When Donald Trump began running for re-election, the United States felt like a different country than it does today.
Formally launching his 2020 run last summer with the slogan “Keep America Great,” the Trump campaign was confident Trump could ride to victory as the incumbent on America’s booming economy, with stock indexes hitting record highs as recently as February. But the coronavirus pandemic has crippled the nation and the world, taking more than 40,000 American lives, tanking the American economy, and rendering at least 22 million people jobless since Trump declared a national emergency in March.
Now, as the Trump re-election campaign heads into its final seven months with former Vice President Joe Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee, the message of why voters should re-elect President Trump is adjusting to that grim reality. Faced with a historic crisis that undermines Trump’s prior bragging about the economy and America’s place in the world, Trump and his campaign are trying to shift blame for the crisis fallout away from the President and hoping Americans will still view him as the best candidate to lead the country’s comeback.
“The American economy under President Trump’s leadership reached unprecedented heights, before it was artificially interrupted by the coronavirus,” says Tim Murtaugh, the campaign’s communications director. “He built it to incredible heights once, and he will do it a second time.”
The recalibration is no small job for a campaign that was initially focused on a prospering economy. The stock market took a precipitous plunge in the early days of the outbreak, and the country is facing a level of job loss not seen since the Great Depression.
Trump “was the first President to keep pointing at the Dow and saying, ‘I did this, yeah, I’m responsible,’” says Timothy Naftali, a historian at New York University. Previous modern presidents steered clear, worried that taking credit for the rise of the Dow Jones Industrial Average would mean pinning their legacy to the vicissitudes of the stock market, which goes up and down for reasons often beyond the actions of the President, Naftali says. “Now the President looks at the Dow, and if he were to ask people, are you better off now than you were four years ago, the answer wouldn’t please him, nor would it please the American people.”
There’s some evidence that that the American people are souring on Trump already: a Gallup poll from mid-April found that Trump’s approval rating had dropped six points since March to 43%, the sharpest drop that poll had recorded in Trump’s presidency so far. A new NBC News/WSJ poll from mid-April shows Biden leading Trump by 7 points nationally among registered voters, 49 to 42%, in the presidential race. A Real Clear Politics polling average has Biden leading Trump 48.3% to 42.5%
The Trump Administration has faced sharp criticism for fumbling the early response to the crisis, with costly mistakes in creating widely available, functional tests for the virus and an unexplained delay in further actions that could have been taken in the weeks after Trump initially banned travel from China. “What he’s trying to do is reframe this crisis so that the American people will forget that it is worse than it had to be, that he misunderstood the challenge, that he bungled the implementation of the response,” says Naftali.
Ultimately, Trump’s campaign doesn’t think voters will blame the president for the country’s new economic woes, and hopes voters will only credit him for the economic highs. “You can’t fault him,” a campaign official says of blaming Trump for the economic crisis, using the same phrase as Murtaugh, that the economy was ‘artificially interrupted.’ “During the coronavirus, the American people want to see the president leading, and that’s what they’re seeing with President Trump,” says Erin Perrine, principal deputy communications director for the Trump campaign. “We’re going to continue to tout that.”
The White House shares the campaign’s view that, so far, Americans may not be holding Trump accountable for their economic troubles and will instead focus on what he’s doing to move forward. “The President doesn’t seem to own the negative economic outcome from this unprecedented global pandemic,” a White House official says, adding that “he would have owned the negative health outcomes, if he had opened up” the economy too soon. The push to reopen the country quickly “presumed that the economy is still the number one issue going into the election,” the official says, “when the handling of coronavirus is.”
As the campaign focuses on a promise of economic revival and Trump’s coronavirus response, they’re also beginning to launch attacks on Biden that could resonate during the pandemic. Murtaugh says they will continue to draw distinctions with Biden on the standard campaign issues, including health care policy, energy policy, tax policy and Second Amendment views. But, “there’s no question that a prominent issue is going to be the coronavirus,” Murtaugh says.
Murtaugh and another campaign official tell TIME they plan to highlight Biden’s “coziness with China,” as the official puts it. Both officials note Biden’s previous support for trade with China and the business ties his son, Hunter Biden, has to the country, as well his Biden’s initial criticism of Trump’s decision to halt travel from China. The travel ban from China is one of the moves Trump often talks about as a crucial decision he made to manage the spread of the virus in the U.S. “Our internal data shows that Joe Biden’s softness on China is a major vulnerability, among many,” Murtaugh says.
Both campaign and White House staff say they think the best contrast Trump can draw with Biden is to keep promoting the work he and the federal government are doing. “He is doing things only a president can do,” says Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president and Trump’s former campaign manager in 2016, citing things like invoking the Defense Production Act, hosting other world leaders on calls, implementing travel restrictions on China and working with state governors to deploy supplies. “In this building, we don’t have time to talk about Bernie [Sanders] or Biden,” Conway says. “We’re talking about ventilators and vaccines.”
The mechanics of how the Trump campaign is able to get its retooled messaging out has needed to change as well. The huge rallies in multi-thousand seat arenas that have always been a staple of Donald Trump’s campaigns are now prohibited by the public health guidelines governing the coronavirus mitigation efforts. The campaign insists Trump will be back to holding rallies sometime before the election. “This coronavirus will pass and the president is looking forward to getting back out on the campaign trail and holding rallies,” Murtaugh said in a statement. “Never fear, the President is certain that we’re going to be back out there speaking directly to the American people.”
That may or may not come to pass for public health reasons, and Trump has said he doesn’t like the look or feel of arenas and large crowds at partial capacity for social distancing measures. “I don’t like the rallies where we’re sitting like you’re sitting,” Trump said during an April 17 coronavirus task force briefing, referring to journalists seated apart for social distancing. “It loses, to me, a lot of flavor. But I hope we’re going to have rallies. I think they’re going to be bigger than ever.”
Until then, the campaign has been relying on its network of volunteers to make calls to prospective voters from their own homes in a program called “Trump Talk,” in which they “are not only encouraging people to re-elect the President but we are asking people to visit Coronavirus.Gov for important resources and to learn about what they can do to flatten the curve,” Ali Pardo, deputy communications director for the campaign, told TIME in a March 27 statement.
In total, the campaign says it has nearly 1,000 staffers and 550,000 trained volunteers across the country now working in the new virtual campaign infrastructure, making calls and working to register new voters online. “The Trump Campaign has a significant advantage because of our early and ongoing investment in data and technological infrastructure that began in 2015,” said Pardo.
At least one key tenet of the campaign has stayed the same since before the pandemic: Trump still takes the lead on the message he wants to present. He has always campaigned largely by instinct, and the campaign insists that’s no different, even during this temporary pause in rallies, which is where he often tests out new slogans or ideas. In some ways, the near daily coronavirus task force briefings at the White House have become Trump’s substitute for his rallies in his ability to command airwaves and speak without a filter to the American people, though the briefings lack the direct contact with enthusiastic supporters he enjoys.
Sometimes the campaign’s reliance on Trump’s gut can lead it into dicey territory, as when Trump recently tweeted support to “liberate” certain states where protesters have pushed back against public health economic lockdowns. Fomenting protest is a well-worn instinct for Trump, but a Politico/Morning Consult poll from last week found that 81% of Americans disagree with the protestors’ position, saying the United States “should continue to social distance for as long as is needed to curb the spread of coronavirus, even if it means continued damage to the economy.” And Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, warned Monday that those protests will “backfire” and delay the economic reopening even further.
When asked about Trump’s tweets, a campaign official doubled down: “The president’s message is the one that we support.”
In isolation, Trump as an instinctual campaigner could risk falling out of touch with a country that has fundamentally changed in the space of a few short months. “They’d rather not have me travel,” Trump said on April 17. “I think I’ve been in the White House, I don’t know, for months,” except for one trip to Virginia on March 28. “I don’t know what it is,” the president lamented of how long he’s been stuck in the White House.
Trump used to poll rally audiences about slogans he was testing out, asking for cheers to signal approval for phrases like “Make America Great Again” or a switch to “Keep America Great.” Standing at the podium at his daily briefings won’t give Trump the same kind of feedback he’s relied on in the past. Many voters may not feel that America is doing “great” by the time they head to the general election polls in November, particularly as the pandemic’s death toll is projected to keep climbing. The government estimates that more than 100,000 people could die from COVID-19 before the crisis is over.
For now, the campaign says, they’re sticking with “Keep America Great” — unless and until President Trump says otherwise. “How the president brands the campaign is completely up to him,” a campaign official says. “We all know he is the best campaign manager, best communications director, and best advocate for himself that’s out there.”
—With reporting by Brian Bennett/Washington
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Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.Rogers@time.com