NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland—Facing growing concern over the spread of coronavirus globally, President Donald Trump and his Republican allies have ginned up a communications strategy that leans heavily on blaming Democrats and the media for hyping those fears.
According to three sources who have independently discussed the crisis with him in the last three weeks, Trump has appeared preoccupied with his theory that liberals and the press were attempting to use coronavirus to make him “look bad” prior to the November election.
“He made a joke about how he could invent a cure for the coronavirus tomorrow, and [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi would still find ways to criticize him for it,” said one individual who spoke to Trump in the past week on the matter.
Trump has hardly kept those beliefs private, even as he has attempted to portray himself as soberly on top of the emergency response to the outbreak. On Thursday, he took to Twitter to chastise “Do Nothing Democrats” for insisting that the coronavirus was “the fault of ‘Trump.’”
On Friday evening, near the start of the president’s speech at a South Carolina rally, he revved up the crowd by trashing news organizations and Democratic figures for being critical of his coronavirus response. He presided over a chorus of lusty boos for the “horrible” liberals and rowdy cheers for the “great” things Trump has done.
“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus—they’re politicizing it,” Trump said on stage. “How’s President Trump doing? ‘Not good, not good,’ [they’ll say].”
He also accused CNN and others in the media of going into full-blown “hysteria mode” to try to hurt him politically. And he brazenly went after Democratic lawmakers for their immigration stances, suggesting that their more open policies would lead to more “infection” being imported into the United States. “Border security is also health security,” he said.
Throughout Trumpworld and the administration, those talking points have been pushed as a primary message point for surrogates to emphasize. According to a person familiar with the strategy, the White House has encouraged members of the president’s coronavirus task force to denounce Democrats for attempting to politicize the crisis during media appearances this week.
“Unfortunately what we are seeing is a political effort by the Left and some in the media to distract and disturb the American people with fearful rhetoric and palace intrigue,” White House spokesman Judd Deere told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “The United States economy is the strongest in the world thanks to the leadership and policies of President Trump. The virus remains low risk domestically because of the containment actions taken by this administration since the first of the year.”
On Thursday, the Republican National Committee blasted out a message to surrogates and allies promoting a Fox clip of GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel declaring that Democrats are “politicizing this,” and accused them of wanting “porous borders.” Meanwhile, she said, Trump is “taking this by the horns like he always does. He’s going to make sure the American people are safe.”
That same day, the Trump White House sent out a talking-points memo to its own media surrogates about how “while the President is leading aggressive response and preparation efforts, many in the media remain focused on attacking him at every turn.”
“Blinded by their bias and ignorant to the irony, the [New York] Times is accusing the President of having a ‘credibility’ problem on this issue—while publishing politically-motivated disinformation blaming the President for a virus,” the email, a copy of which was reviewed by The Daily Beast, stated.
By Friday, Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s White House chief of staff, was telling the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that the president’s enemies in the press “think this [virus panic] will bring down the president, that’s what this is all about.” The same day, Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son and one of the country’s most prominent MAGA evangelists, went so far as to allege that Democrats appeared to want the virus to kill “millions of people,” if only so they could have a shot at gleefully halting his father’s “streak of winning.”
Trump and his allies almost always prefer to go on the offensive when facing scrutiny over their performance. And that appears to be no different when the challenge they are confronting is in the form of a potential global pandemic. Though past administrations leaned on medical professionals to do much of the public-facing communications around outbreaks, the Trump White House has sought to streamline operations under the politicos.
According to one national security official, the White House had decided this week to run all communications through Vice President Mike Pence’s office because it became clear that the members of the task force were beginning to sound as if they were not on the same page. That process has been streamlined now, with a particular focus on scheduling media appearances for members of the team in between briefings that include all members of the force.
The increased message discipline appears to be having the desired effect. On Friday, growing concerns about both coronavirus and its political impact hung over the conservative activists gathered at CPAC, held just outside Washington, D.C.
Conservative playwright Phelim McAleer, who met with Trump for 45 minutes on Thursday at the White House, complained from CPAC’s main stage that he had seen a tweet offering to pay someone with coronavirus to come to CPAC and infect attendees. Several people at the network-heavy conference were offering elbow bumps instead of handshakes, including Sinclair host Eric Bolling.
“Let me give you some arm here, no coronas,” Bolling said, proffering his elbow.
While Bolling took issue with a New York Times column that had become a hot topic at CPAC on Thursday—which proposed dubbing the coronavirus “Trumpvirus”—other attendees echoed Trump Jr.’s sentiments that Democrats are hoping for coronavirus to spread. Fringe right-wing internet personality Ann Vandersteel told The Daily Beast that Democrats are looking to create “fear porn” around the coronavirus.
“They want to see this market tank, because they want to see this negatively impact the president,” Vandersteel said.
And “Grizzly Joe,” a pro-Trump Twitter personality with a ZZ Top beard, an American flag shirt, and wraparound sunglasses who opened CPAC’s Thursday session with the Pledge of Allegiance, speculated that Democrats are rooting for coronavirus to spread to hurt Trump’s re-election chances.
“I’m sure a number of them do, and you know, it’s unfortunate,” he said.