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As the coronavirus crisis hits home, Trump hits the trail

With the president eager to put the crisis behind him, one familiar pre-pandemic routine has made an unlikely return: 2020 battleground speeches.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump tours Owens & Minor Inc., a medical supply company, in Allentown, Pa., on Thursday, May 14, 2020. Evan Vucci / AP

WASHINGTON — The coronavirus crept into the heart of the West Wing this month, with White House staffers testing positive, the vice president and top officials starting to wear masks and the country's top public health officials going into self-quarantine.

But with President Donald Trump eager to put the crisis behind him, a familiar pre-pandemic routine has made an unlikely return: speeches in 2020 battleground states.

Traveling Thursday to Allentown, Pennsylvania, to tour a medical equipment distribution center, Trump took the stage to his familiar campaign rally soundtrack, addressing an audience dotted with red "Make America Great Again" hats.

While a crowd seated in folding chairs 6 feet apart was a far cry from a stadium packed with thousands of supporters, throngs of the president's fans lined the road beyond and gathered outside the facility — many standing close together, mask-less — holding campaign signs and flags.

Inside the venue, Trump again compared the new crowd spacing unfavorably to that at pre-pandemic rallies. "We like it the old way a little bit better," he said. "And we will be back to that soon, I really believe."

It was the second time in as many weeks that Trump had traveled to a state where he faces a tight race with former Vice President Joe Biden, using the power of the presidency to start hitting the unofficial campaign trail as he enters the next stage of campaigning during the coronavirus. Biden, meanwhile, has been confined to campaigning from a home studio.

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Trump is moving back onto the trail as the coronavirus has hit home. Following positive test results for the president's personal valet and the vice president's spokesperson, the White House this week began requiring all staffers to wear masks when entering and moving about the West Wing. Trump wasn't seen wearing a mask in Pennsylvania, although several administration officials sported them as they traveled on Air Force One with him.

Since his last rally in March, Trump had turned to his daily coronavirus briefings as a substitute, using the televised occasions to attack his adversaries, spar with reporters and shift the focus to issues like immigration. But advisers told the president that the freewheeling hourslong events were doing more harm than help.

After a news conference spiraled last month into the president's musing about whether injecting disinfectant could be a cure, aides were able to persuade Trump to scale back and start traveling across the country, instead, to give the image of a commander-in-chief leading the country through a crisis.

While the trip to Pennsylvania on Thursday and one a week earlier to Arizona weren't official campaign events and involved much smaller crowds, they served a similar purpose for Trump's re-election bid: drumming up local news coverage in key regions. Trump stayed mostly on script in Pennsylvania, touting his response to the coronavirus — although he threw in several jabs at Biden.

"Under the previous administration, the stockpile was depleted and never fully refilled," Trump claimed. Of Biden's and the Obama administration's handling of the H1N1 pandemic, he added: "That was not well handled at all. It got very poor marks."

Trump's first trips on the coronavirus campaign trail have been to states his advisers expect to be closely fought until Election Day. Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by only 1.2 percentage points, with a recent Fox News poll putting him behind Biden by 8 points.

Trump has privately fumed to advisers about his standing against Biden. During a briefing by advisers last month, Trump berated campaign manager Brad Parscale over internal polling that showed him behind in multiple key states, said people familiar with the briefings. One person described Trump as being in a "horrific" mood as Parscale walked him through the polling.

Trump's campaign has since tried to provide a more optimistic narrative to allies. In a call with surrogates this week, campaign officials said Trump had gone from 9 points down three weeks ago to a tie with Biden at 48 percent in internal polling from 17 states the campaign is targeting, according to an email summary of the call obtained by NBC News.

National polls released publicly haven't found the same result. Biden holds a 4.5-point lead nationally, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. In a CNN poll released this week, Biden held a 5-point national lead among registered voters, down from 11 points in the same survey a month ago. But when the poll looked just at battleground states, Trump led Biden by 7 points.

By comparison, a Monmouth University poll released last week had Biden ahead by 9 points, up from 4 points in Monmouth's April poll.

The official presidential travel may have some of the hallmarks of Trump's usual campaign events, but it isn't expected to be a long-term substitute. While the president's rallies have been on hold since early March, senior officials involved with the re-election effort are evaluating how best to organize potential gatherings and looking at states that are moving toward reopening as potential sites.

The campaign has pledged to hold rallies again before the general election in November, which the president has predicted are "going to be bigger than ever."

In the meantime, he remains focused on the idea that his re-election depends on a quickly rebounding economy — and on pressuring reluctant state officials, such as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, to get the process underway as soon as possible.

"We have to get your governor in Pennsylvania to start opening up a little bit," Trump said. "You have areas in Pennsylvania that are barely affected, and they want to keep them closed. You can't do that."