The Memo: Trump agenda rolls on amid pandemic

President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pitches Goya Foods products on Twitter Sessions defends recusal: 'I leave elected office with my integrity intact' Former White House physician Ronny Jackson wins Texas runoff MORE is pushing on with his agenda even as the coronavirus crisis dominates the political scene. 

To critics, he is using the distraction of the COVID-19 pandemic as cover while making policy and personnel moves that would otherwise draw heated controversy.

The president’s defenders counter that he is simply doing what he has always done, pursuing the issues he has advocated since first running for the presidency.

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Trump in recent days has sought to pull the United States out of the Open Skies Treaty and has suggested he will cease American funding for the World Health Organization (WHO). 

The administration has signed its biggest contract yet with a company promising to build a stretch of Trump’s long-promised southern border wall — a $1.3 billion deal for 42 miles of new fencing. 

Trump has also kept up his usual spate of rhetorical attacks on the media and political opponents.

Internally, Trump has sought to tighten his grip on his own administration.

He replaced Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyLong waits for test results spark new COVID-19 fears Trump's former chief of staff hits coronavirus efforts: 'We still have a testing problem' Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Chris Christie MORE with Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Argentum - California a coronavirus cautionary tale as it retrenches to stave off infections The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Signs of a Trump, Fauci rift on display Meadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios MORE as White House chief of staff in early March, shortly before declaring a national emergency over the coronavirus. On Thursday, the Senate confirmed his pick, Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeIn Russian bounty debate, once again this administration lacks intelligence Russian bounties revive Trump-GOP foreign policy divide Former Trump intelligence officials say they had trouble briefing him on Russia: report MORE (R-Texas), to be director of national intelligence — though Democrats were united in their opposition.

More recently, Trump has removed no fewer than four inspectors general, most recently ousting Steve Linick from that role within the State Department. He had previously removed inspectors general from the intelligence community, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

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On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerMJ Hegar wins Democratic battle to challenge John Cornyn Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel Wells Fargo told employees to delete TikTok from work phones MORE (D-N.Y.) told ABC’s “The View” that Trump fires such figures “when he hears the truth.” Schumer added, “Instead of listening to it and adapting to it, he fires people.”

But some Trump allies argue that the nature of the coronavirus crisis in fact reinforces the overarching themes of the Trump presidency. They note the threat came into the United States having originated in China and that the performance of international organizations such as the WHO has been flawed.

“In a strange way, this catastrophe has fed right into the agenda,” said Barry Bennett, who served as a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Bennett argued that this was particularly the case when it came to Trump’s focus on an "America First" economic nationalism.

“People see it as outrageous that all our medicines are made in China. We can’t get simple masks. The WHO is this huge multilateral organization that has failed. It all feeds right into the narrative,” Bennett said.

Critics tell a very different story — one that encompasses not just what they see as a basic incompetence but also a tendency to slide controversial measures into place while using the current crisis as cover.

The most striking example was in new immigration restrictions the president moved to enact, ostensibly in response to health threats, in late April. Trump paused the issuance of many green cards for 60 days via an executive order. Though there were limitations to the breadth of the order, it also stopped existing green card holders from sponsoring a spouse or child for legal permanent residency.

The overall number of people affected may be relatively modest — the main thrust of the order did not apply to people who were already inside the United States — but immigration advocates saw it as a gratuitous way for Trump to please the most hawkish of his own core supporters. 

“His reelection is threatened, and he is trying to incite a culture war,” Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice, which advocates for more liberal immigration policies, told The Hill at the time.

Controversy in a different way was provoked by the decision, announced Thursday, to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which grants nations the rights to monitor one another’s territory in order to verify that no aggressive military moves are being planned.

The administration defended the decision on the basis that Russia has allegedly violated the terms of the treaty on multiple occasions. But Democrats expressed consternation, with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelMassachusetts Democrat calls for Voice of America chief to resign 70 progressive groups call for next Foreign Affairs chair to reflect 'progressive realism' Overnight Defense: US formally rejects Beijing's South China Sea claims | House set to consider defense policy bill next week | 57 injured as firefighters battle warship blaze MORE (D-N.Y.) accusing Trump of “knowingly breaking the law in ways that jeopardize our safety and national security.”

Trump’s moves and the consequent Democratic criticisms cannot be divorced from the looming presidential election, which is now less than six months away.

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Independent observers note that Trump has always sought to please his base first, rather than reaching out to the middle ground. There is no reason to suppose he will change course now.

“Certainly for his supporters, what he says is still correct,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “People who are strong supporters will see threads between issues like immigration and how the pandemic is being handled.”

At the same time, Zelizer added, there are dangers too — principally that less ideologically committed voters will see Trump’s desire to push ahead with other elements of his agenda as a sign of a lack of focus. 

“If you don’t like the president or are just a lukewarm supporter, having him talk about Open Skies or immigration is just evidence that he doesn’t know what people are actually going through,” he said. 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.