WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's decision to use his coronavirus diagnosis for a retrenchment rather than a reset came into sharp focus Tuesday, as he and his team amplified a message that prioritized presidential strength over personal responsibility.
In a flurry of tweets and videos that began as he departed Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday evening and continued through the following day back at the White House, Trump downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus by comparing it to the annual flu, claimed victory over a virus his own doctors say he hasn't beaten yet and appeared to paint his disregard for medical advice as a sort of campaign credential.
"FEELING GREAT!" he tweeted Tuesday morning, following up a pledge to be "back on the Campaign Trail soon!!!" with his intention to participate in next week's presidential debate in Miami.
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Later in the day — amid news of additional positive coronavirus test results from West Wing aides, including top adviser Stephen Miller — he called for an end to congressional negotiations over a new round of pandemic-related aid until "after I win" re-election, urging the Senate to focus instead on approving his Supreme Court nominee, appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
The moves were the latest to signal a potentially risky rejection of an empathy-driven turn in favor of an attempt to salvage an image of strength, which advisers say they view as one of the last areas in which Trump may hold an advantage over Democratic nominee Joe Biden that could help motivate his core voters.
And so, rather than use his diagnosis as a moment to warn the public about the seriousness of the virus and the risk of transmission, Trump sought to leverage his experience as evidence of his personal toughness, telling Americans not to be afraid of the virus or let it "dominate" them.
While he was in the hospital, surrogates referred to Trump as a "warrior" for having contracted the illness, arguing that it gave him firsthand experience that would help him govern. As doctors criticized Trump for flouting medical guidelines by removing his mask on the White House balcony with staff and photographers around him, White House communications director Alyssa Farah described it as a sort of patriotic exercise.
"In times like these, the commander-in-chief needs to express confidence. It's very important to our allies and adversaries watching closely to see he is projecting an image of strength," Farah said Tuesday in a Fox News interview, adding: "The world and American people needed to see their president strong and leading."
With the majority of voters consistently disapproving of Trump's job performance, temperament and trustworthiness, advisers have increasingly tried to play up his image of strength in the final weeks of the race, arguing that his shouting and interruptions during the first presidential debate represented a net positive by making him look strong and Biden weak.
But since that debate, polls have suggested that the president has only lost ground, not gained it. Biden's national lead over Trump nearly doubled after last week's debate, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted after the event but before the president fell ill.
And even though advisers claimed that an image of strength and firmness represents one of Trump's few remaining political assets, he has long been losing ground on that front in a trend that predates his recent illness. In February, before the coronavirus crisis had fully hit, 59 percent of Americans described Trump in a Gallup poll as a "strong and decisive leader." Six months later, just 47 percent responding to that survey said the same.
Meanwhile, his campaign — which has long tried to make Biden's health a cornerstone of its attacks — has tried to adjust that argument since Trump's hospitalization rather than abandon it, arguing that his coronavirus diagnosis last week now gives him a different sort of health-related advantage over his Democratic rival.
"He has experience now fighting the coronavirus as an individual," campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine said Monday in a Fox News interview before Trump was released from Walter Reed. "Those firsthand experiences, Joe Biden, he doesn't have those."
As Trump returned to the White House, there was a sense inside his re-election effort that it remained too early to gauge where he stood with the public following the events of the past week and how best to correct course, said a person close to the campaign, who described the situation as "remarkably fluid."
"Everything about this president is paradoxical, and to try to ascribe normal campaign laws and rules is an impossibility," the person said.
Trump and his campaign said Tuesday that he planned to appear in person at the Oct. 15 presidential debate even though it wasn't clear whether his symptoms will have abated by then or whether his viral load will be low enough for him to safely share the stage with Biden. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says patients are typically considered contagious for 10 to 20 days from the onset of symptoms, depending on the severity of their case.
Aides and medical personnel haven't answered questions about Trump's viral load or the precise timing of his last negative test and his first positive test, which sets the clock in determining how long he might be contagious.
A source familiar with the discussions confirmed that one option being discussed is to hold the coming debates outside. The source said no other options of note have been discussed.
Asked whether the campaign will comply with any testing requirements or additional health measures that may be put in place, communications director Tim Murtaugh simply said, "The president intends to participate in person."
While the campaign looked to frame Trump's aggressive moves to quickly move past the virus — such as his announcement that he planned to debate next week — as signs of leadership, it ran the risk of alienating more voters, a majority of whom who have told pollsters that Trump has downplayed the seriousness of a virus that has killed roughly 210,000 in the United States.
On his first day out of the hospital, Trump again compared the coronavirus to the flu, saying the country needs to "learn to live with it" and complaining of the media that "All they want to discuss is COVID 19..." The approach represented the opposite of the one his advisers have repeatedly pushed him to take, as they have pointed him to poll numbers showing that he does best with voters when he appears to be taking the disease seriously.
Still, Trump aides involved in the 2016 campaign have noted that it was around this time that year that the "Access Hollywood" tapes were released. His poll numbers took a temporary hit before rebounding in the final week of the race — suggesting that the coronavirus messaging push might yet be a dim voter memory in the campaign's homestretch.
While more people are expected to vote earlier than they did in the last month of the 2016 contest, "there could be six more turns of the screw," the person close to the campaign said. "It is just so fluid. There will be more surprises. There will be issues yet that neither of us know are coming."