Trump's retreat on coronavirus response leaves opening for Democratic candidates

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Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump talks about preparedness to confront the coronavirus outbreak during a meeting with African-American leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House, on Feb. 27, 2020.Leah Millis / Reuters

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann

WASHINGTON — In his five years on the national stage, Donald Trump has rarely missed an opportunity to seize the political advantage.

And it’s why his reluctance to be in charge of the federal government’s coronavirus response — and instead passing the buck to someone else to lead it — is so striking.

This should have been a week when the president of the United States asserted himself, especially with the Democratic presidential candidates bickering at Tuesday’s debate, with their party more divided than ever, and with the president politically stronger than he was months ago.

Instead, he’s run away from the issue — and has allowed others to flex their muscles.

“Managing a crisis is what Mike Bloomberg does. In the aftermath of 9/11, he steadied and rebuilt America's largest city,” goes a new Bloomberg TV ad on the coronavirus.

“What I would do were I president now, I would not be taking China's word for it,” Joe Biden said on CNN this past Wednesday. “I would insist that China allow our scientists in to make a hard determination of how it started, where it's from, how far along it is. Because that is not happening now.”

“I’m going to be introducing a plan tomorrow to take every dime that the president is now taking to spend on his racist wall at the southern border and divert it to the coronavirus,” Elizabeth Warren said on Wednesday.

Trump has retreated.

And he’s allowed some of the candidates vying to replace him to step forward.

Tweet of the day

Whistleblower says HHS blew it

“Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services sent more than a dozen workers to receive the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, without proper training for infection control or appropriate protective gear, according to a whistleblower complaint,” the Washington Post writes.

More: The workers did not show symptoms of infection and were not tested for the virus, according to lawyers for the whistleblower, a senior HHS official based in Washington who oversees workers at the Administration for Children and Families, a unit within HHS. The whistleblower is seeking federal protection, alleging she was unfairly and improperly reassigned after raising concerns about the safety of these workers to HHS officials.”

2020 Vision: Everything you need to know about Saturday's S.C. primary

Fifty-four pledged delegates are up for grabs on Saturday — 35 awarded proportionately by congressional district and 19 awarded proportionately by the statewide vote. A candidate must meet a 15 percent threshold to qualify to win delegates.

Polls open at 7:00 a.m. ET, and they close at 7:00 p.m. ET. (The state allowed in-person absentee voting from Jan. 30 to Feb. 28, but you needed an excuse to participate early.)

South Carolina is an open-primary state, so voters can participate in any primary — as long as they choose one ballot.

The South Carolina GOP canceled its presidential primary.

On the campaign trail today

One day before South Carolina’s primary, Joe Biden makes stops in Sumter and Spartanburg… Bernie Sanders travels to St. George, Aiken and Columbia before heading to Massachusetts for an evening rally in Springfield… Pete Buttigieg is in Charleston, Fairfax, Sumter and Columbia… Elizabeth Warren stumps in Greenville and Warrenville.. Tom Steyer hits Sumter and Columbia… Outside of South Carolina, Mike Bloomberg campaigns in Tennessee… Amy Klobuchar is in Virginia and Tennessee… And President Trump holds a rally in North Charleston, S.C. at 7:00 p.m. ET.

Dispatches from NBC’s campaign embeds

Something you may not hear from Democratic candidates a lot — campaigning against higher teaching salaries, but Michael Bloomberg toed that line last night, NBC’s Maura Barrett reports from Arkansas: “When touting his record in NYC, Bloomberg gave the stat about raising teachers’ salaries by 43 percent. He pointed to someone in the crowd who said something we could not hear, but he responded, ‘Teacher? You should be happy. You’d think the teacher’s union happy? Enough is never enough. Don’t ever make that mistake.’”

And sometimes, it’s interesting what candidates aren’t saying. NBC’s Gary Grumbach reports on Bernie Sanders in South Carolina: “Sanders talked generally about his movement, in no uncertain terms. ‘We are building a movement that cannot be stopped,’ Sanders said. ‘It is a justice movement. It is a movement for economic justice. For social justice. For racial justice. For environmental justice. And when millions of people stand up and fight back nothing on earth can stop us.’ Things Sanders didn’t talk about: Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic/Republican/media establishment. This is all interesting, because he’s focused so heavily on those topics in the past few months. Stopping now, after winning the Nevada caucuses, is notable.”

Data Download: The number of the day is … 74 percent

Seventy-four percent.

That’s the share of South Democratic primary voters in 2016 who said they wanted to a candidate to continue Barack Obama’s policies, according to the exit poll from that contest four years ago.

Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders by more than 60 points among these voters, 81 percent to 19 percent.

By contrast, 16 percent said they wanted a candidate who held more liberal policies than Obama’s, and Sanders won those voters, 55 percent to 45 percent – one of the few demographic groups Sanders carried in that 2016 contest.

The Lid: Procrastinators unite! (Maybe later)

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at how a dearth of long-term planning can mean a big scramble for campaigns — even if they do well in early contests.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

Stocks are on track for their worst week since 2008.

Here’s what Democrats in Trump districts are saying about Sanders’ rise.

Mike Bloomberg says he’ll run “right to the bitter end” if no one has a majority of delegates going into the convention.

The DNC held a briefing with Democrats on Capitol Hill as concerns about a contested convention rise.

The pro-Warren super PAC is pumping another $9 million into a Super Tuesday ad buy.

Trump Agenda: Not so easy, is it?

From the Washington Post: “Trump says he can bring in coronavirus experts quickly. The experts say it is not that simple.”

The Trump administration’s asylum program is dramatically cutting the time applicants have to prove they deserve to stay in America before they’re deported.

2020: Audition time for 2024

This year’s CPAC included plenty of auditioning for 2024.

After an Iowa caucus recount, Buttigieg still leads — but Sanders’ campaign isn’t satisfied yet.

Some black voters in South Carolina are feeling anxious about the 2020 field.

Who’s running the massive Bloomberg ad messaging plan?

Being a frontrunner hasn’t made Bernie Sanders stop throwing elbows within the Democratic Party.

Some professional women who saw themselves in Elizabeth Warren feel like her struggles mirror their own, writes the New York Times.