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Trump hits the road as coronavirus response becomes re-election pitch

Even as the death toll mounts, the president and his campaign are moving to declare victory and turn the focus to the economy.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump arrives in Phoenix on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. Evan Vucci / AP

WASHINGTON — The last time President Donald Trump was in Arizona, just over two months ago, he predicted that the coronavirus would be gone by April. "It's going to work out fine," he said.

When he returned to the state Tuesday, he toured a factory churning out millions of desperately needed masks to combat a virus that is killing thousands of Americans each week.

Even as the death toll mounts, the president and his campaign are moving to declare victory on the response and turn the focus to the economy where they think the president has the strongest re-election pitch, said aides and advisers, who hope the trip to Arizona will be the first in a number of stops to battleground states in the coming months.

During the visit, Trump — who toured the mask production facility without his face uncovered despite signs telling visitors to "please wear your mask at all times" — doubled down on his push to reopen the economy despite the potential consequences.

"We can't keep our economy closed for the next five years. You could say there might be a recurrence, and there might be," Trump said.

A White House official told reporters that Honeywell officials had said they did not need to wear masks.

Honeywell said Tuesday night in a statement that the few people who were in close contact with the president were medically screened before the event and tested negative for COVID-19 so they were allowed to not wear masks.

With former Vice President Joe Biden confined to reaching voters from a home studio, the White House is taking advantage of the power of the presidency to get Trump out to key states in hope of generating local media coverage of him in crisis response mode. Trump's trip to Arizona is his first outside Washington in more than a month, aside from a weekend at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland.

Aides said they hoped getting Trump out on the road would also give him an outlet aside from the hourslong, freewheeling news conferences that were starting to hurt his standing with voters as he used the bully pulpit to tout a version of events disjointed from reality, attack his perceived adversaries and complain about his media coverage.

The trip came a day after Trump's campaign released its first ad since Biden became the apparent Democratic nominee. It depicts the president as a steady leader steering the country through a crisis.

The Trump campaign has also been spending on social media ads pushing twin messages: the president's coronavirus response and attacks on Biden.

One spot features soundbites of Democratic governors praising Trump; another attacks Biden's criticism of the president's language around his China travel restrictions. The campaign plans to begin airing an attack ad on television against Biden next, said a campaign official.

The White House and the Trump campaign have few alternatives but to try to turn the focus to the economy and away from the public health crisis, in which Trump has struggled to gain the public's trust or show empathy for the more than 70,000 people who have died from the virus in the U.S., said an outside adviser.

"He has no other choice. He is at his best when he is talking about rebuilding the economy," the adviser said.

While Trump had once planned to sell himself to voters by touting the success of the economy, he's now having to return to his 2016 playbook of presenting himself as the best candidate to fix the country's economic ills, echoing his "I alone can fix it" declarations from when he accepted the Republican nomination that year.

But it's a message that depends on his being able to convince voters that he alone didn't break it, something Trump and top administration officials have been trying to do by blaming China for the spread of the virus. A key line of attack against Biden in the coming months will be to present him as soft on China, a campaign official said.

"The Trump policies built the economy up to unprecedented heights once, and he will do it again," said Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh. "At the same time, we are going to define Biden on those issues."

Arizona, once a solidly red state, now poses a challenge for Trump. No Democrat has won its 11 electoral votes since Bill Clinton in 1996, but with the state's growing Hispanic population, Democrats view it as within reach. While Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Arizona by 3.5 percentage points, it was a narrower margin than recent GOP presidential candidates had recorded, and four Democrats won statewide offices during the 2018 midterm elections.

Trump's visit was also aimed at giving a boost to Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who traveled with Trump on Air Force One, the outside adviser said. McSally, who stood by Trump during his impeachment, has gone from a detractor to a staunch defender. McSally, a retired Air Force colonel, is in a tight contest in a special election with former astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.

Arizona is among the states starting to reopen businesses, supporting Trump's push for states to reopen their economies while failing to meet the White House-issued guidelines on conditions that would support their starting to lift social distancing measures. Even as the number of cases continues to increase in the state, the governor is planning to allow retailers, hair salons and restaurants to resume operations in the coming days while following social distancing and sanitation guidelines.

"We're going to do it again, and that's what we're starting, and I view these last couple of days as the beginning," the president said as he boarded Air Force One on Tuesday. "We're going to build the greatest economy in the world again, and it's going to happen pretty fast."

Shortly before Trump touched down in Phoenix, the state reported that it had 33 deaths Monday, its single highest daily death toll.