As a grim fall approaches, Trump team feels increasingly confident
A pandemic summer marked by testing delays, supply shortages and continued spread of the coronavirus
A pandemic summer marked by testing delays, supply shortages and continued spread of the coronavirus has set the stage for a disheartening start to the fall across much of the U.S., with the shuttering of schools and cancellation of college football seasons that officials had once hoped would herald a return to normalcy more than six months into the crisis.
But inside the White House, Trump’s top political aides are increasingly assured about their response — feeling like they’re finally getting a handle on how to fight the disease.
As the crippling crisis turns toward a third season, an alternate reality is taking shape inside the White House even in the face of spiking case counts, long lags in test processing and a Covid-19 death toll that regularly tops 1,000 Americans a day. Trump aides are growing confident about what they see as measurable progress: new therapeutic measures, delivery of health recommendations tailored to individual states, extensive support for vaccine development and steps to ensure hospitals have enough protective equipment and ventilators.
Officials internally are also pleased with two changes from Trump himself: the president wearing a mask at times, after avoiding the preventive measure for months, and his resumption of near-daily press briefings, which they feel show Trump is attuned to the crisis and driving the response despite the wide-ranging nature of the events.
One former senior administration official said the White House is attempting to convey the perception of control — even as a handful of top aides including chief of staff Mark Meadows express skepticism privately about guidance from the government’s leading scientists. A key goal is to demonstrate they’re once again on top of Americans’ No. 1 concern, after first pushing states to reopen before they met the government’s own benchmarks and then downplaying the worsening spread of the virus for months.
“Covid is the White House’s focus right now,” said one senior White House official. “Our data was showing it was beginning to subside in late May and early June. As the public started giving up on many of the mitigation practices, we had to adapt.”
The White House’s own rosy portrait of its response and the president’s upbeat projections — such as his repeated insistence that the virus will “go away” — contrasts with the continued high caseload in states such as Texas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Maryland. Many Americans still cannot send children to school or work from their offices, attend sporting events or go outside without a mask. Receiving the results of coronavirus tests often takes days or weeks, making it impossible to quickly identify and isolate infected individuals or trace their contacts. U.S. travelers are banned from entering much of the world, including most European countries, which have done a far better job of containing the virus.
“I would say that they are comparing things to where they were previously,” said a senior Republican close to the White House. “When you compare a disaster to an outright disaster, the disaster does not seem so bad.”
“I don’t feel like they kind of know what ‘under control’ would look like,” the official added. “They are doing their best. It is just one of those situations. I don’t feel like even they know what the goal is.”
Trump is heading into fall and winter months that could prove even more perilous for the nation, with the spread of Covid-19 coinciding with flu season — a dangerous combination public health officials have long been dreading.
“The fall could be incredibly gruesome,” said Yale School of Medicine epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves, adding that the Trump administration largely squandered the summer months, leaving the nation no better protected than it was in June. “Somebody’s going to have to explain it to me, 10 years from now, why they would make all these bad choices.”
Some allies in recent weeks have questioned whether Trump’s resumption of regular press briefings is helping his reelection case, worrying that the largely optimistic sessions — punctuated by the president’s insistence the virus will eventually “disappear” — are at odds with deepening economic and health crises playing out on the ground.
The White House in recent weeks has moved to sideline its less optimistic health officials and rely more heavily on Dr. Scott Atlas, a new senior adviser whose Fox News appearances and vocal push to reopen schools caught the attention of top aides such as Jared Kushner and Hope Hicks.
Atlas now attends a morning meeting, separate from the coronavirus task force, with other key aides such as Kushner, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, senior adviser Stephen Miller, Dr. Deborah Birx, chief executive of the International Development Finance Corporation Adam Boehler, testing expert Brad Smith and top communication aides, according to the senior White House official. Sometimes Meadows attends, too — though in recent weeks, he spent much of his time on Capitol Hill trying to negotiate a fourth economic stimulus package. Atlas, a neuroradiologist, also took to the podium at Wednesday’s briefing at Trump’s invitation and spoke at an event the same day on the need for schools to reopen.
The goal of the small group, the official said, is to ensure the White House can make quicker daily decisions on the Covid-19 response. But the group also happens to exclude many of the administration’s top health officials such as the heads of the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“President Trump has led an historic, whole-of-America coronavirus response — resulting in 100,000 ventilators procured, sourcing critical PPE for our frontline heroes and a robust testing regime resulting in more than double the number of tests than any other country in the world,” said White House deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews. “This leadership will continue as we reopen the economy, expedite development of a vaccine and therapeutics and continue to see an encouraging decline in the U.S. mortality rate.”
The reopening — or lack of opening — of schools this fall provides another inflection point for Americans to grade the administration’s handling of the virus.
Trump’s July push to fully reopen schools has collapsed in the face of state resistance and rising caseloads throughout early August, as increasing numbers of schools and universities opt to begin classes partially or fully online.
In Arizona — where Republican Gov. Doug Ducey initially advocated for trying to fully reopen schools — the state is now urging counties must to clear three benchmarks for the controlling the virus’ spread before school districts resume in-person classes. A week before classes are set to begin, no Arizona county currently meets that criteria.
Those states that have tried to send kids back into school have been met with discouraging results. Twenty-two Mississippi schools have reported coronavirus cases already, a number that the state’s health officer said Monday is likely to grow.
Georgia’s Cherokee County shuttered a high school after identifying a rash of cases, forcing more than 1,000 students to quarantine. That came after another of the state’s high schools temporarily closed in the wake of a series of positive tests recorded just days after photos of its crowded hallways went viral.
“By Columbus Day, 80 percent of kids in our country will be online, and it might be higher than that,” predicted Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “What we needed was a real, detailed plan to open up schools and keep them safe so kids could stay there for an extended period of time. We’re going to end up with kids largely remote for the rest of this pandemic.”
Trump administration officials in recent weeks largely backed off efforts to convince governors to send kids back to class, as it became increasingly apparent there was little enthusiasm — or scientific evidence — for Trump’s declarations that children were “almost immune” from Covid-19.
Since telling governors in early July that “it is the recommendation of your president and this task force that we reopen schools,” Vice President Mike Pence has rarely made school reopenings a major topic of his weekly calls with state leaders.
“Pence has really maintained more of a ‘let states make this decision’ sort of approach,” one person familiar with the private discussions said of the vice president’s attitude in recent weeks.
On Monday, Pence acknowledged to governors in his weekly call that ensuring classrooms are safe will require additional funding — as the total amount of money remains a sticking point in stalled negotiations in Congress over a next coronavirus relief package. The White House wants to earmark around $100 billion for school in the next legislation, he added, while Democrats “have come back with a much higher number.”
The White House later debuted a vague new set of recommendations for schools that included basic advice like ensuring students and staff “understand the symptoms of COVID-19.”
“We want to be very, very safe and careful,” Trump said Wednesday, in a sharp contrast to his Twitter mandate just a week ago to “OPEN THE SCHOOLS!!!” At the briefing on Wednesday, Trump said his administration was exploring the idea of directing federal school payments to parents instead of districts to give parents options if their local school did not open.
“When you sit at home in a basement looking at a computer, your brain starts to wither away,” Trump said at the briefing in an apparent swipe at his opponent, former vice president Joe Biden. “We have a lot of good experience at that just by taking a look at what’s happening in politics.”
As the U.S. heads into the fall, the reaction to the White House’s handling of the coronavirus remains split along party lines. On average, roughly 77 percent of Republicans approve of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus compared to just roughly 8 percent of Democrats. One Republican lobbyist argued some Americans will complain “until a vaccine comes” regardless of the moves the White House tries to take.
But others blame the administration for downplaying the threat of the virus. They argue that the months of setbacks and failures, likely to continue well into the fall, are the result of an administration that’s resisted developing any clear strategy for fighting the virus — even as it’s spent countless hours fine-tuning its messaging and effectively trying to talk its way out of the crisis.
“It doesn’t do a whole lot for clarity for the general public or confidence-building,” one outside adviser said of the mixed messaging, lamenting that Trump’s been unable to make the more nuanced case that the administration is both aggressively fighting bad outbreaks while laying the groundwork for a brighter future. “His leadership style and his model do not always invite a multifaceted approach.”