2020 Election
President Donald Trump speaks during an event at the White House in Washington, D.C. on May 26, 2020.
Oliver Contreras—Bloomberg/Getty Images
May 27, 2020 5:27 PM EDT

President Trump wanted to see a rocket launch. On the day the U.S. topped 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, Trump was at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center to watch two astronauts blast off inside a capsule built by billionaire Elon Musk. The President may have been hoping for an escape—maybe not from the Earth, but from the drumbeat of devastating headlines. The stormy skies above Cape Canaveral seemed to echo Trump’s temper.

A tragic time for the country has become a dire moment for the President’s re-election prospects. The toll of the coronavirus pandemic is mounting, nearly 40 million Americans are out of work, and Trump is trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden among key sectors of the population and in crucial swing states. His ability to communicate directly to his voters has been undercut by Twitter’s decision to begin fact-checking misinformation in his feed, and he still cannot hold the large rallies that are crucial to his campaign strategy.

The circumstances have left Trump fuming behind the scenes. The President believes he’s being unfairly blamed for the number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. and is losing the public relations battle over his handling of the pandemic, says a White House official.

In response, Trump has lashed out repeatedly at his critics, to a degree that is rare even for him. He has been stoking unfounded conspiracies about a decades-old accidental death in the former congressional office of Joe Scarborough, now his cable news nemesis, prompting the family of the deceased woman to ask Trump to stop. He has suggested without evidence that President Barack Obama spied on his campaign and engaged in criminal activity in a conspiracy theory he calls “Obamagate.” He has continued to undermine public-health efforts by refusing to wear a mask in public. He’s further frayed the country’s democratic institutions by conducting a purge of the inspectors general tasked with ferreting out government waste. And he’s sought to undermine faith in November’s election, attacking states’ use of mail-in ballots, which are legal, have a track record of expanding voter access and have not been linked to wide-spread fraud.

“It’s the instinct to punch back which sometimes plays out in ways like this,” the White House official says, warning against trying to ascribe “too much grand strategy” to the outbursts. Aides close to Trump have come to see his Twitter feed as a release valve for the President, and have given up on trying to rein in his impulses on the platform.

Some observers see in Trump’s outbursts an attempt to change the subject. “The headlines tomorrow will read 100,000 deaths,” says Gregory Goodale, an expert in political communication at Northeastern University. “Does Trump want Fox News to carry that headline, or Joe Scarborough is a murderer or Joe Biden is PC for wearing a mask or mail-in voting will rig the election?”

This isn’t the first time Trump has lobbed incendiary tweets to try to deflect. But a “look over there” strategy has rarely been tested during a public health crisis in a time of national grief, with American lives on the line and a presidential election just months away. As the pandemic continues, Trump’s electoral prospects are worsening. The Real Clear Politics polling average finds Trump trailing Biden by an average of more than 5 points nationally, and losing to the former Vice President in most key swing states, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—the troika that delivered him the White House in 2016. Trump is losing support among senior citizens, who were an important part of his 2016 coalition. Some of the voters who cast ballots for him in 2016 out of antipathy for Hillary Clinton say they are abandoning him now, disillusioned by his response to the coronavirus.

Some prominent Republicans say the President has crossed the line with the attacks he’s lobbed in recent days. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, he’s the Commander-in-Chief of this nation, and it’s causing great pain to the family of the young woman who died, so I would urge him to stop it,” Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the chair of the House Republican Conference, said May 27, referencing Trump’s repeated implication that Scarborough had been involved in the death of staff member Lori Klausutis in 2001. (Police ruled the death an accident; at the time, Scarborough was hundreds of miles away.) Mitt Romney, the only Republican senator to vote to convict Trump on abuse of power during his impeachment trial, called Trump’s suggestions about Scarborough’s involvement in Klausutis’s death “vile” and “baseless.” “Enough already,” the senator from Utah tweeted.

For its part, Trump’s 2020 campaign is attempting to reframe his tantrums as part of his blunt personality that gets results. A new national ad released May 27 champions Trump as “a bull in a China shop,” arguing that Trump’s brusque, provocative manner can break entrenched Washington gridlock. “President Trump’s not always polite,” the ad says. “Mr. Nice Guy won’t cut it.”

But as Trump continues grasping for distractions, even the rocket launch couldn’t provide the outlet he craved. Just 16 minutes before liftoff, the launch was scrubbed because of bad weather.

Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.berenson@time.com.

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