President Donald Trump tipped his hand about how he plans to make up for the loss of the roaring economy that formed the foundation of his reelection campaign — rhetoric laced with racial overtones and a new and unfounded conspiracy theory he dubbed “Obamagate.”
On a tragic day that US deaths from the coronavirus pandemic hit an unfathomable 80,000, the President revived his wild news conferences that had been shelved two weeks ago apparently because they were damaging his political prospects.
His appearance in the White House Rose Garden was notable for his refashioning of his reelection campaign mantra that reflects a realization that his hopes for a “rocket”-like relaunch of the economy have been dashed by massive job losses.
Trump’s original slogan, “Make America Great Again.” was snappy enough to fit on a red baseball cap four years ago. He had been running in 2020 on a chest-puffing “Keep America Great” platform. But his new catchphrase “we will transition to greatness” next year shows how he will now have to sell the promise of a painful economic restoration — a case made all the more difficult after his own erratic management of the pandemic.
The President’s apparent mission Monday was to stifle an impression that the White House is in disarray after the discovery of several cases of Covid-19 in the West Wing. Trump stood against a backdrop of Stars and Stripes and misleading signs reading, “America is leading the world in testing.”
But the US is not performing the most coronavirus tests per capita. Multiple countries are performing more tests than the US relative to their populations, including Denmark, Italy and New Zealand.
According to a CNN poll released Tuesday, most Americans continue to say the US government is doing a poor job preventing the spread of Covid-19. And while Trump’s overall approval rating is holding at about even at 45%, the President’s numbers for handling the coronavirus outbreak have worsened and only 36% say they consider Trump a trusted source of information about the outbreak.
Probably not by coincidence, Trump’s news conference and an announcement that the government would send $11 billion in already appropriated funds to states to boost testing came a day before the trusted top infectious disease official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is due to appear remotely in a Senate hearing. Fauci has not shirked from truth telling about the quality of the administration’s criticized testing effort, and Democrats will pepper him with questions designed to draw a damaging response.
Fauci told The New York Times in an email Monday night that he intends to tell the Senate that reopening the country too quickly “will not only result in needless suffering and death, but would actually set us back on our quest to return to normal.”
But not for the first time, the President trampled over his own message with an ugly controversy involving race that also highlighted his frequent disdain for female journalists.
He snapped at an Asian American reporter who asked him why he was turning a tragic moment into a global competition on testing.
“Maybe that’s a question you should ask China,” Trump told Weijia Jiang, a White House reporter for CBS News who was born in China but moved to the US at the age of 2. Jiang appeared shocked by the President’s apparent conflating of her racial background with China. Trump then cut off the event when another female correspondent, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, who had deferred to her colleague, tried to ask a question.
Even before that unpleasant moment, the Rose Garden event was already surreal, as reporters struggled to make their questions audible over muffling face masks as a result of the White House coronavirus outbreak, which graphically undermines Trump’s claims the country is safe to open.
An unemployment rate that could hit 20% in the coming months and furloughs turning into permanent job cuts in many areas would be disastrous for any President seeking a second term. Trump must deal with that burden amid a still-raging pandemic and facing the possibility of a spike in already high infections caused by early state openings he has been loudly encouraging. Democrats will argue that Trump’s denial and erratic leadership allowed the virus to take root and caused the collapse, causing an even greater challenge to his electoral resilience.
Trump’s boasts on testing, a practice that he suggested as recently as last week was not that important in controlling the virus, may also have been designed to dismiss an impression that he and aides are benefiting from a testing and contact-tracing system that he is yet to provide to the rest of the nation.
Trump’s diminished messaging expectations were just one twist of a typically unchained appearance. In attacking China as the source of the virus, lashing out at former President Barack Obama, advertising his border wall, reminiscing about the previously roaring economy and claiming to have saved tens of thousands of lives, the President offered a glimpse of a campaign strategy apparently being retooled by the day.
But he offered his opponents an opening when he said in initial remarks that in every generation and challenge, America has risen to the task.
“We have met the moment and we have prevailed,” he claimed.
Trump later clarified that he meant the US had prevailed in the battle to improve testing — a distinction unlikely to stop his remark popping up in a campaign ad that is likely to accuse him of a “Mission Accomplished” moment.
Trump accuses Obama of a ‘crime’
Trump has defied every expectation since the moment he descended the golden escalator at Trump Tower in 2015 to launch the most extraordinary political career in modern history. It is far too early to write him off in November, not least because many Democrats live in fear of the scorched-earth presidential campaign he is about to unleash. And the President enjoys formidable advantages in organization in key states and campaign financing over his rival, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
His mood on Monday shows how he will use every lever of the presidency to ensure his political survival.
While more people have died in America from Covid-19 than in any other country and few states satisfy the White House guidelines on stemming infections in order to safely reopen, Trump presented his management of the emergency as a famous victory.
“Thanks to the courage of our citizens and our aggressive strategy, hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved,” the President said.
“We will transition into greatness. That’s a phrase you’re going to hear a lot, because that’s what’s going to happen,” Trump said, predicting a strong third quarter, a very good fourth quarter and then pent-up demand being unleashed next year. “It’s a transition to greatness. And greatness is next year,” he insisted.
Trump also signaled a new fallback strategy designed to whip up the fervor of his base by accusing his predecessor of mounting an attempt to cancel out his win in 2016 in what his supporters refer to as a “deep state plot.”
“Obamagate. It’s been going on for a long time. It’s been going on from before I even got elected, and it’s a disgrace that it happened,” Trump claimed without evidence. Asked by a reporter to identify the crime he had accused Obama in a tweet of committing, he responded: “You know what the crime is. The crime is obvious to everybody.”
The conservative media machine is pulsating with the reverberations of Attorney General William Barr’s decision last week to drop charges against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in a case that arose from the Russia investigation.
Shortly after Trump spoke, the scope of the Republican election attack became even more clear as Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa pressed the conspiracy theory on the Senate floor.
“The rule of law is at risk if the federal government can get away with violating the Constitution to do what they did to Lt. Gen. Flynn,” said Grassley. “Given all that we know now regarding the fake foundation to the inquiry, it’s time we asked: What did Obama and Biden know and when did they know it?”
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