2020 elections

Trump grapples with a surprise threat: Too much Trump

Some allies worry the president is damaging his reelection prospects with his dominance of the briefing room during a public health and economic crisis.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s top aides are fiercely debating a question their boss rarely confronted during his decades of jousting with tabloid newspapers, starring on reality TV shows and running a media-soaked presidential campaign: whether there’s such a thing as too much Donald Trump.

A series of missteps during Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is triggering fears among some advisers that the president is damaging his reelection prospects with his communications during the crisis.

White House allies have become exasperated with his dominance at coronavirus task force briefings, a daily rundown of testing and public health updates that Trump has transformed into a performance-art version of his freewheeling — and sometimes conspiracy-filled — Twitter feed.

Network producers have been unable to book him on shows that might reach more swing voters, as Trump chooses to stick to late-night appearances on “Hannity,” or virtual town halls with friendly Fox News hosts.

And health experts — including on his own staff — have watched in horror as he’s promoted untested cures for the deadly virus and retweeted calls for the firing of top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci.

In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus crisis has dashed the hopes of campaign advisers who had hitched Trump’s bid for a second term to a long list of accomplishments. When the strong U.S. economy came to a screeching halt in mid-March, less than two weeks after Gallup recorded Trump’s highest rating yet for his handling of the economy, the president overcompensated by deciding his own celebrity was a superior political weapon anyway.

Now aides are scrambling to find a new way forward — one that allows Trump to appear in charge of the administration’s Covid-19 containment effort without further jeopardizing his standing with key voters, millions of whom have been reminded of the president’s divisive personality during his lengthy news conferences every night of the week.

The evolving approach was on full display Friday, when the daily coronavirus task force briefing lasted less than 30 minutes and Trump declined to field questions from journalists in the room — a first for his own coronavirus briefings.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany noted in a tweet after the president’s abbreviated appearance that he “took countless questions from reporters” during a bill signing in the Oval Office earlier Friday. “Moreover, there have been 48 briefings since February 26th,” McEnany said.

But Friday’s unusually succinct update came a day after Trump ignited another controversy for suggesting that doctors should determine whether an “injection” of household disinfectants, such as bleach and isopropyl alcohol, could be used to kill Covid-19 in humans who contract the virus. Trump later claimed he was “asking a question sarcastically … about disinfectant on the inside.”

“I do think that disinfectant on the hands could have a very good effect,” Trump said in the Oval Office. “But I’d like them now to look as it pertains to the human body. … I’d like to look as it pertains because maybe there’s something there.”

Trump has been so eager to deliver good news to the American public, according to a senior administration official, that some White House staffers have presented their boss with upbeat findings that have yet to be vetted by task force officials, the staff secretary’s office or, in some cases, legal aides in the White House counsel’s office.

In an exchange on Thursday, Trump cited “a very nice rumor” that heat and sunlight can kill the novel coronavirus. At previous briefings, he has also hyped the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a potential promising treatment even though its effectiveness against Covid-19 remains inconclusive.

Recently, several White House aides began urging the president to make the briefings far shorter and to approach the podium only to deliver announcements or tout victories, while leaving the technical aspects to the numerous health officials who typically join him at the dais. One Trump adviser said the ideal briefing would be 30 minutes long: 10 minutes for Trump, 10 minutes for his health officials and a final 10 minutes for questions.

After several of Trump’s briefing room appearances approached two hours in length in late March, less than a third of Americans said they found the updates useful, according to a poll by Business Insider.

Some task force officials have complained privately that the length of the briefings can be draining and has often left them too tired to fulfill other media opportunities that could have supported the administration’s larger cause in taming the virus.

“The president should definitely take advantage when he has something to announce, but if it’s simply a check-in from the day before, I would hand it off to the scientific folks or the economic response team,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign and transition official.

Trump has resisted such advice for weeks, viewing the daily briefings as an ideal venue for him to connect with his supporters and perform his favorite tricks. In the absence of campaign rallies or other outlets for his message, Trump has used the briefings to needle his political opponents, smack reporters and air grievances about previous White House occupants, including former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

Even after campaign aides briefed him on a series of unsettling polls about his appearances, Trump continued making the case privately that his sky-high television ratings would help him trounce Biden in November, according to two people familiar with the president’s thinking. His logic failed to take into account the reality that not every American who tunes in to the nightly briefings will ultimately vote for Trump in the fall, especially suburban and female voters, about whom White House advisers have long worried.

“He’s going to want to get media attention and control his message,” said Sam Nunberg, who briefly served on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “He is the only one who thinks he can do his message the best, and that’s just the reality. That’s how he works.”

One solution Trump’s team has considered to remove his temptation to pop by the late afternoon news conferences is to get him out of the White House and into other settings where he can tout the administration’s response to Covid-19 and put Americans at ease amid concerns about the risks of reopening the economy without a proper vaccine.

Trump has left the executive complex only twice since early March and has been eyeing Pence’s recent trips to manufacturing facilities and a commencement ceremony with envy, according to one of the people familiar with the president’s thinking. Administration officials are currently exploring opportunities for the president to resume travel while taking public safety recommendations into account.

Such trips would likely resemble those the president made at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, when he toured the Center for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta and a vaccine research laboratory in Maryland. A second senior administration official suggested the president might visit small businesses that received loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, part of the $2 trillion stimulus package he signed into law in late March.

Those who think the president should ditch the briefing room and find other ways to connect with voters claim their top priority is to protect his image as the November election closes in and the reality of a prolonged economic catastrophe disrupts the primary argument he long planned to deliver on the campaign trail.

Moreover, they are worried that each dubious claim and about-face provides yet another soundbite waiting to appear in Democratic attack ads this fall. Last month, for instance, Trump said he was eager to get Americans back to work by Easter — an eyebrow-raising comment that Pence later claimed was “aspirational” in nature. This week, Pence said he hoped the coronavirus would be “largely in the past” by early summer, pushing the timeline back even further.

“I am worried about overexposure, yes,” said a person close to Trump. “Bickering with the media for two hours on live television does nothing to help Americans who are struggling right now and want to know how and when their lives will return to normal.”

In a Gallup poll released Thursday, before Trump’s comments about household cleaning products treating Covid-19, 68 percent of respondents said they had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in their state’s governor to handle economic matters. Only 47 percent said the same of the president, who confused some governors when he slammed Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this week for his plan to begin reopening restaurants, tattoo parlors and other businesses in the near future.

“I think it’s too soon,” Trump said on Wednesday, adding a day later that he wants Georgia to “open as soon as possible … but I was not happy with Brian Kemp. I will tell you that.”

The rising number of jobless claims — 4.4 million more Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, totaling 26.5 million during the crisis — combined with the president’s meandering appearances from the briefing room each evening, has already had a toxic impact on his position in key battleground states.

Trump, whose approval rating has slid back down to the low 40s in recent weeks, has fallen behind Biden in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, according to a handful of polls released this month. A Fox News survey on Friday also showed the president trailing his likely Democratic challenger by 3 percentage points in Florida — a state Trump campaign officials have previously claimed they have a firm grip on — though Biden’s lead was within the poll’s margin of error.

“Because of the coronavirus situation and the focus on Trump as he does his daily news conferences, these numbers reflect what we don’t want this race to be, which is a referendum on Donald Trump,” said veteran Republican pollster Neil Newhouse in response to the Fox News poll results.

Still, there is no guarantee Trump will commit to making fewer cameos alongside task force members in the coming weeks — even after he cut the briefing short on Friday. After some White House allies publicly suggested in early April that the president should do less talking during the briefings, Trump left early a couple of times and kept his remarks brief in other appearances.

But after Easter weekend, the briefings once again grew longer with Trump’s consistent involvement. It didn’t help, one administration official said, that Pence encouraged the president to continue participating — viewing the ratings bonanza his appearances elicited as a positive development.

Adam Cancryn contributed to this report.

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