Trump’s focus scattered amid multiple crises
President Trump is facing a convergence of crises that threaten to derail his reelection hopes, yet he has receded from public view and his focus has been elsewhere in recent days.
The president has not held a public event since Friday, and his tweets in recent days have focused extensively on television ratings and threats against those who deface monuments.
Meanwhile, several states are facing a resurgence in coronavirus cases that public health experts warn could quickly spiral out of control.
Millions of Americans remain out of work amid the pandemic, and economists are uncertain about how long the recovery will take, though it is likely to be longer if there are further outbreaks.
Protests over police brutality and racial injustice have persisted for more than a month.
And Trump this week has been at the center of a new controversy as the White House attempts to explain why he was unaware of intelligence that Russia put out bounties for the Taliban to target U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Allies and former government officials say Trump must confront these challenges head on and take charge to show he is capable of leading through a turbulent stretch.
“Traditionally the president would be out front with positive messages on these kinds of national crises, but that’s not Trump’s style. He’s offense only. He leaves defense to others,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP fundraiser and CEO of oil drilling company Canary.
“The administration may want the president to get out front, but Trump’s style makes that impossible,” he added.
Trump had no public events this week through Wednesday. He is scheduled to deliver remarks at a “Spirit of America Showcase” on Thursday and will head to South Dakota on Friday for what is likely to be a warm reception at a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore.
His Twitter activity has masked ongoing challenges in the country and within the White House. The president has tweeted or retweeted more than a dozen messages in the past week about protecting monuments and statues from vandalism. He fired off nearly a dozen tweets in the same time period commenting on cable news ratings or ripping networks for perceived unfair coverage.
“Any suggestion that the President is not working around the clock to protect the health and safety of all Americans, lead the whole-of-government response to this pandemic, including expediting vaccine development, and rebuild our economy is utterly false,” White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement.
“While Do-Nothing-Democrats smear and slander this President, President Trump is going to ensure our Nation is healthy, strong, and has a growing, prosperous economy,” he added.
Trump has yet to comment specifically on the sharp rise in coronavirus cases in Arizona, Texas, Florida, California and a handful of other states, leaving it to others in the administration to tackle the issue.
Instead, he again claimed Wednesday in a Fox Business interview that the virus will eventually “just disappear.”
The White House coronavirus task force has resumed holding periodic briefings as the pandemic in the U.S. has worsened. But those media sessions have been organized by the vice president’s office, and Pence has again emerged as the face of the federal government’s response as he travels to affected states to meet with governors.
Trump’s daily involvement with the coronavirus response has dwindled over the last month or so, officials said. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, has said he hasn’t met with the president in weeks.
A White House official said Pence provides relevant information to Trump on the task force’s activities “as warranted.”
The president spent much of last week caught up in a news cycle on his comments that he told aides to slow down testing because it was making the U.S. look bad. While Trump and other aides said the president had not seriously given such a directive, he continued to argue that less testing would yield fewer cases.
The spike in cases is also likely to be an impediment to any economic recovery, which is critical to Trump’s reelection chances as he has argued he is the right man to oversee such a revival. Shutdowns spurred by the pandemic resulted in millions of job losses and prompted business closures nationwide.
The president has held roundtables with business leaders and governors at the White House, and Congress has passed legislation to assist businesses during the downturn. Trump last week touted a massive contract for a Wisconsin shipyard that he said would produce hundreds of jobs, and he boasted of strong stock market numbers and a bounceback in retail sales.
Trump and his top officials have continued to insist the economic recovery will be “V-shaped,” even as the head of the Federal Reserve and others caution it may be a lengthy process and certain jobs may be permanently eliminated by the pandemic.
“I would just say so far, so good. If the story changes we will have to see,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters Monday.
Meanwhile, the White House is facing pressure from Congress over its handling of intelligence about suspected Russian offers of payments to Taliban-linked militants to carry out attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Trump has said little publicly about the matter, which was first reported Friday by The New York Times, though he has dismissed the reports about it as a “hoax” and claimed he was never briefed on the intelligence because it lacked credibility.
While others in the Trump administration have attacked the Times and sought to turn the focus onto leakers, they have not outright dismissed the credibility of the information as Trump has, instead saying that it remained “unverified” by the intelligence community.
“These are important allegations, and if they are verified I can guarantee you that the president will take strong action,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters Wednesday.
Eberhart, the GOP fundraiser, defended the administration’s handling of the issue thus far, arguing it would be pointless to publicly telegraph any response to Moscow and that Trump will face criticism from Democrats on any Russia-related matter.
William Inboden, a professor at the University of Texas who served on former President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, called the administration’s response thus far to the allegations “fumbling.”
The president and the administration should “set aside the spin” and make clear to the public what actions they will take in response to any potential bounty program, Inboden said.
“The presidency is an extremely hard job, but Trump needs to step up and do his job,” he said. “He ran for office claiming he was qualified and able to do this … and the real crucible of testing for a presidency is not when things are going well but when there’s not just one crisis but multiple crises.”
Morgan Chalfant contributed.