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Lacking rallies, Trump takes White House work on the road
President Trump has long blurred the lines between campaigning and governing, but he is taking that fusion to new levels as the coronavirus pandemic precludes his signature large-scale rallies.
Trump has used official White House travel to visit swing states in recent weeks and give de facto campaign speeches in front of friendly audiences. He spoke from behind the presidential seal at airports in Florida and Ohio to supporters who gathered on the tarmac to greet him, and an event at a Whirlpool factory on Thursday ostensibly meant to highlight the nation's economic recovery during the pandemic veered sharply into reelection territory.
Political scientists and advisers to the president argue he has little choice but to try and get on the road in some form to generate enthusiasm and boost his reelection changes.
But it's unclear whether smaller gatherings, delivered at taxpayer-funded events, will resonate with voters.
"He had counted so much on these rallies, and then COVID-19 hit and he's still got to go out and try to energize his base and expand his base," said Susan McManus, a professor emerita of political science at the University of South Florida.
"And this is about the only way you can do it right now in person," McManus continued. "And he's counting on the fact that the people he's trying to reach will be appreciative of that, and it enables him to better contrast the fact that he can connect with people while Vice President Biden seems to be staying in his home."
Trump's traditional large rallies, which typically feature thousands of supporters who camped out for hours before packing into arenas, have been rendered unsafe and impractical by the pandemic.
The president's attempt at relaunch rally in Oklahoma in late June was a disaster, with turnout short of expectations and public health officials blaming the event for a spike in COVID-19 cases.
He has yet to hold a similar large-scale event since. A rally that was scheduled and postponed in New Hampshire has yet to be rescheduled, and Trump indicated in an Axios interview that aired this week that he scrapped it because of health concerns.
Instead, Trump has been using White House travel to get to the states he needs to win in November. In the past month, he has visited Florida twice, as well as Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and Ohio. While the visits are technically official administration business and therefore covered by taxpayers, they have consistently been infused with politics, including high-dollar fundraising events in Florida, Texas and Ohio.
Trump landed in Tampa last week and stepped off Air Force One to the tune of "God Bless the USA," the song that traditionally plays before his rallies. He alleged there, surrounded by local sheriffs, that if Joe Biden wins the presidency, "the chaos and bloodshed will spread to every community in our land."
The president held a similar event in Cleveland on Thursday, where he baselessly claimed that Biden is "against God."
Both events featured dozens of Trump supporters gathered closely together behind barriers.
In his speech at the Whirlpool factory, Trump essentially laid out a second term agenda from behind the presidential seal, warning that a Biden presidency would tank the stock market.
"I think he can still travel to states as he's been doing and do message events," said GOP strategist Alex Conant. "They're just not going to be the same as they were in 2016. There's no obvious way to replace a 15,000-person rally and the sort of enthusiasm that generates."
Using the presidency to stump for a second term is not new for Trump, who has in recent months given lengthy speeches targeting Biden from the Rose Garden and South Lawn of the White House.
Experts say it's not unusual for an incumbent to use the trappings of the White House to tailor travel and events toward a reelection bid, but the pandemic has given Trump few other options.
"I don't think in those particular instances it's an example of trying to use the trappings of the presidency as a campaign advantage. It's more a matter of trying to get Trump exposed to some people who would clap for him," said David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
But Trump has made the line between governing and campaigning fuzzier than most of his predecessors, experts said. The anti-Biden speech in the Rose Garden last month drew rebukes even from Republicans, including Karl Rove, who is informally advising the Trump campaign.
"Don't use presidential events as campaign events, try and turn campaign events into presidential events," Rove said at the time.
Trump also bothered some Republicans this week when he said he would "probably" accept the GOP nomination from the White House, citing its convenience over traveling to another location.
There is some uncertainty among Trump advisers about whether getting the president in front of smaller crowds will be sufficient in the final months before Election Day.
Trump thrives off the adulation of large crowds, one adviser argued, and there is no comparable stand-in for the thousands of supporters the he typically attracted to his campaign rallies.
"I want to see the president on the road," said one informal adviser to the president who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
"At this point in the 2016 cycle, Trump was doing two or three rallies a day, and he wasn't running the country so he was just out campaigning," the adviser said. "Doing airport rallies and having the opportunity to see 2,000 or 3,000 people is still important."