The Memo: Trump searches for path to comeback
President Trump is grappling for a way forward after two weeks that have wreaked havoc on his reelection campaign.
But Trump’s way of rolling the dice is itself inciting more controversy.
Trump will appear at a White House event on Saturday, and will return full-bore to the campaign trail on Monday in Sanford, Fla.
Those two appearances will be made while confusion still hangs over the president’s COVID-19 status — and they will stoke fears of new infections.
The White House has declined to say when Trump last tested negative for the virus. He acknowledged he was positive in the early hours of Oct. 2 and was hospitalized late that evening.
The political impact of any further health problems — whether for Trump himself or through suspicions that he was putting more people at risk — would be disastrous. And Trump has no room for error.
In the past two-plus weeks, a succession of events have thrown his campaign into disarray and propelled his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, into some of his largest polling leads of the campaign.
Trump’s most recent spiral began Sept. 23 when he appeared in the White House briefing room and declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in the event of him losing the Nov. 3 election.
Trump’s response — “We’re going to have to see what happens” — set off a fresh furor about the president’s view of the election and his use of authoritarian rhetoric.
Less than a week later, Trump’s performance in the first debate against Biden was widely criticized for rudeness, after he interrupted his opponent constantly. Trump’s poll ratings began falling in the wake of that clash.
Before the week was out, Trump’s COVID-19 struggles became public. His hospitalization was a blow to a president who is near-obsessive about seeking to portray strength. The episode has also raised questions that remain unanswered about the extent to which Trump, who has often downplayed the coronavirus, abided by proper health protocols.
The virus has also rampaged through his circle, afflicting high profile figures including aide Hope Hicks, campaign manager Bill Stepien, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and former counselor Kellyanne Conway.
A Sept. 26 White House Rose Garden event centered on Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, is under suspicion for having been a “superspreader” event. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top expert on infectious diseases, referred in a Friday CBS radio interview to “a superspreader event in the White House” in an apparent allusion to that gathering.
There have been other missteps and hazards too, even if they haven’t registered quite so high on the political Richter scale.
Trump has switched positions on whether he wants a new economic stimulus plan before the election. He is at odds with the Commission on Presidential Debates over when, and in what format, further events will be held. And he undercut a proficient performance from Vice President Pence in his sole debate with Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), by referring to Harris as a “monster” in a Fox Business Network interview the following day.
All of this has taken a toll.
Trump lagged Biden by 9.6 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average Friday evening, a gap that has widened from around 6 points at the end of September. He is behind in almost all the key battleground states. States that should be safe for a Republican incumbent president seeking reelection, such as Georgia and Texas, are competitive.
Republican fears are growing that Trump will drag down senators and members of Congress, too. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) warned in a Friday CNBC interview that the GOP could face “a bloodbath of Watergate proportions” next month.
The situation clearly calls for drastic action and Trump is making some outside-the-box moves to try to get some momentum going.
On Friday, he gave a two-hour radio interview to Rush Limbaugh, blasting away at a selection of his rhetorical greatest hits, including Hillary Clinton’s emails and using profanity regarding Iran.
Later in the day, he was scheduled to undergo a “medical evaluation” on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show — a move that brought new commentary about his “reality TV presidency.”
While Trump has not been seen in person since he arrived back at the White House since his hospitalization, he has sought to communicate via recorded videos.
But the events that are looming are sure to stoke concerns over the coronavirus, which has been one of Trump’s weakest issues in opinion polls. It is at present expected that Trump will address Saturday’s event from a White House balcony, which might slightly lower fears of COVID-19 contamination. But Monday’s Florida rally will be a different story.
Right now, Trump appears to be willing to gamble in search of anything that gives him a path back into contention. But the gradient is becoming steeper every day.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.