President Donald Trump’s campaign has been thrown into chaos, adjusting its tactics, messaging and work environment following Trump and a number of top aides and political allies’ positive tests for coronavirus.
Trump is in the hospital. His campaign manager, Bill Stepien, and the Republican National Committee chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, contracted the virus. All of the campaign’s planned rallies and fundraisers featuring the President and his family are on hold. And Trump’s ability to debate Democratic rival Joe Biden again is uncertain.
Trailing Biden with one month left in the 2020 race, Trump is now stuck in a position he’s spent months trying to avoid: Faced with an election that is all about the coronavirus pandemic, with no way to change the topic.
With ballots already available in 35 states and voting beginning in the swing states of Arizona, Iowa, New Hampshire and Ohio within the next week, millions of votes could be cast with Trump sick with a virus he has downplayed for months.
The next time Trump and Biden are scheduled to meet in person for a debate is October 15, for a town hall-style event in Miami. But it’s unclear now whether Trump will be physically able to participate.
The Commission on Presidential Debates is already preparing to make a change that is effectively a rebuke of Trump, whose guests declined a Cleveland Clinic doctor’s request that they wear masks at the first debate on Tuesday. A source familiar with the matter said the commission will announce that everyone in the debate halls, except the candidates and moderator, must remained masked until conclusion – and those not wearing masks will be escorted out.
Trump’s other ways of narrowing Biden’s consistent lead in national and swing-state polls are limited: Biden is expected to report a massive fundraising total from September – one that sources familiar with the matter said will top his record-smashing $365 million August haul. That would likely position Biden as the clear leader in the cash race through November 3, allowing him to out-spend Trump on advertising.
Trump had driven news coverage with his bombastic rallies, some of which were being held indoors and all of which featured crowds which were tightly packed together and largely without masks. But those are on hold, too, Stepien said in a statement Friday. All in-person campaign activities involving Trump and his family have been postponed or are being switched to virtual events, Stepien said.
“We’re really back to where we were on the campaign in March and April, where the President was communicating via telephone town hall rallies and talking to people through his social media activities and through the television,” Corey Lewandowski, who was Trump’s first 2016 campaign manager and saw Trump at a Minnesota rally on Wednesday, told Fox News on Friday. “So it’s going to be a different type of campaign.”
Vice President Mike Pence, who tested negative for the virus Saturday, will be active on the campaign trail. Trump’s campaign announced a Thursday rally in Arizona that Pence will headline.
And events with Trump’s surrogates were continuing over the weekend. Trump campaign aide Marc Lotter tweeted a photo from an Iowa event with Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds in which the governor and many attendees were not wearing masks.
The campaign’s approach to voter outreach doesn’t appear to have changed yet, with in-person canvassing – which Trump’s allies have done for months, while Biden was set to resume door-knocking this weekend – going forward.
Stepien told staff he will work from home. Stepien is expected to reach out to campaign staff and grassroots leaders in a series of conference calls on Saturday and Pence is planning to be a part of at least one of them.
Meanwhile, at the campaign’s Arlington headquarters, deputy campaign manager Justin Clark, is overseeing day-to-day activities.
In a memo to staff prior to his positive test, Stepien instructed his team work from home if they believe they came in close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.
“In consultation with the White House Medical Unit and our own medical consultants, any campaign staff member who has had exposure to someone testing positive should immediately begin self-quarantine,” Stepien wrote, though he also told staff without symptoms that it was unnecessary to self-quarantine.
On Saturday, it was clear how badly Trump’s campaign was struggling to find a message to meet the new moment it faces.
Trump’s campaign frequently seeks to set the tone of coverage of Biden by posing a “question of the day.” The question the campaign sent reporters Saturday morning was: “Do you regret repeatedly attacking President Trump in a Michigan speech on the same day he was diagnosed with COVID-19?”
The email followed Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh complaining Friday that Biden had attacked Trump during a speech in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
But the complaints are hollow: Biden was mildly critical of Trump’s handling of the economy, noting that – if he loses on November 3 – Trump is on track to become the first president in modern history to leave office with an economy with fewer jobs than he entered with. But he did not attack Trump in personal terms, dropping his usual “Scranton vs. Park Ave.” message and his usual criticism of Trump’s history of racist comments and actions. And his campaign said it has pulled its ads condemning Trump.
Trump has not taken any of his attack ads down. And on Friday – with Biden campaigning in Michigan and Trump about to head to Walter Reed Medical Center – Trump’s campaign in a fundraising email to supporters attacked former President Barack Obama, calling him “Lyin’ Obama,” and said Biden is “probably already asleep in his basement.”
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign’s complaints conflict with how Trump himself dealt with an opponent who was sick. At a 2016 rally, Trump mocked Hillary Clinton after her bout with pneumonia.
“She’s supposed to fight all of these different things and she can’t make it 15 feet to her car? Give me a break. Give me a break,” Trump said then. “Give me a break. She’s home resting right now.”
CNN’s Donald Judd, Kaitlan Collins and Dana Bash contributed to this report.