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It's Trump's coronavirus response now, to his political profit or peril

With the world consumed by the threat of the coronavirus, the president has increasingly focused on taking political advantage of the crisis he initially tried to downplay.
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WASHINGTON — For President Donald Trump, the spring of 2020 was supposed to be a time for trumpeting the economy, scaring voters about a Joe Biden presidency and trying to get some foreign policy wins.

But with the world consumed by the threat of the coronavirus, the president has increasingly been focused on using to his advantage the crisis that he initially tried to downplay. He's branded the federal response as his own, with his campaign echoing his moves — a high-risk, high-reward proposition, Republican strategists say.

Trump has reversed course on making Vice President Mike Pence the public face of the response, instead taking center stage himself in daily news briefings, which have had the viewership of major sporting events. He has appropriated the administration's response in his name, not that of the public health experts, as with a direct mailing sent out this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promoting "President Trump's Coronavirus Guidelines for America."

On Saturday, with most Americans confined at home, Trump traveled on Air Force One to Norfolk, Virginia, for a photo opportunity and ceremony for a Navy hospital ship heading to New York.

With the virus expected to continue to play a dominant role in the American psyche over at least the next several months, it stands to be the top issue shaping voters' decisions in November, campaign advisers said, with their choices heavily influenced by how they feel Trump handled the response.

"The president's re-elect does not matter," said a White House aide, who asked not to be identified. "You could raise $100 billion, you could run a Mike Bloomberg-style campaign and it would not matter because this [coronavirus situation] is literally all anyone is talking about. All eyes are focused on the president and the White House."

It's in stark contrast to where Trump and his allies were less than two months ago, when he was coming off his impeachment acquittal with personal record approval numbers and purging his administration of perceived enemies. He was holding near-weekly political rallies where he painted Democrats as socialists who would destroy the economy, arguing that voters had no choice but to vote for him or their 401(k) savings would tumble.

The stock market and the election-year economy itself have since taken a massive coronavirus-powered hit. Now, aides feel there is no playbook or historic precedent to guide their strategy, with a White House staffer describing it to colleagues as "flying the airplane while putting it together." It's the same analogy staffers used to describe Trump's 2016 presidential bid.

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As Trump pushed last week for the country to get back to regular business as soon as possible, he acknowledged the link to his re-election prospects, accusing the media in a tweet of "trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success."

Trump's campaign has been trying to use the crisis to play up the president's leadership, promoting his policy moves, repeating his talking points and pushing back against criticism on social media and in emails to supporters.

"Our primary focus has been to amplify what the president is doing and that he is clearly doing the job he was elected to do," said campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh.

On March 21, campaign volunteers made 1.5 million phone calls to voters, boasting of the steps Trump has been taking to respond to the pandemic, encouraging them to practice good hygiene and social distancing, and directing them to the government website, which leads people to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Murtaugh said.

At the same time, the campaign has been throwing blows at Biden and the media in news releases and emails to supporters and on social media. But while Democratic super PACs have been running millions of dollars in ads attacking Trump's coronavirus response, Trump's campaign hasn't been on the airwaves. Nor has the largest super PAC supporting Trump's re-election, causing concern among his advisers over the lack of defense the president has been getting, said a person close to the campaign.

"Where the hell is the super PAC?" the person said. "There are four super PACs on Joe Biden's side spending millions attacking the president, and we are wondering, 'Where are the president's friends? Where is his air cover?'"

The campaign also recently started trying to use the moment of uncertainty as a fundraising opportunity, sending out an email Friday asking for $35 donation to become an "Official 2020 Trump Gold Card Member."

"Our Nation is facing uncharted territory and there's never been a more important time for all of us to come together than right now," the campaign email said.

Trump and his campaign's embrace of the coronavirus response is a risky strategy should the virus continue on its current trajectory. The U.S. now has more reported cases of the virus than any other country, including China, the country Trump has repeatedly cited as its source.

But the president has been hedging his bets by laying the groundwork to blame everyone from Democratic governors to General Motors for whatever negative outcomes there may be — a strategy he's deployed throughout his career and his presidency, a Republican strategist said.

At times, Trump's description of the measures being taken by his administration has stood in sharp relief to the reality described by experts on the ground involved in the response, sparking criticism that he has overplayed the available assistance, given overly optimistic timelines and overstated his accomplishments.

Still, he saw a bump in his approval ratings since he shifted away from downplaying the threat to encouraging Americans to take drastic measures to slow the spread of the virus, such as avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people and steering clear of restaurants and bars.

Trump's approval rating rose 5 percentage points, to 49 percent, in a Gallup survey conducted last week, only the third time it has gone that high, with the two other times coming after his acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial.

But he hasn't benefited from the type of rallying effect other presidents have experienced in moments of crisis (George W. Bush reached a 90 percent approval rating from Gallup in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001). That's a sign of how polarized the country has become, as well as of Trump's difficulty playing the role of unifier and consoler-in-chief, which he has struggled with numerous times over this presidency, said Jeff Horwitt, a Democratic pollster with Hart Research.

"After 9/11, there was a real ability for Bush's numbers to move, and I think part of this is that Donald Trump brought to the White House a unique set of skills, like his ability shake things up, but bringing people together during a crisis was not one of them, and we are seeing this play out in real timed," Horwitt said.

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Americans have widely embraced Trump's recent call for drastic changes in their lives to try to stop the virus' spread, with about 70 percent saying it's necessary for most businesses to temporarily close and two-thirds of Americans viewing the situation as a "significant crisis," according to a Pew survey released last week.

It's unclear how his shift this past week toward pushing for Americans to get back to work and again equating the coronavirus to the seasonal flu could alter those views.

"People really do see this as a crisis, and the expectation is it is going to get worse before it gets better," Horwitt said. "When you have a leader expressing that and providing clear, concise and credible direction and leadership, that would be to their benefit. If you are providing communication that suggests otherwise, it both goes against facts and also goes against what people are seeing themselves."

CORRECTION (March 29, 2020, 9:40 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misidentified the political consulting firm where Jeff Horwitt works. It is Hart Research, not Heart Research.