The America that President Donald Trump describes is a place where the coronavirus outbreak is only surging because of increased testing, the economy is on the verge of roaring back to life and polls showing him losing re-election in a landslide are fiction.
In the president’s telling, many of the Americans protesting police brutality are terrorists, anarchists and looters, and concerns about systemic racism are overblown. He claims that his is the most accomplished presidency in history, outshining all his predecessors but Abraham Lincoln on achievements for Black people.
Four months before Americans decide whether to return Trump to the White House, the president has constructed a narrative of the U.S. under his leadership that veers far from reality. In fact, the coronavirus outbreak is resurgent, driven in part by hasty reopenings and an emerging political divide over wearing a mask. The economy may not recover until 2021 or later. Protests against police brutality have been largely peaceful — though there has been some looting and violence — and more political leaders in both parties publicly acknowledge the reality of pervasive racism in police departments and American society.
And most importantly for his political future, polls show the president is rapidly losing ground to his presumptive re-election opponent, Democrat Joe Biden.
Presidential candidates often describe an aspirational vision of the country. Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” is held up as the model of the hopeful message voters want to hear. Trump has called himself “a cheerleader,” but his detailed descriptions of life in America today run so counter to reality that even some of his allies are urging him to change course.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina acknowledged that “there’s been a dip” in Trump’s support, adding it’s early yet. The president needs “a little more message discipline,” and to focus on subjects like the economy, he said.
“Eventually, just make it more about policy, and less about your personality,” he told reporters in the Capitol.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who chairs the Finance Committee, publicly pleaded last week for Trump’s advisers to show the president a Wall Street Journal editorial warning that he faces a “repudiation” from voters.
Grassley said Saturday on Twitter that Biden might “sit in his basement and not campaign and be elected president.”
There’s little sign Trump will change direction. At the White House on Friday, Trump touted historic stock market gains, even with tens of millions of Americans still out of work and benchmark indices well below their February highs. Earlier this week he said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network that President Barack Obama had committed “treason” in the course of an FBI probe of Trump’s 2016 campaign.
On Thursday, Trump’s administration asked the Supreme Court to throw out the Affordable Care Act, including its protections for people with pre-existing health conditions, in its entirety — despite the president’s frequent insistence that he will always protect such patients. He has never offered a plan to replace the law known as Obamacare.
“The administration’s decision to submit this new brief is the wrong policy at the worst possible time as our nation is in the midst of a pandemic,” Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican facing a difficult re-election contest in November, said in a statement.
On Saturday, Trump said on Twitter that he’d win re-election, once again proclaiming that a “silent majority” supports him. He boasted about high television ratings for his recent campaign events and said “these are the real polls, the Silent Majority, not FAKE POLLS!”
In an interview published Saturday by The Federalist, a conservative website, Trump said he expects to be kicked off Twitter and mused about moving to a start-up platform that’s marketed itself to disaffected conservatives, Parler.
Later, he tweeted a series of 15 Wanted posters for people alleged to have vandalized a statue near the White House. One wore a “Black Lives Matter” shirt.
No issue has pitted Trump more squarely against reality than the coronavirus. U.S. cases have hit a new daily high, with the epicenter of the outbreak shifting from New York to the southern Sunbelt states from California to Florida. Republican governors there have backtracked on reopening their economies, closing bars and restricting other activities as the president urges Americans to put the pandemic behind them.
Trump has repeatedly said, falsely, that the U.S. has more cases of COVID-19 because it’s conducting more testing for the disease. He’s also expressed skepticism that some of the reported cases are real. Trump’s aides have said they’re watching deaths more closely than total cases; deaths are still trending down but are a lagging indicator.
“You’re going to have a kid with the sniffles, and they’ll say it’s coronavirus,” he said Thursday.
Trump has pledged that a vaccine will soon be available. But even without one, the virus will “fade away,” he told Fox’s Sean Hannity earlier this month.
During a White House coronavirus task force briefing Friday — its first in two months, held at Health and Human Services headquarters and without Trump — the president tweeted a wanted poster for people who allegedly vandalized a statue.
Meanwhile, the message at the briefing was muddled. Vice President Mike Pence both acknowledged the increase in cases and downplayed the threat.
“There may be a tendency among the American people to think we are back to that place we were two months ago” when U.S. deaths peaked at more than 2,500 per day, Pence said. “The reality is we’re in a much better place.”
He avoided saying whether Americans should wear masks. But reality intervened in the form of Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“We are facing a serious problem in certain areas,” Fauci said. “We are all in it together and the only way we’re going to end it is by ending it together.”
Trump’s campaign has said he remains competitive against a “defined” Biden, meaning when the former vice president is portrayed in a negative light.
“Americans know that President Trump has been leading the nation through the coronavirus crisis and that Joe Biden has tried to use it as a political weapon,” communications director Tim Murtaugh said in a statement.
Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s former chief of staff, said a Biden contrast is crucial.
“The thing that the campaign is not doing extraordinarily well is drawing those comparisons,” Mulvaney said in a Fox News interview on Thursday.
The top House Republican, Kevin McCarthy of California, acknowledged in a Fox News interview that Trump and his party are in a rut.
“Look, if the election was today, yes, you’re concerned,” he said. “Can we do better? Yes, we can.”
Trump canceled plans to travel to his New Jersey golf club this weekend, but otherwise hasn’t shifted course.
“The president is very good at rejecting criticisms he doesn’t want to hear,” John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser who has published a book that paints an unflattering portrait of the president, told The Washington Post this week.
The president pressed ahead with a trademark campaign rally, brushing aside concern from public health authorities. But his supporters have shown they may be more alarmed about the disease than Trump; his first rally in three months in Tulsa, Oklahoma, drew far fewer people than he predicted.
Pence defended the decision to hold rallies, saying Friday that “even in a health crisis, the American people don’t forfeit our constitutional rights.”
The campaign hasn’t announced any more rallies, but Trump has turned his official schedule into a series of de facto campaign speeches. In a packed Phoenix church on Tuesday, the crowd cheered Trump calling the virus the “Kung Flu.”
“No more masks!” someone shouted. Arizona currently is suffering one of the worst outbreaks in the U.S.
The ongoing protests against police brutality, broadcast live for all to see, have been equally difficult for Trump to recast in his favor. Trump has searched for scapegoats, at one point, he declared that “antifa,” an unorganized leftist protest movement that sometimes engages in violence, would be declared a terrorist organization. It wasn’t.
On Thursday, as he flew to Wisconsin, he seized on a Fox News interview with a person the network purported to be a leader of Black Lives Matter — which isn’t an organization, and has no leadership — to brand the movement “Treason, Sedition, Insurrection!” in a tweet.
He appears frustrated by Biden’s relative obscurity and elusiveness as a target. The former vice president last held a news conference on April 2, when he took a handful of questions from reporters over a Zoom call. He responded to two shouted questions from reporters on Memorial Day, May 25, but has not otherwise taken questions at virtual or in-person appearances.
Biden has largely avoided network and cable news interviews in recent weeks while stepping up local TV appearances in battleground states.
Trump’s path forward is clouded by an absence of direction. On Thursday, a participant in Hannity’s town hall asked Trump what he’s most proud of doing in his first term. Appointing judges, Trump answered. But when asked by Hannity what’d he do in a second term, Trump struggled to answer.
“You know, the word ‘experience’ is still good,” he said, before recalling how infrequently he’d been to Washington before his election and calling Bolton an “idiot.”
“In terms of the president and his message, he is haunted by this virus,” Geraldo Rivera, a Fox contributor and former Celebrity Apprentice contestant said after the interview. “I think it is the president’s fate that he will be judged by how America fares during the midst of this pandemic.”
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