Trump Defies Deepening Virus Alarm With Trip to Push Reopening
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump is setting off on a trip aimed at delivering a message to the American people: It’s time to get back to normal after the pandemic.
Trump hits the road Thursday for Dallas, where he’ll hold his first in-person fundraiser in months. He’s expected to spend the rest of the weekend at his New Jersey golf club -- and deliver a commencement speech at West Point on Saturday -- in his first overnight travel since the nation began social distancing in March.
Trump leaves Washington struggling to recover from a bruising stretch that saw his approval rating plummet over his handling of the coronavirus crisis and, more recently, his response to widespread protests touched off by the death in police custody of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis.
The trip is intended to underscore Trump’s commitment to reopening the nation as soon as possible in a bid to get the economy back on track. But it’s unlikely to ease Americans’ concerns about the pandemic. A new spike in cases is emerging around the country as states ease restrictions, and public health officials are warning the outbreak is far from over.
U.S. stocks tumbled the most in almost six weeks Thursday morning as evidence mounted that coronavirus cases are resurging.
But as if to highlight the notion that the U.S. has already moved past the outbreak, Vice President Mike Pence tweeted a photograph late Wednesday of his visit to Trump campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, in which dozens of staffers are shown crowded into the office, shoulder-to-shoulder, without wearing masks or observing any other obvious public health precautions.
The tweet was later deleted after commenters suggested the campaign had violated Virginia’s social-distancing guidelines. Pence’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump leaves behind a White House literally and metaphorically besieged. The complex was encircled last week with more than a mile of fencing to keep protesters away, while Trump has fallen well behind his re-election challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, in both national polls and surveys of key battleground states.
“His path to re-election is to convince voters that the economy is starting back and he can bring it all the way back,” said Charlie Black, a top Republican lobbyist. “So, his moving around the country reinforces the message that it is safe to get back to business and work.”
‘Revitalization and Recovery’
The president has been castigated for his response to the protests, especially his call to use active-duty armed forces to quell looting and rioting, and the violent dispersal of a peaceful demonstration across the street from the White House on June 1.
On Wednesday, Trump did little to sooth tensions. He vowed not to rename American military bases that honor leaders of the Confederacy, an abrupt halt to Pentagon deliberations over scrapping tributes to treasonous officers who fought to maintain slavery.
And a day earlier, he sparked more bipartisan outrage with a tweet promoting a baseless conspiracy theory that a 75-year-old protester injured by police in Buffalo may have been an “ANTIFA provacateur.”
Trump will nod to the unrest with a visit during his first stop in Dallas, at a church where he’ll participate in a roundtable with religious leaders, law enforcement officials, and small business owners. He intends to announce a plan for the nation’s “holistic revitalization and recovery” and will tout previous actions aimed at helping black Americans, the White House said.
After that event concludes, Trump will turn his attention to a fundraiser at the home of one of his supporters. Around 25 people are expected at the event with couples each donating $580,600 to attend, according to the Republican National Committee.
From there, the president is expected to head to his golf resort in Bedminster -- his first overnight visit to a Trump property since hosting the delegation of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, in early March. During that trip, the president was seen sharing a table with a member of the Brazilian delegation who later tested positive for coronavirus, forcing some top White House aides into quarantine.
‘Back in His Comfort Zone’
Additional safety protocols are expected to be in place ahead of a second fundraiser planned for the New Jersey golf club, where around 25 guests are expected to pay $250,000 per person.
“For the last few weeks he’s been very much at the mercy of events, with news coverage dominated more by his critics than his supporters,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist. “An accelerated travel schedule puts him back in his comfort zone, programming big events among his supporters where he’s the center of attention. It helps him flip the script and gives him a platform to go on attack against his opponent.”
In their absence of rallies and other events, his campaign has soldiered on without him -- virtual fundraisers and other online events have been led by surrogates instead of the president.
Biden, at the same time, has seen a surge of donations. The former vice president and the Democratic National Committee banked more than $60 million in the first quarter, nearly matching the incumbet’s fundraising, and online donations have flooded the party’s ActBlue platform during the demonstrations that followed Floyd’s death.
This week, a Biden virtual fundraiser co-hosted by Senator Kamala Harris, a former rival and potential running mate, brought in more than $3.5 million from 1,400 donors.
Between his fundraising events, the president is slated to visit West Point and give commencement remarks at the military academy’s graduation. The announcement that he was attending the ceremony sparked concerns the event might expose cadets and staff to the coronavirus, particularly as New York State has struggled with the country’s worst outbreak. Cadets had already been sent home before Trump’s announcement.
But Pentagon officials said strict safety measures would be put in place, and cadets were tested for the virus upon returning to campus earlier this week. Of the roughly 1,100-person graduating class, 15 tested positive.
The president is likely to spend at least some time on the links over the long New Jersey weekend. While he has frequently defended his trips to Bedminster – saying it’s a chance to reconnect with his native New York metro area without clogging the streets of Manhattan with his security entourage – he’s also ruefully noted in recent weeks that the coronavirus has limited his opportunity to engage in his favorite pastime.
A trip over Memorial Day weekend to his golf club in northern Virginia resulted in a critical ad by Biden’s campaign, pointing out that the president played golf as the U.S. approached 100,000 coronavirus deaths.
Trump responded with a frustrated outburst.
“The Fake & Totally Corrupt News makes it sound like a mortal sin - I knew this would happen!” he tweeted. “What they don’t say is that it was my first golf in almost 3 months and, if I waited 3 years, they would do their usual ‘hit’ pieces anyway.”
While in Bedminster, the president will likely review planning both for his first rally in months and the Republican convention in August. The party is currently working on plans to hold a two-part convention in two separate locations, after North Carolina’s Democratic governor refused to sign off on allowing large crowds of delegates and supporters to convene in Charlotte.
Jacksonville, Florida, has emerged as a likely location for the marquee event, people familiar with the matter said.
Trump’s campaign staff are meanwhile trying to figure out how to hold rallies with adequate precautions without also limiting the large, adoring crowds the president has come to expect at the events.
Trump said Wednesday he plans to resume the rallies in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 19, followed by unspecified cities in Florida, Arizona and North Carolina.
The Tulsa rally is freighted with racial undertones that risk further inflaming tensions. The event coincides with Juneteenth, a commemoration of the end of slavery largely celebrated within the African American community. And Tulsa was the site of one of the worst massacres of black people by whites in the U.S., the 1921 attack on the neighborhood of Greenwood, once known as “Black Wall Street.”
But the rallies also underscore one of the biggest political risks for the president: That his resumption of travel will coincide with a re-emergence of coronavirus infections. Some states that have been more aggressive in reopening -- including Florida and Texas -- have seen an uptick in infections and hospitalizations, fanning concerns about a second wave of the virus.
“Whenever that is when he has it, if he gives a speech to a big group and within two weeks 25 people have gotten sick, that’s a very real challenge,” Republican strategist Doug Heye said.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, asked about mitigation procedures at the rallies, said, “we will ensure that everyone who goes is safe,” but referred questions about specific steps that would be implemented to the campaign.
Trump and his allies think that resuming his political schedule is crucial not only to restore enthusiasm among his supporters, but to develop momentum for the voter-activation tools his campaign leverages to turn the rallies into votes on Election Day.
“Americans are ready to get back to action and so is President Trump,” Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “The Great American Comeback is real and the rallies will be tremendous.”
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