Trump’s Campaign Has Had to Adjust to His Changing View of the Coronavirus

Trump’s Campaign Has Had to Adjust to His Changing View of the Coronavirus

WASHINGTON — From its inception, the Trump campaign has viewed its role as amplifying whatever the president says. But that role has been complicated by the coronavirus.

As President Trump’s response to the virus has evolved, from playing down the threat as “one person coming in from China” to finally declaring it a “hidden enemy” threatening not just the United States but the world, campaign officials have had to mirror his message.

This month, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a prominent member of the president’s coronavirus task force, recommended social distancing when he was asked about the idea of presidential candidates holding political rallies.

But that same day, in an effort to show strength at a time of adversity, a Trump campaign official spread word that the campaign was set to announce a rally.

Scheduled for March 25 in Tampa, Fla., the event was placed on Mr. Trump’s calendar. And when the campaign ran into trouble securing a venue in time for an announcement, officials instead put out a news release promoting a large “Catholics for Trump” event in Milwaukee the next week, in order to minimize concerns about the spread of the virus and show that it was carrying on with business as usual.

Behind the scenes, campaign officials immediately realized that the spread of the coronavirus had become too much of a risk, and that it was already too late to hold a large gathering where Mr. Trump could speak to his supporters.

Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign manager, fielded calls urging him to cancel any public campaign events. He told people that he understood the new reality, but that it was too late to cancel the Milwaukee event. Eventually, however, it was rescheduled.

Later, when the campaigns of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont announced that staff members would work from home through March, Mr. Trump’s campaign, based in Arlington, Va., insisted it would remain open after a weekend deep clean.

It was only after Mr. Trump himself on Monday appeared to acknowledge the significance of the crisis and recommended that Americans avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people that the campaign told staff members to work from home.

“While Americans can see that President Trump has been leading the whole-of-America coronavirus response, his campaign has been constantly evaluating the entire situation,” said Tim Murtaugh, a campaign spokesman. Now that it is working remotely, he added, the campaign has “pivoted to a virtual, digital approach, since we have vastly better data and a superior digital connection to voters than any other campaign.”

For now, Mr. Trump has been pleased with his regular White House briefing room appearances discussing the coronavirus, officials said, and views them as something of a rally replacement in a time of crisis. On Tuesday, he spoke for more than 90 minutes, about the length of an average Trump rally.

But the campaign is now facing an uncertain future.

A campaign aide who is related to Mick Mulvaney, the former acting White House chief of staff, fell ill last weekend after spending time at Mar-a-Lago, where the campaign held a fund-raising event. After showing symptoms, the aide was tested for the coronavirus, fearing she may have been exposed to a Brazilian official who tested positive for the virus just days after participating in meetings with Trump officials in Florida.

That has created a sense of concern and unease among campaign officials. It also raises questions about when the campaign will be able to start fund-raising in earnest again, and under what circumstances.

Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who has been involved with Trump fund-raising efforts, said the president’s team has had the advantage of being well ahead in fund-raising as the Democratic race dragged into March.

Still, he said, that landscape has most likely changed significantly for the foreseeable future.

“It may not be evident today, but campaign fund-raising is certain to take a hit like every other sector of the economy,” Mr. Eberhart said. “There is too much uncertainty for large and small donors alike.”

Campaign officials said that they were still doing traditional small-donor fund-raising online, and that they stood to benefit from having built a digital-focused campaign. It recently started a “grass-roots app.”

A spokesman said it had seamlessly shifted events, like a planned “National Week of Action,” to a virtual setting.

An open question is what happens with the national party conventions for both Democrats and Republicans, a question that will remain for several weeks as the spread of the virus continues and as officials seek to contain it.

In the meantime, the legal counsel for the Republican National Committee sent information to state parties about contingency plans for selecting state delegates before the convention, given how many events are being postponed.

Some Republican strategists said they saw an upside to the forced timeout from the campaign’s set-piece rallies — they expected bigger crowds than ever whenever Mr. Trump resumes campaigning.

“I’ve long thought that they ran the risk of getting us all rallied out,” said Karl Rove, the former chief strategist to President George W. Bush, who is in frequent contact with the Trump campaign. A break from rallies, he said, could be a good thing for the Trump campaign. “Ironically, this will create a pent-up demand.”

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