covid-19 testing in the U.S. has been “working too well.”
“We’re finding thousands and thousands of cases,” he told the network.
Campaign staffers who scrambled to get the president back in front of the large audiences he craves were so shaken by the Tulsa episode they waited until the eleventh hour to call off his New Hampshire rally for fear of upsetting him, according to the two people close to the campaign. Staffers who were already on the ground in Portsmouth, N.H., a riverfront city situated in a county Trump handily won in 2016, were caught off guard last Friday when their colleagues alerted them of the change. One campaign volunteer, who questioned the reasoning at the time, noted that intense humidity was the only weather-related issue on the ground and suggested that Parscale postponed the event until the campaign could guarantee larger crowds.
A spokesperson for the Trump campaign said the rally was expected to be rescheduled in the next one or two weeks, and disputed claims that it was postponed for any reason other than the forecast. The same spokesperson on Tuesday said there was “nothing to announce” about when the rally might be rescheduled.
“President Trump and his campaign are continuing to stay engaged with both in-person and digital events,“ said Erin Perrine, director of press communications for the campaign. “Just this week, we hit over 1 billion video views since April across all our social media platforms. Last week, President Trump hosted a roundtable in Miami, Vice President Pence had a hugely successful bus tour in Pennsylvania and Women for Trump just finished up a bus tour in Wisconsin.”
New Hampshire is one of several states Trump lost in 2016 that his campaign is now eyeing to make up for potential losses elsewhere in November. His first-place finish in the state’s 2016 primary, followed by a narrow loss to Democrat Hillary Clinton in the general election, revealed the surprising strength of Trump’s populist brand in a state known for its independent and late-breaking voters. Inside his campaign and among his supporters, Trump’s Portsmouth rally was seen as a chance to restart his reelection campaign in a state that boasts a sizable population of enthusiastic MAGA fans.
“President Trump’s affinity to New Hampshire is because it all started here for him, and he has a loyal following here,” said Corky Messner, a Trump-endorsed Republican running to unseat Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. “The four electoral votes in New Hampshire could potentially be very important.”
Stephanie Murray contributed to this report.