Over the past week, Democrats and public health experts have excoriated the Trump administration for its response to the novel coronavirus. Outside pundits have wondered whether the handling of the ballooning threat could damage the president’s chance for re-election.
Donald Trump himself appears to have a somewhat unique point of view on the matter. During one of the many White House meetings devoted to the coronavirus in the last week, the president joked that his critics would be “so surprised.” The coronavirus outbreak could actually “help, not hurt” Trump in 2020 because of how “terrific” his team’s handling of the public health crisis has been. The president went on to again congratulate and thank officials present for all the work they’ve done, according to two sources with knowledge of the private remarks.
It’s a view that is widely shared—or at least a political attack line largely disseminated—within Trumpworld, as the president’s management of the ongoing crisis has come under intense scrutiny. “While President Trump proactively combats coronavirus, Democrats campaign to curb Americans’ health care access” with their “Bernie Sanders-inspired, socialist health care agenda,” read a mass email sent by the Trump campaign on Monday.
In the past week, President Trump and officials coordinating with the coronavirus task force have quietly strategized how to best strike back against Democratic criticism that the administration has not done enough to respond to the public-health threat, according to The Daily Beast’s two sources, plus a third with direct knowledge of the deliberations.
Discussions have focused on how growing dissatisfaction among Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill and others in Washington, D.C.—specifically that the administration was underfunding and mismanaging the response—could potentially hurt, or even counterintuitively benefit, Trump’s 2020 re-election prospects.
The White House did not provide comment on this story.
The efforts to find electoral benefit from the response to the novel coronavirus stem from a fear inside the White House that Democrats would criticize the administration’s handling of the public health threat. If the Democrats were attacking the administration, the officials’ thinking went, then the president was going hit back even more aggressively.
And so he has. In the last month, as the coronavirus has spread, the president has repeatedly taken to the rally stages, lambasting his perceived nemeses, and alleging that Democrats were hyping the threat and unfairly criticizing the work of the coronavirus task force he had assembled. On Fox News on Wednesday night, Trump claimed that the World Health Organization had also drastically overstated the threat, inventing his own low mortality rate for the virus.
Trump allies and top officials have followed the president’s cue, delivering remarks at last week’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference to echo the talking points on the Democrats’ coronavirus “hoax.”
“Washington Democrats are trying to politicize the coronavirus, denigrating the noble work of our public health professionals, but honestly not so much anymore,” Trump said during a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Monday evening. “The political attacks from some of the Democrats really must stop. We’ve really got to work together on this one to safeguard our people.”
Late last week, the White House blasted out an official talking-points memo to its media allies and surrogates on how “while the President is leading aggressive response and preparation efforts, many in the media remain focused on attacking him at every turn.” The email, a copy of which was reviewed by The Daily Beast, also read: “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.”
Publicly, President Trump has already made this messaging a cornerstone of his public remarks and his 2020 campaigning, using the coronavirus to slam Democrats’ immigration policies and insisting that “Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus” and claiming that he isn’t, somehow.
At the same time, the White House has moved to make major changes in its coronavirus task force, particularly as it pertained to messaging. Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to take the lead on streamlining the dissemination of information to the public and installed several other individuals to coordinate response, including global U.S. AIDS coordinator Debbie Brix.
But the reshuffling of personnel and process sparked tensions inside the task force. Initially, it was unclear who was actually heading the task force, sources told The Daily Beast. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told a group of reporters after one press conference last week that there was confusion about the vice president’s appointment and that he, in fact, was still the leader. Meanwhile, reporters trying to cover the outbreak tried to place media requests with multiple different task force members. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told The Daily Beast that it would take the agency “days” to respond, in part because all questions were being funneled through the vice president’s office. On Feb. 28, the office appointed a communications official to deal directly with those media inquiries.
Two officials who spoke to The Daily Beast about the changes said although the communications process has smoothed out, there are ongoing rifts between the scientists involved in the task force and the vice president’s office over how and when to release information to the public. One official said the team has tried to balance keeping Americans updated on the latest case numbers, deaths and preparation guidance while at the same time not frightening people. But others on the task force—those in charge of gaming out every scenario if the virus continues to spread and cause more deaths—have argued that the task force should push out information on all the different kinds of situations the public could find themselves in order to help them prepare.
The CDC this week stopped updating the total number of people tested for coronavirus. It’s unclear exactly how the agency decided to remove the data or if it will return in the future. But the agency has suggested the move was made because testing was increasingly being carried out at the state and local level. An official familiar with the task force’s conversations said the CDC was increasingly testing individuals across the U.S. and that it could not update the numbers unless state and local officials submitted their data in a timely manner.
—with additional reporting by Lachlan Markay