‘We don’t want to be tone-deaf’: Trump allies test coronavirus messaging

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,” said the second campaign official.

“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 impacting 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 live-streaming campaign speeches from a personal 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.” (It was not immediately clear which poll Spicer was referencing. A Gallup survey released this week showed his approval rating at 49 percent, up five points from earlier this month, and the president has received mostly positive ratings for his handling of the coronavirus.)

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 plainly. “Can you imagine if he reopens our economy and then suddenly disappears from the briefing room because things don’t go as planned?”