On Tuesday night, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro—whom Donald Trump affectionately calls “my Peter”—decided to dump gasoline on a smoldering fire when he sent USA Today a statement that it published as an op-ed in which he slammed Dr. Anthony Fauci for standing in the way of “the president’s courageous decision” making on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having just downplayed the significance of anti-Fauci talking points that they themselves had sent to media outlets, members of the White House press office were left, once again, to repair the residual damage, insisting that the USA Today opinion piece didn’t go through the “normal White House clearance processes.”
But the fact that Navarro didn’t get official clearance for his statement was largely an irrelevant point. After all, he didn’t need it. According to three individuals familiar with the matter, in the past few months Trump has privately encouraged multiple senior officials and allies, including Navarro, to remind journalists and the American public of how Fauci has been “so wrong”—in the president’s phrasing—in some of his predictions about the coronavirus pandemic.
Navarro hadn’t “gone rogue,” as one White House official put it. He’d performed the precise task that many in Trump’s orbit have been given in recent days. He pleased the boss.
As Trump’s re-election campaign has struggled to tear down former Vice President Joe Biden with less than four months until Election Day, the president’s staff has devoted considerable resources to finding novel ways to make him feel better about the crumbling world around him.
They tell him tales of his sagging poll numbers being fake. They’ve concocted ways of convincing him that the adoring crowds he loves on the campaign trail are still there and ready. They’ve pledged that the social, racial, and economic crises ravaging the nation are ephemeral. And they’ve carried his water as he seeks to reassert his authority over situations falling beyond his control.
Among Trump’s modern-day court jesters are administration brass and prominent White House allies. Navarro may be the most pugnacious of the bunch. But he’s hardly the only one going out of his way to trash Fauci, a coronavirus task force member and leading infectious-disease expert.
Stephen Moore, a conservative economist who informally advises Trump, told The Daily Beast earlier this week that he’s already in the midst of co-authoring a new memo for the president, titled “Dr. Wrong,” that will demonstrate “how many times Dr. Fauci’s been wrong during not just corona, but during his entire career.”
Several of the most prominent anti-Fauci claims made by the president’s allies overstate elements of Fauci’s record, which stands up well to that of many other top Trump administration officials, including the president himself. And, perhaps for that reason, in various opinion polls, Fauci has fared markedly better in gaining the public’s trust than the president has during this global pandemic, which has a U.S. death toll north of 130,000.
On Wednesday afternoon, The Atlantic published a new interview with Fauci, in which he called White House efforts to take him down a peg “bizarre.”
“When the staff lets out something like that and the entire scientific and press community push back on it, it ultimately hurts” Trump, he added.
Beyond trying to publicly humiliate Fauci, the president’s lieutenants have sought to lift his spirits in numerous other ways during this dark and deadly chapter for the country. One of them is to simply highlight for the president—as much as they possibly can—the images and footage of Trump-loving citizens the president has affectionately dubbed his “beautiful ‘boaters’” during the pandemic.
According to two people who’ve been in the room when Trump has fixated on the issue, the president has repeatedly stressed that “boaters”—MAGA fans who join in on pro-Trump flotillas, with ships adorned with Trump and Mike Pence banners and gear—are a shining exemplar of the enthusiasm gap he enjoys over Biden. He has delighted in advisers showing him boater photos and videos that have bubbled up on social media. And during strategy sessions in the past two months, he’s told officials to keep bringing him more and to push out the content on their own accounts, as well.
“I think we have really good poll numbers,” Trump declared at a press conference Tuesday when asked about his position in the election. “They’re not suppression polls; they’re real polls. You look at the Intracoastal in Florida. You look at the lakes. You see thousands of boats with Trump signs.”
At one point last month, the president privately asked in a meeting if his people could organize more boater events and even inquired, “Are we polling the boaters yet?” as one of the sources recounted. Another source familiar with this inquiry insisted that Trump was merely “joking.”
John McLaughlin, a top Trump pollster whom the president values in part for providing internal data that give Trump significantly better odds than most of the public polling does, told The Daily Beast that though “there’s not enough boaters” to buoy the president to a November victory, “we also do well with bikers, NASCAR fans, NFL, college and high school tailgaters, golfers, aviators, RV people, campers, [and] homeowners,” for instance.
It is not common—and, indeed, may be strategically unsound—for a president’s political apparatus to be fixated on a sliver of the U.S. population its own pollster says is statistically and demographically insignificant. But such are the machinations of the Trump campaign, where manpower, time, and money are directed toward the goal of ameliorating the boss’ wounded emotions in the face of increasingly stiff electoral competition.
“There are probably things that the campaign and the White House do to mollify Trump, and if those things result in a net benefit for the president and his campaign, then they are worth doing,” a former White House official tersely noted.
The Daily Beast interviewed 14 sources, including Trump administration officials, senior campaign aides, GOP operatives close to the White House, and longtime associates of the president, for this story. Reached for comment on Wednesday, Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager said in a statement, “President Trump and his Administration are too busy working to deliver wins for the American people on everything from trade deals to tax cuts to national security to lend credence to this fan fiction from the left.”
In recent weeks, Trump’s political advisers have also been sure to present to him not only his campaign’s internal poll numbers but also have slipped in print-outs of public polling that’s deemed favorable to the president, even if the public poll is not quite reputable, according to an individual with direct knowledge of this practice.
“The point is to show the president that it’s not just our data but to say, ‘Look, the ‘real’ [public] polls have good numbers for you, too,’” this source said, adding that this has included showing Trump polls done by Zogby, once derided by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver as the “worst pollster in the world” for the shoddiness of its online polling.
And this past weekend, when the president made headlines for wearing a mask in front of news cameras following his lengthy stretch of petty refusal, several of his senior aides and allies took to Twitter to lavish praise on Trump for how good he looked and to claim that this was somehow a small victory over Barack Obama’s VP.
“Joe Biden is finished,” Jason Miller, a top official on Trump’s campaign, tweeted on Saturday, attaching a flattering photo of the president donning a mask and a blue necktie. Fifteen minutes later, Trump’s then-campaign manager, Brad Parscale, followed up with a similar post.
This burst of flattery immediately led to speculation that aides were trying to convince the president to abandon his aversion to publicly wearing a mask during the coronavirus pandemic and thus finally, finally set a better example for the American people. On Tuesday, The Daily Beast asked one senior Trump aide who’d tweeted about the president and his mask if this was their own reason for doing so, to which the aide simply replied: “Of course.”
In their official efforts to soothe the president’s feelings, Trump’s campaign has also resorted to wasting a ton of money. In June, The Daily Beast reported that Team Trump had dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars on cable-news ads in the Washington, D.C., area, purchasing time largely on the president’s preferred network, Fox News. The ad buys had no real chance of making a positive electoral difference, given that they were reaching solidly Democratic turf in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. But knowledgeable sources said at the time that the real purpose was to get the pro-Trump ads in front of the president, a voracious TV watcher, to set him at ease that his campaign was defending him strongly on television.
But perhaps the biggest example of Trump advisers attempting to make their boss happier has been the efforts to find ways to get him back on the trail. They have not worked. The president’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last month saw a dramatically reduced turnout and an embarrassed and incensed Trump. And with the sudden postponement of last weekend’s rally in New Hampshire, the future of the president’s in-person campaigning—not to mention the nature of his upcoming re-nominating convention in Florida this summer—has been thrown into even greater uncertainty.
One of the primary reasons aides wanted to get Trump back on the trail was they kept noticing his deteriorating mood as he remained mostly confined to the White House, as the nation entered months of coronavirus lockdowns and isolation. During a Tuesday morning press call organized by Trump 2020, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA) claimed that these coronavirus-era Trump rallies, despite the public-health fears, are “good for everybody.”
Unable to get him out of D.C., Trump’s staffers have, instead, tried to assuage his stir-craziness and gloom by other means, including telling the president how many people are viewing him while he’s in the nation’s capital.
To this day, the president will tell his people to brief him on the TV ratings for a recent event or rally he just held, or an “exclusive” interview for which he just sat, according to a current senior administration official and a former official. These sources described how much pleasure this president has derived, including throughout the major crises of the past six months, from being shown or told about his large television audiences for specific events. It’s an old habit of Trump’s that has yet to die, having been a personal hallmark of his 2016 presidential run and the years leading up to it.
“In 2013, he had me ask Jon Karl how the ratings were for an ABC interview he did with him, asking if he ‘won the hour,’” recalled Sam Nunberg, a former political adviser to Trump. “Other times when he would do, for instance, Fox News shows, he would always ask [executive assistant] Rhona Graff to ask the Fox host or staff if they could send him the exact ratings data of his interview or hit that he had just done. Sometimes he’d just ask them himself. Often, they wouldn’t send him the actual numbers but just transmit back something like, ‘They were fantastic, you won.’ He kept very close track of his ratings and always wanted the numbers so he could tweet them.”
—With additional reporting by Sam Stein