President has sought to deflect political blame in shift toward addressing economic fallout from pandemic
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.
‘It’s Kind of Like an Addiction’: On the Road With Trump’s Rally Diehards
A small band of the president’s most devoted fans will do whatever it takes to attend his campaign rallies
Libby DePiero once drove her Ford Focus so far to attend a Trump campaign rally—about 1,000 miles from her home in Connecticut to Indiana—that when she lay in bed that night she thought the twitching in her driving leg was coming from an animal under the mattress.
The 64-year-old retiree, who prefers sparkly nail polish, leopard prints and selfies with Trump campaign officials, is almost always one of the first few people in line at the president’s campaign events, part of the self-described group of “Front Row Joes” who routinely travel to see the president perform. Several, like Ms. DePiero, have attended more than 50 Trump rallies.
She keeps going because she trusts only the president to deliver her the news. “How else would I know what’s going on?” she said.
Mr. Trump has hosted more than 550 ticketed campaign events since 2015, at least 70% of which include his trademark rallies, according to Republican officials. These rallies form the core of one of the most steadfast political movements in modern American political history, a dynamic that has reordered the Republican Party.PHOTOS: LUKE SHARRETT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Mr. Trump’s perpetual tour attracts a coterie of political pilgrims who travel across the country and encamp outside arenas for days at a time for the chance to stand in the front row and, for 90 minutes, cheer the man they say has changed the U.S. and, in many cases, their own lives. Somewhere between 5% to 10% of attendees have been to multiple events, the officials said.
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“You go to the rallies, and he basically tells you that you don’t have to put up with ‘the swamp’ and those kinds of people,” said Saundra Kiczenski, a 40-year-old Walmart worker from Michigan who has been to 29 rallies. “Because of him I decided not to pay for Obamacare, not pay the fine. And what happened? Nothing. Before, the quiet me would have paid the fine. But Donald Trump told me that we have a voice, and now I stand up for myself.”
Several of those with jobs live paycheck to paycheck, but constantly offer strangers a cold beverage, sandwiches or their last cigarette.
Some rely on disability payments, like Cynthia Barten, or cut lawns in Missouri, like her husband, Ken Barten. Others sell secondhand items in Kentucky like Jon French, or find odd jobs such as clearing rocks from farmland in Minnesota, like Randal Thom. Kevin Steele quit his job and plans to finance his travels to Trump rallies with the remaining $120,000 from an inheritance.
The group includes Trump aficionados, who have spent decades keeping tabs on his history of political flirtations, tabloid melodrama and star turns on reality television. A surprising number voted for Barack Obama at least once, caught up in the Democrat’s charisma and fed up with Republicans over foreign adventurism and growing national debt.
Libby DePiero, a retiree from Connecticut, has attended more than 50 Trump rallies.Rally regulars stay connected through Facebook and text messages, pinging one another to see who is attending the next rally, who can carpool and who wants to split a hotel room.
Ms. DePiero broke up a 700-mile drive to the Cincinnati rally on Aug. 1 by spending the night with Becky Gee, a northeast Ohio dairy farmer she met at a previous Trump rally. She stayed with Barbara Bienkowski in Maryland (they met at Trump Hotel in Washington earlier this year), on her way to the Greenville, N.C., rally on July 17 and stayed in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with Dale Ranney, another Front Row Joe, on the way home.
Two regular rallygoers have already married, and divorced.
“Once you start going, it’s kind of like an addiction, honestly,” said April Owens, a 49-year-old financial manager in Kingsport, Tenn., who has been to 11 rallies. “I love the energy. I wouldn’t stand in line for 26 hours to see any rock band. He’s the only person I would do this for, and I’ll be here as many times as I can.”
For many Front Row Joes, the Trump era marks their political awakening. Among the first Americans to identify the resonance and endurance of Mr. Trump’s political appeal, they are reveling in the victory. Like Mr. Trump on stage, each recounts the Election Night triumph without any prompting.
In Orlando, Fla., Trump fans sat in a field adjacent to Amway Center in June, about to get soaked by the second downpour in as many days. Still, they wore sunglasses and smiles as outdoor speakers pumped out “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Hurts So Good.” Head shakes and patronizing laughs greeted questions about which Democrat might beat Mr. Trump.
Michael Telesca, a middle-school teacher at the front of the line in Greenville, compared the experience to following Bruce Springsteen.
“You come to the show, and you know exactly what you’re going to get—all of the hits and maybe a few surprises, too,” said Mr. Telesca, whose bushy brown hair is graying at the temples.
The surprise in Greenville wasn’t from Mr. Trump, but the crowd as it debuted a “send her back” chant. The chant erupted as Mr. Trump was criticizing Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.). Three days earlier, Mr. Trump had tweeted that Ms. Omar and three other liberal congresswomen, all women of color, should “go back” to unspecified countries. The four women are American citizens and three of them were born in the U.S.
Before the rally, more than a dozen supporters said they would never use that racist language to denounce minorities. Inside Williams Arena, many participated in the chant that mirrored it. “It was like a tornado when ‘send her back’ started. I was looking around and people were loving it,” Ms. DePiero said.
The regulars who arrived early at rallies—often before campaign officials or local law enforcement—hurried to set up tents and organize their belongings. The Bartens, who drove their Dodge minivan seven hours from St. Louis to be first in line in Cincinnati, unfolded a table and set down a deep-cycle military battery, a camp stove for turkey melts, a string of LED festoon lights and a half-empty pack of Edgefield cigarettes.
They mingled until doors opened, then rushed to the front row on the arena floor. But not necessarily center-stage.
Some, like, Shane Doyle, prefer the side where Mr. Trump first appears from behind the curtains. “Back in the primary, I used to like being the first one when he came out, because he would sign all my stuff,” said Mr. Doyle, a 24-year-old machinist from Buffalo, N.Y.
Just before midnight on the eve of the Cincinnati rally, about two dozen fans lounged in lawn chairs or leaned on metal bike racks, scrolling through their phones and sipping from cans of Coors Light. A soft brown blanket covered Ms. Barten and her 12-year-old granddaughter, who slept sitting up in her camp chair.
The 57-year-old Air Force veteran’s disability check is reduced by $5 every month by an automatic donation to the Trump campaign.