The Memo

The Memo: Trump tests limits of fiery attacks during crisis

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Even a global pandemic isn’t going to change President Trump’s communication style.

On Wednesday morning, as the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus surpassed 100, Trump blasted “Sleepy Joe Biden” on Twitter, accused the Democratic National Committee of seeking to hobble Biden’s main rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and complained yet again that the “Fake News” media was out to get him.

Later, at a White House press briefing, Trump defended his use of the term “Chinese Virus” to refer to the coronavirus, despite criticism from some quarters that the term is racist.

“Because it comes from China. That’s why,” Trump said in response to a reporter’s question about why he referred to COVID-19 in that way. “It’s not racist at all.”

Trump is clearly not going to step back from the brash and fractious style that he has exhibited since he began his run for the presidency in 2015.

The question is whether this crisis is so grave that it will change the political consequences.

There are some signs in opinion polls that Trump’s approval rating — which has never been high — is softening. But the evidence is hardly conclusive.

The two most recent polls, from Reuters and Ipsos and The Economist and YouGov, put him underwater by 11 points and 10 points, respectively.

Both polls had 54 percent of Americans disapproving of his job performance, with 43 percent in the Reuters poll and 44 percent in the Economist poll approving.

Those numbers are on the lower side of Trump’s recent polling history but not dramatically so.

The president and his opponents will be watching closely to see if they mark the beginning of a more dramatic slide — especially given the widespread belief that Trump’s approval has been buoyed up to this point by a strong economy that is vanishing by the hour.

Some Democrats believe Trump’s time could finally be up among centrist voters.

“Trump is always going to have his 35 to 40 percent who are going to go with him to the ends of the earth,” said Democratic strategist Murshed Zaheed. “But the majority of this country, including independent voters, already know what this is — it’s treating everything like a reality show. I think people are getting tired of it. People are tuning it out.”

When it comes to his tone, Trump has sailed through plenty of previous furors where his rhetoric has drawn criticism from ideological opponents.

As early as June 2016, Trump shocked some people with his response to the Pulse nightclub shooting in which 49 people were killed by Omar Mateen. Mateen claimed that the attack was in response to American actions against the Islamic State, among other things.

“Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” the then-candidate tweeted. “I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!”

Just three months ago, Trump drew widespread condemnation, including from members of his own party, after saying at a rally that former Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who had recently died, could be “looking up” — presumably from hell.

There have been countless other examples of Trump attacking critics and political rivals, often in deeply personal terms.

The question is whether this time — with the nation facing a simultaneous health crisis and economic cataclysm — will be any different.

The United States had more than 8,000 coronavirus cases by Wednesday, according to a New York Times tracker, and major cities including New York and San Francisco are almost shuttered. The economy has ground to an abrupt halt, and the unemployment rate is about to soar.

Trump has at times sought a more orthodox tone in dealing with the crisis. At the now-daily briefings, he has often called for the nation to come together, and he has abandoned his previous efforts to downplay the threat of the virus, instead calling for expansive action.

On Wednesday, he said he considered himself “in a sense, a wartime president.” The previous day, he promised that the country would soon be “rolling again” and that “our economy will come back very rapidly.”

But those words sat uneasily with other comments. On Wednesday, he repeated, in person, his earlier Twitter taunting of Biden as “Sleepy Joe.”

“It’s really a tale of two Trumps,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.

“In the last two weeks, there are moments when he has sounded more ‘presidential’ than I have ever heard him,” Reeher added, citing Trump’s praise for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. “At the same time, he will revert to the old Trump. It’s hard to make sense of those things.”

Trump’s staunchest defenders will undoubtedly stick by his side.

But keeping up his usual Twitter tirades as the coronavirus crisis deepens is a high-risk strategy.

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

Tags Bernie Sanders Coronavirus Donald Trump Joe Biden John Dingell

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