WASHINGTON — As the White House Coronavirus Task Force begins to fade from public view and health professionals take a back seat to President Donald Trump’s economic team, a new group of counselors has started to dominate the president’s thinking on the pandemic: a less official but potentially more significant re-election task force.
Made up of familiar campaign staff, senior White House aides and some surprising outside advisers, the team doesn’t meet regularly but it constantly bends the president’s ear and has largely overtaken medical experts as the president's focus shifts from a health challenge to an economic and political one, according to four people familiar with the discussions.
The public absence of previously ubiquitous experts around the president has been notable — until Friday, Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci hadn’t been face to face in more than two weeks, according to a source close to the nation’s top infectious disease expert. The two men, who both had exposure to White House staffers who tested positive for the virus last week, appeared in the Rose Garden to unveil their “warp speed” vaccine effort. While Fauci, who has been operating under a "modified" quarantine following his exposure, was wearing a mask, the president was not.
Also noteworthy is the ever-increasing role being assumed by the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, whose portfolio of responsibilities now spans from pandemic response to economic recovery concerns and the November election.
Since the contagion exploded in March, Kushner has led a shadow task force on the pandemic, operating mostly behind the scenes. Kushner’s public-facing role in the outbreak has included some missteps, from controversial comments over the national stockpile to this week having to clarify his remarks over whether the November election may move, which would require an act of Congress.
But the president himself has been publicly laudatory of Kushner’s performance, praising him during a meeting with GOP lawmakers last week. “Thank you, Jared,” Trump said, “you've done a great job. Someday, people are going to appreciate it. They say, ‘Oh, he's a relation.’ Well, he's a relation. If he wasn’t a good relation, I'd get him out of here so fast.”
As the main conduit between the White House and the campaign, even appearing at briefings for the re-election team in his official capacity, Kushner straddles both the coronavirus worlds — the federal government’s handling and how to attempt to frame it as a success story in Trump's bid for a second term. It’s often his job to coordinate the outside and the inside worlds when it comes to 2020 and funnel the most important information to the president.
“Jared is the most important person not named Donald Trump in the White House,” an outside ally of the president said. “All roads lead through Jared.”
The president speaks to someone from this unofficial group of advisers every single day, often surveying them on his standing in the polls and questioning how his economic fortunes could turn so quickly as the death toll in the United States far exceeds some of his earlier predictions, according to people involved in those conversations.
“The White House is facing dual crises that both require top-level attention and that’s the way they’ve approached this,” said one person close to the White House, who spoke to the challenge of balancing a safe reopening with economic recovery. “Fumbling either one could be devastating to Trump’s re-election chances.”
And while there are some mainstays from his 2016 campaign in the collection of voices, the president is also being advised — both directly and indirectly — by former President George W. Bush's adviser Karl Rove, who came to the White House this week to meet with Trump and his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, according to a senior administration official.
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale has consulted Rove since the 2018 midterm elections, per three people familiar with the discussions. Before the pandemic, Rove had advised the Trump campaign it could be modeled, in some ways, after the Bush 2004 re-election race.
“Even though he’s not a big Trump fan, he hates the Democrats and he hates Biden,” one person said of Rove’s possible motivation. His participation is significant given Trump called out his GOP predecessor last month for not defending him in the impeachment inquiry. The attack came after Bush had issued a call for unity in the face of the coronavirus emergency.
Recent internal polling showing the president lagging behind former vice president and apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden has the president and his advisers particularly concerned. Last month, Trump berated Parscale over the alarming numbers.
Though the two publicly claimed to have patched things up since then, people close to both men say Trump is still bothered by their dust-up and has questioned whether Parscale is the right person for the job.
Last cycle, the president went through several campaign managers. This time, Trump announced his former digital guru as the head of the 2020 team earlier than any other incumbent, more than two years ago.
The other key players involved in the president’s re-election effort have been with him since he was candidate Trump: Hope Hicks, who had left the administration before returning earlier this year; Kellyanne Conway, the president’s campaign manager when he won the White House; Dan Scavino, the longtime social media director who is one of the president’s most trusted advisers. Scavino and Conway are two of the only aides left — not related to the president — who have been with him since before he was inaugurated.
Others, like Meadows, have been longtime allies but are newer to the operation from inside the White House gates. Before the outbreak took over all else, Meadows was originally thought to be a valuable political operative who could help steer the re-election message. Instead, he’s had to quarterback a West Wing response to containing the virus within its own walls.
Advisers such as economist Stephen Moore and former White House strategist Steve Bannon have also been important voices from the outside, offering their counsel to the president and those around him consistently in recent months.
With Election Day now less than six months away, much of Trump’s attention these days is spent strategizing for his re-election battle.
But most of the fight is being waged online, without any traditional campaign events taking place. The campaign concedes no rallies are likely to take place until August, at the earliest, a huge blow to a president who, until now, thrived off extended weekly venting sessions on the campaign trail.
The president has strategically tied his official White House coronavirus trips to his re-election hopes, traveling to battleground states such as Arizona and Pennsylvania as his first major outings this month. Trump has been itching to get back on the road, as he largely sees his incumbency as an advantage over his Democratic opponent, who has vowed not to campaign in-person for the time being and frequently appears from a home camera setup.
While top health officials such as Fauci and coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx are still advising the president and regularly working from the White House, the two haven’t appeared in the briefing room for weeks and are unlikely to do so again with any frequency.
Last weekend, for the first time in months, not a single medical expert appeared on the Sunday programs. And marking an administration reversal, after saying the original task force on the pandemic might start to wind down, the president changed his mind and said it would “continue indefinitely.”
The group, which for most of March and April met every few days and sometimes more often than that, is expected to gather less regularly going forward. This week, some task force officials joined remotely after at least three of its members decided to quarantine following contact with a White House aide who contracted the virus.