Trump’s team, hobbled by coronavirus in final stretch, scrambles to salvage campaign

  • Oct. 3, 2020 7:30 p.m.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s campaign is running out of money, running out of people and running out of time.

One month from Election Day, Trump’s family, his campaign manager, the head of the Republican National Committee and the president himself have been taken off the field by the pandemic that had already wiped away his competitive edge in the race.

Trump had been trailing in the polls of every battleground state. But with millions of Americans starting to vote, and with mere weeks left to close the gap with his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s campaign is now even further hobbled by a limited bench of surrogates, with senior officials out of commission and the top of the ticket hospitalized.

As the president was preparing to leave for Walter Reed Medical Center on Friday, hours after testing positive for COVID-19, the GOP sent out thin talking points to top allies about his condition. But the document focused primarily on the economy, the first presidential debate in Ohio earlier in the week and the Supreme Court nomination.

The campaign did not hold a call for lower-level aides, many anxious for guidance, to inform them of a game plan. Campaign manager Bill Stepien sent multiple all-staff emails Friday, and meetings at the campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, were canceled.

The GOP did not book top campaign staff members to appear on television news shows, because nobody knew what the plan was, according to a source familiar with the matter, who said the campaign did not want staffers speaking out during the first 48 hours while the situation with the president was fluid and the White House conducted contact tracing.

“This is totally uncharted territory — there is no playbook for what to do when your candidate catches the virus and is hospitalized a month before the election,” said Alex Conant, a Republican political consultant and former communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “The campaign is uniquely dependent on the president to carry its message. His absence leaves a big vacuum.”

Aides who were not in self-quarantine after exposure to individuals who tested positive or on the campaign’s bus tour were in the office.

After Stepien told staff in an email that he also had tested positive for the coronavirus, he was still said to be running the campaign from home while his deputy, Justin Clark, took on more of managing the day-to-day details of the operation.

But the absence of Trump’s closest advisers, including Hope Hicks, a senior official who helps manage Trump’s schedule and White House messaging and tested positive this week, was notable as his political operation plotted a new course.

The presidential health crisis has been made worse for the campaign by the perception of incompetence at the White House in abiding by pandemic restrictions, as evidence mounts that events surrounding Trump’s nomination to the Supreme Court —in which few wore masks indoors or outside —may have served as a super-spreader event.

Nearly a dozen members of the president’s inner circle, including Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., have since tested positive for the coronavirus.

A campaign designed to concentrate power at the very top, with the president and a small cadre of aides, including Stepien, making key decisions, was effectively incapacitated over 48 hours of crisis, with few decisions made beyond relying almost exclusively on Vice President Mike Pence for upcoming senior-level, in-person events.

And with the decision to ground Trump’s family members —whom he considers his top and most loyal surrogates —from campaign travel for the foreseeable future over their contact with the president and other individuals who tested positive, the campaign has effectively disarmed itself in the final stretch to the Nov. 3 election.

Campaign officials have turned to the most basic tools at their disposal: their ground game. The focus on Saturday was to encourage door-knocking by volunteers and promote bus tours by mid-level surrogates.

But while the Biden campaign said it would take down negative advertising given the president’s diagnosis, the Trump campaign has no plans to reciprocate, noting that some negative Biden ads remained live online as of Saturday morning.

“On the day President Trump tested positive for COVID and entered the hospital, Joe Biden used a speech in Michigan to attack the president repeatedly on Social Security, the economy and job creation,” Tim Murtaugh, director of communications for the Trump campaign, told McClatchy. “Now Biden wants credit for being magnanimous?”

Television advertising will only go so far, however, given the limited value it has had to this point in boosting Trump in battleground states.

Biden raised more than $365 million in September. The Trump campaign has not released its monthly combined total with the Republican Party yet, but the joint operation trailed Democrats by some $154 million in August.

Republican strategists doubt that Trump’s aides have been sitting on especially valuable opposition research on Biden to release at the last minute.

“If they had good oppo, they would have deployed it a long time ago. People are already voting in several states,” Conant said. “TV ads, which you need money for, are less effective than they’ve ever been before.”

Trump’s last fundraiser on Thursday at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, hours before he tested positive for coronavirus has come under scrutiny. Hicks was known to have tested positive at the time but Trump traveled from the White House to the event and back anyway.

The campaign did organize an interfaith Zoom prayer meeting for coalition members Friday, participants on the call said. Evangelist Alveda King and pastor and White House adviser Paula White were among those who spoke.

Harmeet Dhillon, the RNC’s California committeewoman, said she sang a Sikh hymn in Punjabi during the call, which she said was not political in nature. “It was to pray for the president, and others exposed to this virus and for healing,” she said.

Trump had been planning to visit Wisconsin, Arizona and California this week. But those events were canceled Friday. The Trump campaign said Pence would visit Arizona on Thursday.

Aides to Pence say that he remains committed to debating the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, on Wednesday, and remains hunkered down at his residence in Washington preparing for the event. He and his wife tested negative for the coronavirus Saturday morning.

But the two additional presidential debates scheduled for this month —seen by campaign aides as critical opportunities to reclaim ground —have also been called into question, contingent on the course of Trump’s infection.

While his doctors said Saturday morning that he is “doing very well,” a source familiar with the president’s health told reporters that the next 48 hours will be critical for Trump. “The president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning,” the source said. “We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.”

“The challenge for the campaign is that they have to drive up Biden’s negatives,” Conant said, “and that’s going to be virtually impossible in this environment given what’s happened.”

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(c)2020 Los Angeles Times

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