I’m Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP world headquarters in my bedroom. It’s Monday, May 25, 2020. 162 days until Election Day. Have questions, comments, or tips? Email me.
Happy Memorial Day and thank you to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country. 🇺🇸
Analysis: Amid raging pandemic and drop in polls, Trump relies on a familiar playbook
Tweeting inflammatory attacks against rivals and reporters. Sharing unfounded conspiracy theories. Wading into culture wars. Making broad promises about the economy.
Donald Trump may be presiding during an unprecedented pandemic ravaging America’s medical and economic health, but he has done little to alter the political playbook that he has utilized since his first presidential campaign and throughout his White House tenure.
Over the holiday weekend — one annually dedicated to the nation’s war heroes and this year declared by the president as a period of mourning for COVID-19 victims as well — President Trump largely ignored the rising coronavirus death toll in his tweets and public statements and instead reverted to trafficking in similar political rhetoric as he did before the pandemic struck.
On Sunday morning, the front page of the New York Times marked the approaching milestone of 100,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States by listing the names and stories of some of those who have lost their lives to the disease. Meanwhile, the presidential Twitter feed was brimming with messages about MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, as Trump sought to reignite a years-old, baseless conspiracy theory concerning the former Florida congressman and a young aide’s accidental death.
“A lot of interest in this story about Psycho Joe Scarborough,” the president tweeted Sunday, sharing a link to the right-wing website True Pundit. “So a young marathon runner just happened to faint in his office, hit her head on his desk, & die? I would think there is a lot more to this story than that? An affair? What about the so-called investigator?”
At least one Republican congressman, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, reprimanded Trump for his tweets about Scarborough. “Completely unfounded conspiracy,” Kinzinger said on Twitter. “Just stop. Stop spreading it, stop creating paranoia. It will destroy us.” As the Illinois Republican warned of the toll Trump’s theorizing could have on the country at large, the Washington Post reported on the impact it had on the family of Scarborough’s late aide, as their grieving was “disrupted” yet again.
The night before, Trump retweeted eight messages from a conservative activist with a history of derogatory posts, including ones that mocked the appearances of two Democratic female politicians he has clashed with — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — and labeled a third, his 2016 rival Hillary Clinton, as a “skank.”
In between his frequent tweeting, Trump also made two stops to the golf course this weekend, another attempt at reinforcing the message to Americans that life has returned to normal and the coronavirus pandemic is behind them.
On Friday, the president’s focus was on the culture wars, a familiar totem of his time in the political realm, as he demanded states allow churches to reopen and threatened to “override” any governors who refused. (Trump did not clarify the authority that allowed him to do so and did not attempt to overrule any states once Sunday arrived.) According to Politico, Trump’s announcement was inspired by surveys reflecting his waning standing among the religious conservatives who powered his presidential bid in 2016.
It was not his first entrance into the cultural clashes of the coronavirus era, as Trump has also repeatedly flouted the guidance of his own public health officials by refusing to wear a mask or face covering and declaring that he was taking an unproven drug to fight the virus.
Throughout the weekend, as he sounded a markedly optimistic tone about the course of the virus — “Cases, numbers and deaths are going down all over the Country,” Trump tweeted Sunday, even as the nation careened towards a tragic 100,000 deaths from coronavirus — the president also remained similarly upbeat about the state of the U.S. economy.
Every day since Saturday, he has tweeted a message referring to his promised economic “transition to greatness.” This morning, Trump added: “Get ready, it is already happening.” As the Associated Press reported, Trump is “asking voters to look past the pain being felt across the nation and give him another four-year term on the promise of an economic comeback in 2021,” relying on a “delayed-reward tactic [he has been] using long before the global pandemic gut-punched the country.”
Despite Trump’s assurance of an economic recovery to come, his White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett warned Sunday that the U.S. unemployment rate could remain in the double digits through the November election and rocket “north of 20%” this month.
But as unemployment claims and deaths from coronavirus climb in unison, will Trump’s well-worn playbook of making broad promises about the economy, launching attacks against his rivals, spreading conspiracy theories, and weaponizing cultural battles be enough to lift him to victory again in 2020?
Recent public polling shows the president trailing behind his likely Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, nationally and in the most contested battleground states. According to RealClearPolitics, Biden leads Trump by an average of 5.5% nationally, 6.5% in Pennsylvania, 5.5% in Michigan, 4% in Arizona, 3.3% in Florida, and 2.7% in Wisconsin. As a CNN analysis recently detailed, Biden is running ahead of Hillary Clinton’s polling position in 2016, standing at around 48% — a height she never reached — at a time when Clinton languished around 43%.
“Biden’s lead, of course, is the steadiest of all time,” the analysis concluded. "His lead has never fallen to just a point or anywhere close." Clinton was trailing in some polls conducted around the same time in the 2016 cycle, while Biden has yet to fall behind Trump “in a single live interview poll this entire year.” (Over the weekend, Trump also declared that the 2020 race would be “the greatest rigged Election in history,” repeatedly seeking to undermine the legitimacy of mail-in voting practices that will likely be used across the country.)
Trump’s fragile political standing, a contrast to the governors and world leaders who have seen their approval ratings soar amid the coronavirus, has also threatened the potency of his coattails in November. According to the New York Times, “Republican incumbents in swing states have struggled to disentangle themselves from President Trump” placing “Democrats in a strong position as they look to take back the Senate in the midst of a pandemic.”
Although the weekend was dominated by controversial tweets from President Trump, it began with a news cycle surrounding inflammatory comments made by his opponent. “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump then you ain’t black,” Biden said in a tense interview with “The Breakfast Club” on Friday morning.
The Trump campaign rushed to utilize Biden’s remarks — even printing “you ain’t black” t-shirts — as commentators across the political spectrum criticized the former vice president’s remarks.
But within a matter of hours, as Biden apologized for his comments, Trump himself had already forged ahead, making his pronouncement about pushing churches to reopen and tweeting criticisms of Fox News and the New York Times.
The quick turn of events was a demonstration that, even presented with a damaging misstep by his rival, Trump was unwilling to cede the media spotlight or pause the churn of attacks that have defined his political repertoire since 2016.
But unlike 2016, Trump now has a governing record to answer for as well, and although he is loath to acknowledge it in his tweets or statements, it is a record that will include the caseload and death toll from the coronavirus, two metrics that continue to rise while the president’s poll numbers plummet.
*All times Eastern
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, at 10 a.m. and participate in a Memorial Day ceremony at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore, Maryland, at 12 p.m.
Vice President Mike Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence will join the president and first lady at the Arlington wreath-laying ceremony at 10 a.m.
The House and Senate are not in session.
The Supreme Court is closed for Memorial Day.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has no public events scheduled.
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