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How the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Shifting Trump's Campaign Strategy


The White House was hoping things would start to get back to normal by this time. But with the coronavirus raging on, the president this week has had to face some hard realities. In the spring, he was confident that the Republican National Convention would happen. On Thursday, the pandemic forced his hand.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I looked at my team, and I said, the timing for this event is not right - just not right with what's happened recently - the flare-up in Florida. To have a big convention - it's not the right time.

MARTIN: This is one of several shifts he has had to make this week. NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe joins us to walk through them all.

Hi, Ayesha.


MARTIN: We'll get to the convention in a moment. But first, let's talk about the coronavirus briefings. The White House called these off back in April. I mean, things are really bad now, but they have been bad for a while when it comes to the pandemic. So what explanation did Trump give for restarting them this week?

RASCOE: They didn't say it explicitly. But poll after poll has put Trump behind former Vice President Joe Biden, nationally and in key swing states. The coronavirus is the top concern and top fear for voters, and the coronavirus is surging throughout the South. So those rosy, optimistic scenarios that Trump and others in the administration were talking about in the spring have not played out at all. Listen to him in May versus now.


TRUMP: Because, you know, this virus is going to disappear. It's a question of, will it come back in a small way? Will it come back in a fairly large way? But we know how to deal with it now much better.


TRUMP: It will probably unfortunately get worse before it gets better - something I don't like saying about things, but that's the way it is.

RASCOE: So now you have advisers like Kellyanne Conway saying that Trump needs to get back out in front of the issue. But the thing is that Trump has been inconsistent with his approach to the coronavirus from the beginning, and it's not clear how long this actually lasts.

MARTIN: All right. Let's talk about the convention. This is a big deal to - first planned it in Charlotte, and then the pandemic was so bad, you had to move it to Jacksonville. And now, finally, the president has relented.

RASCOE: You know, this is a massive setback for President Trump. And in many ways, it really captures how badly Trump misjudged the trajectory of this virus. You know, like you said, it was originally scheduled for Charlotte, but when the Democratic governor there wouldn't guarantee that they could hold this massive events with no mask and social distancing, they pushed the main events to Jacksonville.

Now, after all that expense and planning, he has had to back down. And the RNC will be mostly virtual events. This is after Trump had made fun of Democrats for their virtual convention.

MARTIN: Let's talk about masks, shall we? Because for a very long time, since the beginning, the president was, like, hey, I get tested for the coronavirus every day or at least, you know, multiple times a week. And he never wore a mask. Now the president's wearing masks.

RASCOE: You know, before, he was saying it was a personal choice, and he didn't like the image of it. But this week, he tweeted a picture of himself wearing a mask and really pushed the public to wear them.


TRUMP: And we're asking everybody that when you are not able to socially distance, wear a mask. Get a mask. Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact. They'll have an effect. And we need everything we can get.

RASCOE: This is another sign that he's kind of bowing to the reality of the situation.

MARTIN: The president has also taken a hard line on reopening schools in the fall. He appears to be softening on that. Remind us what he's been saying here.

RASCOE: For the past few weeks, Trump has been calling for schools to be open in the fall for in-person instruction, no exceptions. And without any evidence, he's accused state officials of trying to keep kids at home in the fall just to hurt him politically. Here he is earlier this month.


TRUMP: So we're very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open.

RASCOE: But some polls have shown that parents are concerned about sending their children back to school. And Trump seemed to acknowledge some of those concerns on Thursday - says it will be up to the governors to delay reopening if the data on the ground shows that's necessary. He still wants the schools to reopen if they can. And the decision has never really been in his hands. But it does seem like he's toned down his pressure for now.

MARTIN: So we heard something sort of new from him, at least trying to get a foothold on an attack that will work against Joe Biden. The latest effort is to talk about law and order and, in particular, protecting the suburbs and reaching out to, quote, "housewives." Explain.

RASCOE: You know, while many voters are expressing fear about the coronavirus, the president and his campaign are trying to stoke fear about violence in the cities. And so that's what they've been focusing on this week. This weekend, the Justice Department announced it would send law enforcement to cities like Chicago to address violence. And so this is about trying to shore up that suburban woman part of his base, trying to get that support.

MARTIN: NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.