Inside the campaign, advisers believe disappointing attendance at the rally shows genuine fear of the coronavirus and the reality of President Trump’s sliding poll numbers.
Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had canceled plans at the last minute to speak at an outdoor overflow rally that was almost entirely empty, despite claims of nearly one million people registering for tickets to attend the event in Tulsa, Okla., and the president’s false boast of never having an empty seat at one of his events.
The president, who had been warned aboard Air Force One that the crowds at the arena were smaller than expected, was stunned, and he yelled at aides backstage while looking at the endless rows of empty blue seats in the upper bowl of the stadium, according to four people familiar with what took place. Brad Parscale, the campaign manager who had put the event together, was not present.
Mr. Pence spoke just after 6:30 p.m. in Tulsa and then left, the cue for Mr. Trump to come on. But there was a delay. Mr. Trump’s deputy chief of staff, Dan Scavino, peeked out from behind black curtains to scan the fan-free seats in the top rows.
Mr. Trump eventually entered the arena for a meandering performance in which he excoriated the “fake news” for reporting on health concerns before his event, used racist language to describe the coronavirus as the “Kung Flu” and spent more than 15 minutes explaining away an unflattering video clip of him gingerly descending a ramp after his commencement speech at West Point.
By the end of the rally, Mr. Trump’s mood had improved, advisers said. But after he left the stage, the fight seemed to have left him, at least temporarily. Leaving the arena, he wasn’t yelling. Instead, he was mostly muted.
When he landed back at the White House and walked off Marine One, his tie hung untied around his neck. He waved to reporters, with a defeated expression on his face, holding a crumpled red campaign hat in one hand.
Exactly what went wrong was still being dissected on Sunday. But a broad group of advisers and associates acknowledged to one another that Mr. Trump had not been able to will public opinion away from fears about the spread of the coronavirus in an indoor space. And they conceded that myriad polls showing Mr. Trump’s eroded standing were not fake, and that he might be on course to lose to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic nominee, in November.
Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law who serves as the de facto campaign manager, and who was involved in the decision to choose Tulsa as the host city, was not among the group of advisers with the president at the event. But he will be among those to whom the president turns to figure out what rallies look like going forward.
In a statement, Mr. Parscale, the campaign manager who many advisers singled out for the overhyped numbers, claimed the reports about TikTok users and Korean pop music fans foiling attendance at the rally were inaccurate, and even raised the possibility of not allowing the news media to attend events in the future.
“Leftists and online trolls doing a victory lap, thinking they somehow impacted rally attendance, don’t know what they’re talking about or how our rallies work,” Mr. Parscale said. “Registering for a rally means you’ve RSVP’d with a cellphone number and we constantly weed out bogus numbers, as we did with tens of thousands at the Tulsa rally, in calculating our possible attendee pool.”
Instead, he blamed the news media for the low turnout.
“The fact is that a week’s worth of the fake news media warning people away from the rally because of Covid and protesters, coupled with recent images of American cities on fire, had a real impact on people bringing their families and children to the rally,” he said.
Campaign officials on Sunday privately admitted that many people who had signed up to attend the event were not supporters but online tricksters. One campaign adviser claimed that “troll data” was still useful, claiming it would help the campaign avoid the same pitfall in the future.
The adviser said that the data could be put into the system to “tighten up the formula used to determine projected attendance for rallies.”
In an interview, Mr. Parscale said the empty arena was not his fault, and that local law enforcement in Tulsa had overreacted, making it difficult for supporters to gain entry. He claimed to have thousands of emails from supporters who tried to get into the Bank of Oklahoma Center and were turned away, but he did not share those messages or names of supporters.
And he shrugged off the rumors about his demise, claiming he had been fired 85 weeks in a row.
But unlike most situations in which Mr. Trump’s advisers have tried to keep certain information from him — such as the fact that Mr. Biden outraised him in the month of May — or put a rosy sheen on it, the president saw for himself the empty seats in Oklahoma.
Several White House officials called the rally a disaster, and an unforced error that heightened tensions among some of the president’s government advisers and his campaign aides. What’s more, Mr. Trump’s White House advisers had repeatedly cautioned campaign aides against announcing an added appearance at an outdoor space, advice that was ignored as Mr. Parscale and campaign surrogates talked about it publicly.
The event does not portend additional large Trump rallies this summer, people familiar with the discussions said. The campaign had hoped to use the Tulsa event as a reset after the president’s slide in the polls in the wake of his administration’s failures responding to the coronavirus, and after his stoking of racial tensions amid nationwide protests over police brutality prompted by the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
For days before the rally, Mr. Trump was giddy about his first arena outing since March 2, telling one interviewer after another how big it would be based on the numbers that Mr. Parscale had cited publicly.
Mr. Parscale and others believed the event would demonstrate a real pent-up demand for Mr. Trump’s appearances — one the campaign has insisted exists. But some advisers privately questioned the data even before the event, and they feared the Tulsa rally was setting the team up for failure.
Now, some White House officials said the campaign was being dishonest about what had gone wrong, and they conceded that many of the president’s older supporters had decided attending the rally was too risky amid coronavirus fears that Mr. Trump has repeatedly played down.
Veteran campaign hands in both major political parties were highly skeptical of the Trump operation’s claims that one million people had signed up even before the rally.
Outside advisers to the president said his team was fielding calls from nervous donors and Republican lawmakers, who were asking whether the poorly attended rally indicated problems that were too big to fix with just over four months until Election Day.
It also was not clear if there would be a personnel switch because of the disastrous optics, but some officials recalled what happened in 2017, after an event in Arizona that did not go as Mr. Trump had hoped. George Gigicos, one of the original campaign hands and his rally organizer, was fired by the president.
President Trump warned the nation two weeks ago to expect the most difficult period of the coronavirus crisis that could involve hundreds of thousands of deaths.
The U.S. death toll has continued to rise since then, reaching a total of around 33,000, with record fatalities over a 24-hour period to Thursday. But stay-at-home measures and increased testing across the country have shown signs of slowing the pandemic’s rapid spread.
The economic damage from the shutdown has mounted as Americans cut retail spending by a record amount in March and industrial output dropped at its steepest rate in more than 70 years. Economists have signaled a recovery will likely be slow, and executives predict business operations won’t fully return to normal until a vaccine is deployed, estimated at least a year away.
As a result, Mr. Trump also has focused on issues other than the death toll during a crucial two weeks of his presidency: reopening the economy as quickly as is safely possible and responding to criticism of his administration’s handling of the crisis, according to advisers inside and outside the White House.
Those themes, discussed privately between the president and his advisers, have played out in public during Mr. Trump’s news conferences accompanied by members of the White House coronavirus task force. On Thursday he released guidelines on criteria the government wants states to meet before lifting economic restrictions, leaning toward health experts’ advice to proceed slowly despite pressure for a speedier return.
In recent weeks Mr. Trump has directed blame for the severity of the pandemic’s impact on factors including the media, China and what he has described as governors’ and his predecessors’ lack of preparedness.
In White House meetings with officials, advisers say, Mr. Trump has been bothered over how much blame he might get for the administration’s slow early response to the crisis, and pondered how to position himself and the administration to receive as much credit as possible in efforts to revive the economy.
He has asked White House aides for economic response plans that would allow him to take credit for successes while offering enough flexibility to assign fault for any failures to others. “People have made clear to him that’s an impossible goal, just two completely contradictory goals,” said one person in contact with the president. “But I’m not sure he’s convinced.”
Mr. Trump’s team has introduced measures to boost the economy that were also designed to insulate him from political damage as much as possible. Advisers said that was one purpose of creating a business advisory council on reopening the economy that is composed of hundreds of members from some of the biggest companies in the country. Another bipartisan task force includes every Republican in the Senate except Mitt Romney of Utah, the only senator of his party who voted to remove Mr. Trump from office during his impeachment trial earlier this year.
The president has discussed political ramifications extensively with top advisers including Jared Kushner, his senior adviser and son-in-law, among others. They have formed a consensus that criticism by Democrats, the media and others that the administration was slow to respond to the pandemic isn’t as potent if there is a strong counterargument that no one was well prepared.
Mr. Trump has used his news conferences to question China’s coronavirus data, which some epidemiologists and U.S. intelligence sources also suspect the country of under-reporting—something Chinese authorities deny. When asked about reports that unnamed administration officials believed the disease leaked from a virology lab in Wuhan, Mr. Trump—who has often criticized or dismissed news stories that quote anonymous aides—said, “now there’s a case where you can use the word ‘sources.’”
“We are doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation,” he said Tuesday.
Mr. Trump has contrasted the per capita caseloads in the U.S. with other countries’ to show “we’re doing very well.” Testing for the virus hasn’t been uniform across the U.S. or globally, which affects case totals and per capita infection rates. Confirmed infections in the U.S. are the highest in the world at more than 672,000, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
The president has halted U.S. funding to the World Health Organization, accusing it of withholding virus data to benefit China, which the agency denies. And he has repeatedly blamed his predecessors for shortages in medical stockpiles. “The cupboard was bare when I got here,” Mr. Trump said Monday, although he is nearly 39 months into his 48-month term. Earlier this month, he blamed the Obama administration for a Department of Health and Human Services inspector general report that found hospitals’ top complaint during the crisis has been a severe shortage of testing supplies.
Mr. Trump, who throughout his presidency has made a habit of calling up old associates and friends in the private sector to solicit their advice, has ramped up those calls in recent weeks. One adviser described him as a “shopper of advice” who seeks one opinion and bounces it off somebody else.
In recent calls, Mr. Trump has effusively praised Deborah Birx, the administration’s coronavirus coordinator, according to some people he has contacted.
Some other officials have criticized Dr. Birx over her projections for U.S. casualties, which showed the potential for 100,000 to 240,000 deaths even with social-distancing measures. In one private meeting, Dr. Birx directed officials to one model that showed the potential for 50,000 to 75,000 deaths, prompting some officials to question why that estimate wasn’t included in the public numbers. A spokesman for Dr. Birx later described that forecast as an outlier that was properly excluded.
A senior administration official said the higher estimate Dr. Birx ultimately provided publicly was helpful in convincing Americans to follow stricter guidelines and gave the administration some messaging flexibility.
Mr. Trump has also said he values the counsel of Anthony Fauci, the administration’s top infectious disease expert—though he said Dr. Fauci doesn’t understand how to give interviews properly. Dr. Fauci has acknowledged missteps by the administration, making him the rare official to do so and keep his job.
The president has called on the two health experts repeatedly at daily briefings to explain public-health guidelines and other initiatives to combat the pandemic. And he has relied on their private advice. Their preeminent positions in the hierarchy of presidential advisers reflect the sharp turn the administration has had to make.
Mr. Trump’s inner circle no longer views the economy as the top issue in his re-election campaign. That has been supplanted by his handling of the crisis and getting the country back to work, according to senior administration officials. Still, the president has privately voiced frustration about the rapid deflating of the economic boom—a theme he also has fretted about publicly during the past two weeks.
Democrats, Mr. Trump said April 6, “shouldn’t be allowed to win” November’s presidential race just because the contagion has routed the historic 10-year economic expansion and replaced it with an unprecedented surge in unemployment claims. More than 22 million Americans applied for jobless benefits in the past month. The previous record was 2.7 million, set in 1982.
Before the late-afternoon White House briefings, Mr. Trump spends about 30 minutes discussing the news of the day with Vice President Mike Pence, Mr. Kushner and members of his press team. Drs. Birx and Fauci are usually in the room.
Mr. Trump receives a copy of his statement, crafted by Mr. Kushner’s team with input from Stephen Miller, a senior policy adviser, and Marc Short, Mr. Pence’s chief of staff, according to advisers. The president doesn’t rehearse his comments.
Aides say that with social-distancing guidelines prohibiting Mr. Trump from holding campaign rallies in arenas around the country, he has increasingly relied on his extended news conferences to release pent-up energy.
Over last weekend, advisers said, Mr. Trump was anxious that state governors, many of whom have been coordinating plans on lifting stay-at-home orders, would steal some of his media spotlight when it came to reopening the country.
“You can’t dismiss the impact these kinds of things have on him,” said one adviser. “He has enormous emotional reactions, and his view is he has to come out and fight every day, not to persuade the media or convince Democrats, but to talk directly to conservative media.”When Mr. Trump took the lectern Monday, it was the first time in 30 days he had gone two consecutive days without a news conference. In the 2½ hour briefing, he asserted “everything we did was right” and played a video that cast blame on the media for allegedly minimizing the risk of the virus. Mr. Trump also claimed his “authority is total” over governors and said the federal government would determine when to lift economic curbs.
That prompted calls from some conservative lawmakers urging him to retreat from that stance, according to people familiar with the matter, given that state and local governments have the most direct say. Mr. Trump subsequently said it was the governors’ responsibility to decide when to open their states, but the federal government issued a three-phase plan Thursday of criteria they should meet.
Mr. Trump called an adviser to ask if he had watched the performance. “He knew he had screwed up. He wasn’t admitting it,” the adviser said. A White House spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.
After his news conferences, Mr. Trump often retires to the dining room off the Oval Office. If he has left the briefing early, he doesn’t usually watch the end but checks for updates into the evening from Mark Meadows, his chief of staff, and Mr. Kushner.
Some advisers have urged the president to curtail his appearances at the briefings, saying he should spend 15 to 20 minutes at the lectern and leave the rest to other officials.
“You worry too much,” Mr. Trump told one adviser earlier this month.
President Trump knows the country will not reopen on May 1 or anytime like it. But instead of apologizing to the public for raising their hopes about packing church pews on Easter Sunday, he now laments on TV about the hard decision he has to make, the hardest in his life, and how he is evaluating the pros and cons, and praying to God for assistance and guidance.
To me, this is nothing new. I have watched him milk his “decisions” to see what he could get for himself by procrastinating. He would make both sides think he was on their side. He might even tell each of the parties being affected that he would come down in their favor, but they had to wait, he had to do this right.
Meanwhile, Trump would get favors and concessions from parties awaiting his decision. Then, in the end, when he absolutely had to, he would ceremoniously and very gravely say what he decided to do. It was always what he had already decided.
But Trump’s procrastination was not always so calculated.
I racked my brain trying to think of truly difficult decisions Trump has had to make and, believe it or not, I could not think of many. I remember having to decide whether or not to throw an electrical contractor off Trump Tower, costing millions. The alternative was to let this contractor stop us in our tracks by not properly manning the job.
We consulted the professionals but, in the end, the path had to be determined by Trump. Trump didn’t decide; I did, in response to him saying, “what do you want me to do?”
This made sense to me because the real decision was being made by Trump and it was the right one — to leave it up to me. I gave him cover.
But that was just money. Another time, we had a bomb threat. Someone called the main office and said there was a bomb in the Atrium at Trump Tower.
Trump got me and I called the police. I got ahold of some of the building people, too. The police asked a lot of questions then we took them through the Atrium, where they conducted a thorough search.
From their demeanor, it was clear they were not concerned. They said they were not recommending evacuation and that it was most likely a hoax, but that the decision to evacuate was up to Trump.
I reported everything back to Donald. We talked about evacuating and the risks in that and the strong police suspicion that it was a fake. I knew all along Trump was not going to empty the building.
I asked again and instead of giving me an answer, he said, “you decide.”
How dare he put me in this position? I didn’t want that responsibility. I told him what he wanted to hear: Keep it open. If I had thought for one second that there was any risk to life, I would have insisted on evacuating.
For many years, I grappled with the question of whether he would have emptied the building if that’s what I had recommended. Did he really abdicate his responsibility and put the lives of the people in the building in my hands? No, It was his decision. I was a scapegoat. I played that role many times.
This time, it’s not about whether to keep a property open when lives might be at risk. It’s about whether to reopen a nation, and how many people could be killed in the process. He has his experts. He will hide behind them and at the same time contradict himself by saying he made the decision on his own.
And he will find a scapegoat. Trump will always get to have it both ways as long as the American public is willing to withstand his trickery and his lies.
Res is former executive vice president of the Trump Organization.
Public health experts have savaged President Donald Trump’s decision to cut U.S. funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), which he says failed in its “basic duty” during the coronavirus pandemic by promoting “disinformation” from China.
“Today I’m instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organization while a review is conducted to assess [its] role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,” Trump said at an April 14 briefing.
The move represents another stunning turnaround for Trump, who in late February praised the WHO for “working hard and very smart,” before souring on the world body in recent days as the U.S. death toll soared. Still, it remains in line with his longstanding distrust of multilateral institutions more generally.
Critics have accused the President of attempting to shift blame away from his own torpid response to the pandemic. The WHO declared a public health emergency on Jan. 30, after which Trump continued to speak at rallies and belittle COVID-19 as “the flu.”
Trump’s funding announcement has already drawn condemnation from all quarters. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said in a statement that this is “not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the [WHO] or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus.”
Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, wrote that Trump’s decision was “a crime against humanity. Every scientist, every health worker, every citizen must resist and rebel against this appalling betrayal of global solidarity.”
Critics agree the WHO’s response suffered missteps at the outset of the coronavirus outbreak. There was a
- focus on government information rather than non-official sources, such as whistleblowers like Dr. Li Wenliang.
- Officials could have investigated how many healthcare workers had become infected, which was
- clear evidence of human-to-human transmission before official confirmation came Jan. 23.
- It advised nations not to close borders.
“The WHO could have been more diligent in determining the nature of the outbreak and how serious the problem was,” says Dr. Yanzhong Huang, a global health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Trump’s scapegoating of the WHO comes after he spent two months ignoring warnings about a disease that has now killed more than 26,000 people in the U.S., the highest national death toll. In late January, influential White House economic advisor Peter Navarro wrote a memo to Trump that warned COVID-19 had the potential to claim hundreds of thousands of American lives and derail the national economy unless immediate and sweeping containment efforts were implemented.
Trump’s sluggish response stands out against the examples of other nations. South Korea, for one, confirmed its first case of COVID-19 just one day before the U.S. Yet a robust public health response that tested three times as many citizens per capita has kept reported cases under 11,000 compared to more than 600,000 in the U.S., which also has a triple the fatality rate.
“President Trump is trying to rewrite history to divert criticism from his own administration’s failures,” Adam Kamradt-Scott, associate professor specializing in global health security at the University of Sydney, tells TIME. “Lives will be lost as a result.”
Yet most public health professionals agree that the WHO is desperately in need of reform. It has been for a very long time. Despite a sprawling global mandate, the U.N. agency, which was founded in 1949, has an annual budget of just $2.2 billion—smaller than the largest American hospitals and a fraction of the $11.9 billion allocated to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
The U.S. is the largest single donor to the WHO, contributing over $400 million in 2019 including both assessed (mandatory) contributions and voluntary top-up donations from government and private sources (Though, in fact, the U.S. is currently $200 million in arrears.)
The WHO’s shoestring budget is largely because assessed contributions were frozen in the early 1980s amid the Reagan Administration’s outrage that U.N. bodies—particularly UNESCO—appeared to be tilting toward Moscow as more Kremlin-aligned third-world states joined up. As a result, assessed contributions have not risen in real terms since then and continue to be based on a combination of GDP and population. The U.S. today still provides around twice the assessed contributions of second place China.
But assessed contributions only account for $246.8 million in 2020, meaning over 80% of the WHO’s total budget comes from voluntary contributions. The U.S. comes top again while China’s voluntary contributions are negligible. But the greater problem with voluntary funds is that they are ringfenced for specific purposes and so cannot be diverted to address sudden crises, such as Ebola or COVID-19.
Ultimately, the WHO has little freedom to decide for itself where to spend its meagre resources; those decisions are made by the donors, whether government or charitable entities like the Gates Foundation. This is why 27% of the WHO’s total budget is spent towards polio eradication despite just dozens of cases annually. “The funding structure is unpredictable and allows donors to dictate the agenda,” says Huang.
This lack of resources contributes to various missteps. In 2009, the WHO was criticized for declaring a pandemic for H1N1 flu too early and for a virus that wasn’t sufficiently virulent. During the 2014 West Africa Ebola Outbreak, it was condemned for delaying the declaration of a public health emergency.
The irony of Trump’s funding cut is that, by its own questionable record, the WHO’s COVID-19 response was “fairly good,” says Kamradt-Scott.
In turns of accountability, the WHO does now livestream its World Health Assembly meetings every year to boost transparency. But the lack of criticism—and fulsome praise—of China’s COVID-19 response despite obvious problems with the reported numbers of infected and dead has galvanized suspicions of politicization. WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised China’s “extraordinary” efforts against COVID-19 that were “setting a new standard for outbreak response.”
There is unquestionably an effort to avoid an adversarial culture within the WHO’s 194 member states. It has consistently sought to try and cajole and co-opt countries into doing the right thing as opposed to publicly naming and shaming.
The notable exception was in 2003-04, when various WHO officials criticized China for downplaying the SARS outbreak. “It would have been much better if the Chinese government had been more open in the early stages,” said WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland said at the time.
In the review that followed that crisis it was decided that the WHO should in future take a less confrontational approach when dealing with member states. The U.S. was party to that conversation and has, arguably, been a key beneficiary over the years. The periodic rolling back of family planning provisions in the U.S. during conservative administrations has escaped censure from the WHO despite a documented deleterious impact on the health and wellbeing of women and children. The same could be said about the lack of comprehensive universal healthcare like that enjoyed in so many other developed nations.
Ultimately, of course, it’s not strictly up to Trump whether to keep funding the WHO. The White House is not technically allowed to block funding of international institutions mandated by Congress, though the administration has found creative ways around constitutional hurdles through the application of sanctions or diverting funds by other means.
Still, the very threat of slashing funding has the potential to turn Trump’s specious claims about a “China-centric” WHO into a reality. Beijing has steadily been increasing its influence and putting nationals into key posts in nearly all multinational institutions—from the U.N. and Interpol, to the IMF. As Trump orients the U.S. away from the world stage, a presumptive superpower like China stands poised to fill the gap. Says Kamradt-Scott: “It would seem that Trump has just given China an opportunity on a silver platter.”