President Donald Trump took a pair of steps Monday that seemed to offer quiet acknowledgment that the coronavirus strategy he has adopted for the past several weeks — to largely ignore the pandemic — has wounded him politically and failed to contain the raging crisis.
In the Oval Office for a meeting with lawmakers, Trump announced he would soon resume regular public briefings after discontinuing them in April and declaring them a waste of time.
And for the first time he publicly encouraged his followers to wear masks, writing on Twitter that “many people say that it is Patriotic” to take the step public health experts have been advocating for months. He attached a week-old photograph of himself wearing a mask, rendered more dramatic in a black-and-white filter.
Taken together, the steps suggested after weeks of record-setting daily case counts and rising hospitalizations, Trump and his advisers are trying a new tack.
Trump himself has continued to downplay the virus, telling a Fox News interviewer over the weekend that many new cases amount only to “sniffles” and that, eventually, the virus will disappear.
But with his poll numbers sinking dramatically and a large majority of voters disapproving of his handling of the virus, advisers have begun seeking ways to return Trump to a leadership standing — and to resuscitate his reelection chances.
“We have had this big flare up in Florida, Texas, a couple of other places,” Trump said Monday from the Oval Office, where he was meeting with Republican Congressional leaders about the next round of stimulus funding. “I’ll get involved and we’ll start doing briefings.”
His tweet on masks came after a prolonged attempt by some of his advisers — described by one as “pleading” — to convince Trump to wear a mask in public. He finally did July 11 at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Maryland, flanked by military members and others as he strode purposefully down a hallway.
But Monday was the first time Trump actively encouraged his supporters on Twitter to take a similar step, though even his phrasing — “many people say” — seemed to put the recommendation at a remove.
“We are United in our effort to defeat the Invisible China Virus, and many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance,” he wrote. “There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favorite President!”
Earlier, Vice President Mike Pence cited mask-wearing as a principal method of containing the virus in a weekly phone call with governors.
“What we have found is that masks, closing indoor bars, decreasing indoor dining capacity to 25%, continued social distancing and personal hygiene messaging are, according to the modeling, dramatically decreasing the rate of community spread,” he said, according to audio of the phone call obtained by CNN.
Those actions are “a clear example of transmitting science into action and proving this works,” Pence said.
Ultimately, it was negative poll numbers that finally convinced Trump to send a tweet encouraging mask wearing, a person familiar with Trump’s thinking said, nearly three months after he publicly announced new mask recommendations from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and two months since he mocked his election rival Joe Biden for wearing one.
For months, aides had vigorously tried to get Trump just to wear one, and told him he could wear ones printed with “Make America Great Again,” “Trump-Pence 2020” or even an American flag. But he had steadfastly refused, concerned it would make him look weak and signal the virus was not under control. His outing at Walter Reed remains the only instance he’s been seen wearing a mask in public.
But after a meeting with campaign aides at the White House last week where they bluntly told him even internal numbers showed Americans didn’t approve of his coronavirus response, Trump relented, according to an official who attended that meeting.
The session was the latest in a push by Trump allies and some aides to convince the President to adjust his response and appear more engaged in fighting the pandemic.
Trump’s advisers had been debating for several weeks a return to the daily briefings, which were a hallmark of the pandemic’s earlier days. They ceased after Trump repeatedly found himself sparring with reporters and going on tangents, including one about ingesting disinfectant.
Now, however, many of Trump’s aides worry he appears absent as the crisis continues to rage. Trump no longer attends daily coronavirus task force meetings and hasn’t held an event specifically focused on the virus in two weeks.
Trump said Monday the revival of briefings would allow him to tout advancements on therapeutics and vaccines, and explain the “positive things” his administration is doing to combat the virus.
“I think it’s a great way to get information out to the public,” Trump said. Trump will resume the briefing at 5 p.m. ET on Tuesday — the same time he typically briefed in the spring. No task force members are currently expected to join Trump at Tuesday’s briefing, a person familiar with the plan told CNN, who cautioned that could change. Trump is expected to hold these briefings a few times a week but not on a daily basis like he was earlier this year.
“We had a good slot. A lot of people were watching,” Trump said, using television ratings lingo to describe the sessions. “We had record numbers watching,” he said. “In the history of cable television there’s never been anything like it.”
One adviser said the format of the briefings remains “to be determined,” and said it was possible they occur in an alternative venue from the White House briefing room.
Recognizing that Trump’s reelection prospects are now tied intractably to the coronavirus pandemic, his aides are hopeful the coming weeks will mark a new focus on his part on addressing the crisis and appearing in charge.
A senior Trump campaign adviser said not only would that help Trump politically, it would have the added benefit of saving lives.
“It’s about doing the right thing,” the adviser said.
Few believe Trump is interested in resuming the day-to-day oversight of the pandemic, which he has largely left to Pence since April.
The potential pitfalls seem numerous, including the type of disastrous episode that ended his briefings the first go-around. Many are skeptical that Trump can remain on-message long enough to convince Americans that he is taking the pandemic seriously.
And Trump himself had been wary of returning to the podium as the face of the administration response, concerned it will send the signal the virus isn’t under control and that his efforts so far have been fruitless.
But with the virus spreading out of control in many parts of the country and his standing among voters worsening, Trump’s advisers feel they have little choice but to try something new.