A divide has emerged inside President Donald Trump’s inner circle over whether he should turn his attention back to the coronavirus pandemic or continue to focus on reopening the economy, sources familiar with the matter tell CNN.
As cases surge in dozens of states, Trump has remained mostly silent on the matter, focusing instead on protecting statues and stoking racial and cultural divisions. While others in his administration – including Vice President Mike Pence – make appeals for Americans to continue socially distancing and wear masks, Trump again suggested Wednesday the virus would “disappear.”
That has led to concerns, even among some of his own aides, that Trump appears disengaged from a deadly crisis that continues to grip the nation.
Several of Trump’s top aides, including chief of staff Mark Meadows and son-in-law Jared Kushner, have begun to worry about the President’s chances to win reelection, advisers familiar with the matter said – fears borne out by a steady stream of public polls showing Trump trailing his election rival, Joe Biden, by double digits. Both Meadows and Kushner have urged a focus on the economy over the public health emergency.
Some of Trump’s political advisers believe he has suffered grave political damage due to the pandemic, which has caused widespread economic hurt and death. Even as Trump and others in the White House project optimism that the economy will surge closer to the election, Trump’s handling of the pandemic has drawn rebukes – particularly as cases begin to spike.
“There is a fair amount of concern,” one adviser said, describing the President as “frustrated” by recent polling indicating Biden could win the November election by a wide margin.
“There is a lot of frustration,” another Trump adviser said about how the President and those around him view his reelection prospects.
But the adviser said many around the President concede that Trump is often his own worst enemy.
Yet despite the clear signs of trouble, Trump and his aides appear split over whether the President should spend more time and energy in confronting the pandemic.
Trump himself suggested in an interview Wednesday the virus may take care of itself.
“I think we’re going to be very good with the coronavirus. I think that at some point that’s going to sort of just disappear,” he said.
Meadows, Kushner and White House counselor Hope Hicks continue to recommend that Trump largely steer clear of the issue. Pence and trade adviser Peter Navarro are pushing the President to take on a more active role, warning the soaring number of cases could cause major disruptions across the country, according to one adviser as well as one other source close to the White House.
The divide inside the West Wing over the pandemic was made more apparent by Dr. Anthony Fauci’s testimony before a Senate committee on Tuesday, during which the infectious diseases expert warned lawmakers that coronavirus cases could skyrocket over the coming weeks from approximately 40,000 a day to 100,000.
A separate source close to the White House described Fauci’s testimony as “dropping bombs” on a disengaged Trump. Another administration official said Fauci was describing what can be seen as a “resurgence within the first wave.” Trump and Fauci, who rarely speak, have frequently appeared at odds in their assessments of the crisis.
As cases began to increase again last month, the White House made a concerted effort to avoid the dramatic, national emergency-style optics that marked the first surge of coronavirus in the United States – hoping to portray this latest surge to the public as far less alarming.
“We’re pivoting away from the all four screens, nationally televised press conferences,” one official said, claiming the first outbreak required more of an emergency response and public health education about how to mitigate the spread of this new virus. “Now we’re at a point in the virus where we have outbreaks – they’re significant, we’re monitoring them – but we also feel like we have control over it.”
The White House insisted Wednesday that Trump remains engaged on coronavirus.
“Any suggestion that the President is not working around the clock to protect the health and safety of all Americans, lead the whole-of-government response to this pandemic, including expediting vaccine development, and rebuild our economy is utterly false,” White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said.
After appearing on TV almost daily – including on weekends – during the earlier days of the pandemic, Trump himself has largely taken a visual backseat to the response now. His briefings on the topic eventually became venues for him to air grievances about the media and to muse about potential treatments – including ingesting disinfectant – which ultimately led to their demise.
Now, Trump is far more focused in private on getting the economy back up and running – though over the past week, he has focused in meetings mainly on how to protect national monuments and statues that he believes have come to represent his ability to keep the country safe.
The race-baiting has concerned a number of Trump’s allies, who believe he is harkening to a past that no longer exists – and that most Americans have moved on from.
One major concern in recent days for the President’s aides, according to the adviser who has sat in on recent White House meetings, was Trump’s retweet of a video in which a Trump supporter is seen shouting “White power.” The tweet was eventually deleted.
“It just sets us back worse,” the adviser said about Trump’s racially offensive tweets. “It makes it hard to win reelection.”
“He’s got to focus on what unites us and not divides us,” the adviser said of the President.
Yet Trump has seemed insistent on continuing the push to protect monuments, even as the country is focused on coronavirus.
Trump has not appeared alongside public health experts in public in weeks and has made fewer remarks about the virus in public, though a senior administration official says the public messaging will begin to ramp up again next week.
The President will “lean in a bit more on public messaging” on the virus, the official said, with plans for him to highlight advancements in therapeutics and work to fulfill all requests from state governors during events next week.
His message, according to this official: “While there are outbreaks and we’re tending to the needs of those outbreaks, we have the infrastructure in place to deal with them.”
The White House is also planning to authorize more regular briefings at the Department of Health and Human Services by task force doctors and HHS Secretary Alex Azar, the official said.