The aimless nature of President Donald Trump’s campaign seemed on full display Tuesday afternoon in the White House Rose Garden, where an event meant to unveil new actions against China – emerging as a top campaign issue – instead devolved into scattershot attacks on Joe Biden that at their best were misleading and at their worst seemed barely coherent.
Past incumbents have run a “Rose Garden strategy” before that seeks to highlight their policy objectives and presidential stature. But Trump’s performance in the garden Tuesday lacked both an obvious agenda or the above-the-fray aura such a strategy requires.
The public spat unfolding this week between the White House and the nation’s respected top infectious disease specialist has vexed some of Trump’s allies and exemplified the rudderless campaign. Aides’ visions for a highly focused reelection season have instead been replaced with Trump’s unpopular fights and obscure fixations.
After outcry, the White House appeared to be recalibrating its approach to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who sat for a lengthy meeting with chief of staff Mark Meadows on Monday after White House officials questioned his record in a statement to reporters. The President insisted during an afternoon roundtable their relationship was “very good.” And White House officials insisted Fauci would not (and, for that matter, could not) be dismissed, and would remain on the President’s coronavirus task force.
But with a little more than 100 days until November 3, the fight with Fauci illustrated what, to many supporters of Trump, has been a disturbing pattern: ill-timed battles with little evident public support that do nothing to define Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, articulate a rationale for another term in office or contain a pandemic that is both crippling the nation and dooming his reelection chances.
Trump has insisted to friends recently that he hasn’t really started campaigning yet. Yet some of the President’s tactics lately have been so baffling to his allies that several have openly speculated about whether he’s actively trying to lose the election.
Trump has denied that’s the case; he said in an interview with Real Clear Politics last week he wants a second term “with all my breath” and “with every ounce of what I represent.”
Still, the summer so far has been laden with frustrations for his political allies: Trump’s laser-like focus on preserving statues and monuments, including those honoring Confederate generals; his clemency for friend Roger Stone, which was opposed by his attorney general and generally considered politically unwise; and his long-standing refusal to wear a face mask, a streak broken last weekend only after extended pleading from aides.
In Fauci, White House officials targeted a well-respected health expert whom polls show is trusted by a large majority of Americans. To some degree, that public renown explains their grievances: the President has long noted with annoyance to aides that Fauci’s approval ratings are higher than his own, gripes that some aides interpreted as permission to attack the doctor publicly.
In the West Wing, Fauci has earned detractors, including trade adviser Peter Navarro, who has questioned his expertise and his willingness to advocate for recommendations that have caused the economy to stall. In an op-ed for USA Today published on Tuesday, Navarro said, “Dr. Anthony Fauci has a good bedside manner with the public, but he has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on.”
By Tuesday, the sparring had become a campaign issue – for Biden.
“Mr. Trump, please listen to your public health experts instead of denigrating them,” the former vice president said during a speech in Delaware, where he has been isolating during the pandemic.
’We don’t have a Dr. Fauci problem’
A White House official said the “positive conversation” between Meadows and Fauci on Monday was intended in part to lower the temperature. They discussed messaging and strategy moving forward, including a desire to focus less on case numbers and more on hospitalizations and mortality.
But a day later, Fauci highlighted the surging caseloads, saying during an event with Georgetown University “unequivocally you’re seeing more cases.”
Even to some advisers who share the view that Fauci is overly candid in his disagreements with the President, taking the fight public seemed foolish amid a raging pandemic where few approve of how Trump is handling himself.
“We don’t have a Dr. Fauci problem,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who acts as an informal adviser to Trump. “We need to be focusing on doing things that get us to where we need to go. So I have all the respect in the world for Dr. Fauci. I think any effort to undermine him is not going to be productive, quite frankly.”
By Monday, the decision by members of the White House press office to provide a list of Fauci’s past statements to reporters and to declare, anonymously, that several officials “are concerned about the number of times Fauci has been wrong on things” was viewed widely as a mistake, though press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended the decision in public.
“We provided a direct response to a direct question and that’s about it,” she said during Monday’s briefing. “And to the notion that there’s opposition research and that there’s Fauci versus the President, it couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Meadows later told others he was not involved in the decision to distribute the information, though some said it was difficult to believe he had no knowledge of what the press office was doing.
“It’s not a crisis in confidence or a warning shot,” one senior administration official insisted on Monday. “It’s just the White House tired of getting media questions about their relationship with St. Anthony.”
Although the White House later backed off the criticism of Fauci after it drew a negative response, one person said they had already achieved their goal by casting doubt on the doctor’s advice.
Outside allies of the President, including the conservative economist Stephen Moore, said they were preparing additional research on Fauci meant to diminish his public credibility.