WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump approaches his administration's benchmark for slowing the spread of the coronavirus in the United States, some of his advisers are urging him not to set another one, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions.
There is growing concern among Trump’s aides that his push for opening up even parts of the country by a specific date will backfire, these people said, not only on Americans broadly but also on the president politically. Trump’s insistence in recent days on setting specific timelines for responding to the pandemic has at times put him at odds with his public health team as well as his political advisers, who now see his re-election chances as wholly dependent on his handling of the pandemic.
“How Trump handles this is going to be the determinative factor in his re-election,” said one of the people familiar with the internal discussions. “Most of what happened in the three years until now is irrelevant. It’s going to be how he responded to this.”
Trump’s 15-day “slow the spread” initiative, which ends Monday, is seen by some of his allies as a cautionary exercise exposing the pitfalls of setting expectations around specific dates, given the numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths have since become worse and not better, the people familiar with discussions inside the White House said. They said aides have repeatedly urged the president not to speak in terms of dates.
Yet Trump, these people said, has become so hyper-concerned about a deep recession — and the toll that would take on his re-election prospects in November — that his economic and public health teams are scrambling to engineer a plan that meets his latest expectations: getting some Americans to return to work and school by Easter while curtailing the pandemic.
“We are working hard on various metrics: geography, testing, hospital capacity, hot spots and cold spots,” a senior administration official said, describing the president’s April 12 benchmark as “aspirational.” Vice President Mike Pence also said Friday when referring to the Easter timeline that “the president expressed, really, an aspirational goal.”
The effort to meet that goal is being forged amid competing views of how to approach the crisis, including a deluge of outside advice, the people familiar with the discussions said. It’s further complicated, they said, by a dynamic in which some aides are supportive of the Easter timeframe, but others are deeply doubtful that a feasible plan exists or believe attempting it is not worth the political risk.
White House officials downplayed any potential divisions within the president’s team, but acknowledged the difficulties of confronting this crisis.
“Every day is a week,” the senior administration official said. “We’re slogging through this.”
Trump is expected to receive recommendations this weekend for how to adopt an approach under which the government would lift restrictions for individual counties across the country, depending on their level of coronavirus risk. Critics of the idea have said it won’t work because any current numbers of cases are incomplete or don’t give a full picture of a county’s risk.
Internal deliberations over setting a deadline for when Americans’ lives could start getting back to normal began in earnest in the middle of last week, according to people familiar with the discussions. Trump pushed the discussions just days after his aides had convinced him he needed to appear more presidential, as a leader waging a war.
Trump initially agreed, and publicly appeared to defer to public health experts. But he quickly soured on the strategy, telling advisers it wasn’t changing the economic outlook or criticism that he’d botched the coronavirus response.
“After two or three days he got tired of it because the media narrative didn’t get better,” one person familiar with the discussions said.
Around the same time, business leaders and some of the president’s supporters began raising questions about the shutdown of American life, saying the economy could suffer historic lows.
Trump told aides he wanted to lift government restrictions and get the economy back up and running within one or two weeks. Some officials thought that was too soon, and suggested he wait at least until Easter, with the hope that pushing back the date would buy them time to better assess the spread of the virus and get a plan in place.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
As Trump deals with the biggest crisis he has faced as president, his frustrations with his public health advisers have increased.
Those frustrations boiled over last weekend after Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, made plain his disagreements with Trump during a series of news interviews that drew widespread media attention.
“Trump was furious,” one person familiar with the matter said.
Publicly, however, some allies of the president have defended Fauci and Trump’s relationship, arguing it was the media trying to create a rift between the two men. And a senior administration official said “there is no division” between Trump and his team of public health experts.
Yet conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, a Trump ally, appeared to reflect any frustrations the president has, saying Friday, “we didn’t elect a president to defer to a bunch of health experts that we don’t know.”
The problem the president’s public health and political advisers now share, the people familiar with the internal discussions said, is that Trump doesn’t just want optimism that the crisis will pass in a matter of weeks to be the White House message, he wants it to be the reality.
Pence has tried to mediate between the president’s expectations and the recommendations from public health officials on the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, at times during meetings smoothing over differences between the two sides. He’s also seemed to play that role publicly.
When asked Friday on CNBC about opening up parts of the country again, Pence noted “that the president said he would love to see it around Easter, but whenever that day is, that we can responsibly begin to open up portions of the country.”
“But let me be very clear,” Pence added. “There's going to be areas of the country where we need to continue to lean into mitigation efforts.”