With less than a month before the election, President Donald Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis has returned the pandemic to the forefront of the presidential race. While his administration sought to project an image of a president who is recovering quickly, his campaign is working to frame his illness as an electoral asset.
Since his return Monday from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Trump has projected an image of an incumbent ready to return to the job. On Wednesday he left the executive residence to work briefly from the Oval Office, where he received updates on Hurricane Delta and the ongoing negotiation with congressional Democrats on the emergency economic rescue package.
Throughout his convalescence Trump has remained very active on Twitter, with posts that included attacks on his political opponents, statements on his nomination of conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, as well as several assurances of his physical well-being.
Strength in sickness
Trump’s messaging included a video released Monday showing his discharge from the hospital and arrival back to the White House, climbing stairs rarely used when returning to the executive residence. His main message to Americans, delivered after taking off his mask, is not to be afraid and not to allow the coronavirus to “dominate your lives.”
In a video released Wednesday evening, Trump called his illness a "blessing from God." He highlighted the drugs he said have helped him "a lot" and characterized them as "a cure."
“Trump is trying to portray himself as a kind of Superman,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is “vanquishing the virus, while also downplaying the deadly quality of it to make his administration's failed approach look better,” he said.
Trump's allies see it as a president doing his best as he battles adversity.
“We’re not going to surrender to it like Joe Biden would surrender to this virus,” Mercedes Schlapp, a Trump campaign adviser, said Monday on Fox News. “And at the end of the day, we know that the president is doing well.”
The White House physicians’ daily updates on the president’s condition have been rosy. On Wednesday, Dr. Sean Conley, the president’s doctor, said that his “physical exam and vital signs, including oxygen saturation and respiratory rate, all remain stable and in normal range.” Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who along with several of her staff, tested positive for the coronavirus this week, tweeted the memo.
While the Trump administration sought to project an image of a strong and swift recovery, his campaign is working to leverage the president’s illness. During a segment on Fox News on Monday, Trump campaign communications director Erin Perrine presented the president’s diagnosis as a competency that Joe Biden lacks.
“He is battling it head on, as toughly as only President Trump can,” Perrine said. “He has experience now of fighting the coronavirus as an individual. Those firsthand experiences, Joe Biden, he doesn't have those,” she added.
Republican strategist Amanda Iovino of the Market Research firm WPA Intelligence said that as the president seeks to use his personal battle against the virus as a metaphor for how the country is fighting the pandemic, there is an opening for the campaign to use the president’s diagnosis in “relating to and empathizing with Americans who have had the virus or who have had loved ones infected,” in particular seniors — a key demographic in the 2020 election — who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
Trump won the senior vote by 7 percentage points in 2016, but an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday showed Biden leading Trump in this group by 27 points, while a CNN/SSRS poll released Tuesday showed Biden leading by 21 points.
As the Trump campaign calculates that the president’s projection of strength in his battle against the virus will secure support from his base and possibly win sympathy from undecided voters, they are also hoping that Trump’s rapid recovery will prove that the pandemic threat has been overblown.
Trump’s approach is to project triumph, said Jennifer Mercieca, a professor of communication at Texas A&M University.
“He’s trying to convey that the virus is trivial, and we can easily overcome it and get back to normal,” she added.
Mercieca calls that approach “a hard sell” because the virus rampaged through Trump’s inner circle, with the first lady and at least 11 White House staff and Trump campaign aides contracting the virus so far. Three Republican senators who attended a White House event on September 26 and 11 people involved in the first presidential debate on September 29 have also tested positive.
“People will ask ‘If the White House isn’t safe, then can my house be safe?’" Mercieca added.
Logistically, Trump’s diagnosis has changed plans for the last weeks of campaigning before the November 3 election. With a candidate unfit to travel at least temporarily, the campaign is relying on Vice President Mike Pence and other surrogates, including family members Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, and Eric and Lara Trump to continue “Operation Make America Great Again.”
The Trump campaign has also moved away from the “Biden is hiding in his basement” line of attack, which compares the energy of Trump's massive rallies and his opponent’s smaller, socially distanced events.
Biden’s limited exposure
In the past six months, the Biden campaign strategy has been to limit their candidate’s exposure, adhering to strict health protocols outlined by state and national guidelines. Following Trump’s diagnosis, the Biden campaign has stayed the course and stuck to campaign travel plans, either virtually or meeting supporters in small groups in outdoor venues where masks are worn.
As news of Trump’s illness broke, Biden offered his thoughts and prayers for the president's and first lady’s “swift recovery.”
Biden has been cautious about commenting on Trump’s illness but on Monday he faulted the president for failing to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines, saying that Trump is “responsible” for contracting the virus.
“Anybody who contracts the virus by essentially saying, 'Masks don't matter, social distancing doesn't matter,' I think is responsible for what happens to them,” Biden said in an NBC town hall in Miami.
John Fortier, director of governmental studies at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the Biden campaign would be wise to avoid using Trump’s illness as political leverage.
“I expect that they will simply wish the president well and wait and see what the limitations on campaigning and debates are,” he said.
Trump said he is looking forward to the second debate even as concerns surface about the advisability of meeting his opponent while still in recovery.
On Tuesday, Biden, who has had at least four negative tests since his first face-off with Trump, said that if the president still has COVID-19, “we shouldn't have a debate.” His campaign is demanding proof that the president does not pose a threat to Biden and the attendees at the town hall-style debate scheduled for October 15.
“There will be citizens there in attendance asking questions,” said Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield in an interview Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America. “So, the obligation is on Donald Trump to prove that he is not contagious.”
Wednesday night, Vice President Mike Pence and Biden’s running mate California Senator Kamala Harris faced each other in a debate. Despite the candidates being 12 feet apart, Pence’s team reluctantly allowed a plexiglass divider between them, a request made by the Biden-Harris team.
In an interview with Fox Business on Thursday, Trump said he will not participate in the next presidential debate after the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that it will be virtual.
"I’m not going to waste my time at a virtual debate," he said.
Biden responded, "We don't know what the president is going to do, he changes his mind every second. So, for me to comment on that now would be irresponsible."
Biden added that he will "follow the commission recommendations."
Hours later, the Trump campaign said they would like to have the debates in person, pushing the dates back one week to Oct. 22 and 29. The Biden campaign said that Trump's "erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar and pick new dates of his choosing."