Trump campaign hobbled by virus

The US president is still dominating the news cycle, but for all the wrong reasons

WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign has seen its candidate, campaign manager and party chairwoman all laid low by Covid-19. He is short on cash, Democrat Joe Biden is pulling away in the polls and his best hope to climb back — the raucous rallies that fuelled his 2016 win — are on hold indefinitely as the last month of the race ticks away.

Trump is still dominating the news cycle, but for all the wrong reasons — in the hospital, fighting the virus he sought to effectively erase from the story of his presidency as he appealed to voters for a second term.

Instead, coronavirus dominates the conversation around Trump. His own diagnosis sent him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre last Friday, and the virus continues to spread inside the White House, seemingly due to the same indifference to basic precautions that Trump himself has demonstrated for months.

Trump exits Marine One while arriving at Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre in Bethesda, Maryland, on Oct 2.

Whether he can participate in the final two presidential debates this month is an open question — though voters hammered Trump’s performance in the first debate, when he interrupted Biden so much the former VP finally told him, in vain, to shut up.

The litany of political disasters “certainly causes great worry in the closing weeks of a campaign in which the president is behind in polls and fundraising,” said Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist who heads the pro-Trump Great America political action committee.

Of the campaign leaders sidelined by the virus, he said: “These are the decision-makers, and normally the workload only intensifies on these individuals in the closing days.”

Among those infected are people most responsible for securing Trump’s re-election: His campaign manager, Bill Stepien; the Republican Party chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel; his trusted aide Hope Hicks; his wife, Melania; his debate coach, former New

Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and several senators who will help see his Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, confirmed before Nov 3.

“It certainly doesn’t help,” said Chris Wilson, a Republican strategist who worked on Senator Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Assuming they all just have mild to moderate symptoms, it still slows things down and makes the campaign less nimble and responsive to news events. And this is 2020, so there will be events.”

‘Operation MAGA’

Trump sought to re-energise his re-election effort, announcing “Operation MAGA”, an effort to flood the campaign trail with top surrogates like VP Mike Pence, Trump’s family and others.

Some of those surrogates joined the Washington Sunday shows, offering a sunny view of Trump’s health condition as doctors raised the possibility Trump could leave the hospital yesterday. With the approval of his medical team, according to the White House, Trump conducted a brief motorcade outside Walter Reed hospital to wave to gathered supporters on Sunday.

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“We feel very good about our positioning” in key states needed to win the election, said senior campaign advisor Jason Miller. “Our lead is growing, as we see, in North Carolina and Georgia,” he said, citing internal polling.

Non-partisan opinion polls show a tight race in several states Trump won in 2016, including North Carolina and Georgia. The former VP holds slight leads in both, according to an average of polls by RealClearPolitics.

Meanwhile, some big donors Trump desperately needs are expressing anger and frustration that he could have prevented all of this by taking the virus more seriously since it emerged as a global threat in January. One donor who has given Trump at least US$100,000 (RM415,000), Dan Eberhart, said the president’s appearance at a fundraiser last Thursday, after he learned that Hicks had contracted Covid-19, was “reckless”.

All of this comes on the heels of a debate performance so widely panned, a poll released on Sunday — taken between last Tuesday’s debate and Friday’s news of the president’s infection — found that Biden’s national lead had leaped to 14 points, from eight before the debate. Biden also has set two records for monthly fundraising in August and September, giving him enough money to dominate Trump on the airwaves.

Biden’s campaign has tried to walk a respectful line, wishing his political rival and the first lady nothing but prayers and warm wishes, and saying they would take down negative ads. But Biden didn’t abandon the campaign trail, travelling to Michigan on the same day Trump announced he had tested positive for coronavirus. — Bloomberg