The dramatic differences in how President Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden are returning to the campaign trail – Trump with a mega-rally, Biden with small, socially distanced groups – is showcasing the gulf between their approaches to governance.
Trump’s campaign is moving forward with plans for Saturday night’s event in Tulsa despite complaints from local officials and dire warnings from public health experts about the dangers of packing 20,000 people into cramped indoor quarters amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, Biden, his presumptive Democratic opponent, has made a much more methodical return to the trail – wearing masks while near others and practicing social distancing as he follows the guidance of public health officials and a team of doctors and experts his campaign has assembled, while forgoing in-person events that are open to the public.
Their approaches are offering a real-time window into their vastly different views of science, which Trump has repeatedly questioned and Biden has embraced, and the role of the presidency, with Biden seeking to model the behavior recommended by public health officials and Trump focused on sending the message that the United States is emerging from the pandemic – even as 21 states see an increase in coronavirus cases.
Trump “refuses to wear a mask, failing one of the most basic tests of leadership,” Biden said in a speech at a recreational center outside Philadelphia on Wednesday, attended by a limited crowd of about 20 invited guests and reporters.
“He takes no responsibility. He exercises no leadership. Now we’re just flat surrendering the fight. Instead of leading the charge to beat the virus, he’s just basically waved the white flag … so he can get back to his campaign rallies that will put people at risk,” Biden said.
“Donald Trump thinks if he puts his head in the sand, the American people will, too,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
For Biden, the contrast appears to be paying off: A CNN poll released last week found him with a 14-percentage-point advantage over Trump nationally among registered voters, and several other recent polls have shown him with similar leads.
‘That is the gold standard and his stock and trade’
Trump’s Tulsa rally has come together in a haphazard manner. It was initially planned for Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates slaves’ emancipation in the United States, but amid an outcry and protests over racial injustice across the nation, Trump’s campaign postponed it by one day.
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have also announced plans to visit other states in the coming weeks, which would make the Tulsa event the first in a series of rallies with less than five months remaining before the 2020 general election.
The campaign moves come as Pence, in a call with governors and in a misleading Wall Street Journal opinion piece, this week portrayed a nation “winning the fight against the invisible enemy” and said that concerns of a second wave of coronavirus are “overblown.”
For its part, Trump’s campaign has bragged that more than 1 million people have signed up for tickets to the Saturday night rally in Tulsa’s BOK Center, and the campaign is exploring overflow venues to add.
The rally – which goes against the guidance of Trump’s own administration – has provoked a public outcry, including from local officials.
David Bart, the Tulsa City-County Health Department director, pleaded with Trump to postpone the event. And Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said in a Facebook post Tuesday that he has concerns about the rally.
“I don’t like to be the first to try anything. I would have loved some other city to have proven the safety of such an event already,” he said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, has warned that large-scale events are risky at this stage in the pandemic and urged those who attend to wear masks.
Trump’s campaign has said it will perform temperature checks and have hand sanitizer and masks on hand – though wearing them would be optional, and Trump himself has not worn masks at public events.
“We always tell people, here’s the guidance, feel comfortable, don’t feel comfortable. We also know that people don’t want to be locked down forever,” Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters Wednesday.
She cast criticism of Trump’s return to holding rallies as motivated not by public health concerns, but by “those who will never want to do that again because obviously that is the gold standard and his stock and trade for him.”
‘He can’t ignore it away in June’
Biden’s style was on display Wednesday outside Philadelphia, where he held a roundtable with four local business owners. They sat spaced apart on a patio outside a restaurant, and didn’t shake hands or pose close together for pictures.
At the event, he faulted Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“One of the problems is that, in my view is, nobody’s taking responsibility here. The President says, ‘It’s not my responsibility. It’s not my fault,’” Biden said.
In his speech later, he said Trump had “lost interest” in the pandemic and was declaring victory too early.
“Just like he couldn’t wish COVID-19 away in March, just like he couldn’t tweet it away in April, he can’t ignore it away in June,” Biden said.
Biden – who spent more than two months at home in Delaware after effectively sealing the Democratic presidential nomination with big wins in South Carolina, on Super Tuesday and in the March 10 Michigan primary – has this month begun a cautious return to campaigning, starting with a Memorial Day wreath-laying ceremony.
He has sought to play a healer-in-chief role amid the triple crises of the pandemic, its dire economic costs and the protests across the nation against police brutality and racial injustice following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck.
Biden’s first flight in nearly three months came last week, with a trip to meet with Floyd’s family in a Houston restaurant. Photos from the meeting showed attendees wearing masks.
He is increasingly holding roundtable-style events, including one Wednesday in Philadelphia. Before those events, Biden’s campaign has screened attendees to make sure none have come in contact with people who have tested positive for the coronavirus. The campaign asks attendees to wear masks and practice social distancing, and has sometimes taken their temperatures upon arrival.
Those events – like the targeted roundtables Biden’s campaign has live-streamed on a near-daily basis for months – are invitation-only. He has not yet held events that are open to the public.
Biden has sat for in-person and virtual interviews, and his events and fundraisers are open to the press, usually with a small group of “pool” reporters covering them and then distributing detailed notes to other journalists. But his approach has not allowed for the sort of daily give-and-take with reporters that takes place in and around the White House.
His campaign has appointed a public health advisory committee, saying it will follow the advice of those doctors and experts on how to operate. Biden aides would not say whether larger public events are in the works.
Meanwhile, virtual events have worked well for Biden. His campaign raised $6 million in one night through a joint virtual fundraiser with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and $3.5 million in a similar event with California Sen. Kamala Harris. A virtual fundraiser is planned for later this month with former President Barack Obama. And his polling lead has increased in recent weeks.
Trump’s campaign blasted Biden on Tuesday for the slow return to in-person campaigning, claiming his approach is about avoiding questions, rather than following public health guidance.
“This is obviously a tactic to help him avoid errors and embarrassing, lost trains of thought, while also conveniently preventing the press corps from asking him any questions in person,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in a statement.
“At what point will Biden subject himself to the scrutiny American voters deserve when considering the next President of the United States?” Murtaugh said.
On Wednesday, Murtaugh pointed out on Twitter that it has been 76 days since Biden held a news conference.
Trump has also mocked Biden for wearing a mask in public – something the President has refused to do.
Biden, meanwhile, delivered a scathing speech lambasting Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. It was carried live across cable news networks.
He pointed out that, with its Tulsa rally, Trump’s campaign is poised to violate Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and is asking attendees to sign waivers releasing the campaign from responsibility if they become ill.
“Donald Trump’s failure to fight the coronavirus with the same energy and focus that he used to troll his enemies on Twitter has cost us lives and it’s putting hope for an economic recovery at risk,” Biden said.