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Trump focuses on own woes with polls sinking, pandemic worsening

Josh Wingrove and Mario Parker
Bloomberg

President Donald Trump swept to power by championing the hardships of forgotten men and women, but his re-election bid has so far centered on the plight of just one person: himself.

Trump is struggling to respond to a resurgent pandemic, an economic downturn and nationwide protests for racial justice. The coronavirus has weakened the central plank of his campaign – the economy – while mostly scuttling the rallies that he thrives on.

While all those crises raged, Trump has tweeted “POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!” and repeatedly complained about “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!” several times and said courts have given broad deference to presidents, “BUT NOT ME!” He said the Obama administration spied on his campaign. He defended his time golfing and said it was his only exercise.

President Donald Trump wears a face mask as he visits Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Saturday, July 11, 2020.

On Monday, he retweeted a post saying that his own administration’s scientists are “lying” about the virus and that “it’s all about the election.” He falsely attributed the rising U.S. virus case total to increased testing. He has also found fault with Fox News’s coverage of him, before retweeting a Fox Business host’s compliment that the mask he wore for the first time publicly looked good.

All the current crises could make any president seeking re-election feel unlucky. But most of his predecessors, when faced with hardship, kept those feelings to themselves and focused their public statements on the misfortunes of the electorate. Not Trump.

Trump’s frequent complaints of mistreatment show a leader unwilling to change tactics, even as polls show him trailing Democrat Joe Biden and even at risk of losing his Republican Party’s Senate majority. His poll numbers and approval rating have dropped as the concurrent crises focused attention on Trump and his response. Undaunted, he has continued to bend the narrative around himself personally even as Americans worry about the pandemic’s rising toll.

Trump may be thinking he’s been dealt a bad hand with the pandemic, said Charlie Black, a veteran Republican strategist, who worked on the presidential campaigns of several Republicans, including George W. Bush and John McCain.

“That’s true, but that’s what happens when you’re president. So he has to play the hand the best he can,” he said. “Most of the problems he’s had up until the virus were largely of his own making. He could use the economy to out-shout that. But now it’s harder.”

Trump says he’s a cheerleader

While the president has always soaked up the limelight – pitching himself initially as a uniquely skilled manager and riding on the strength of his celebrity – his tweets and interviews in recent weeks have dwelled on a growing list of his own grievances, striking a dour tone despite regularly calling himself a “cheerleader.”

He says that the Internal Revenue Service, the media and the FBI have all treated him unfairly, that the virus appears widespread only because of testing, and that a resurgent stock market isn’t getting enough attention at a time when millions are out of work.

He has complained about coverage of his time spent on the golf course, idly accused Barack Obama of treason and said that his campaign was spied on. And he’s retreated somewhat from the public eye, minimizing his once-ubiquitous, free wheeling sessions with reporters in lieu of one-on-one interviews or statements.

His campaign and administration continue to search for a way to adapt to the pandemic era. Trump shifted much of the Republican convention to Jacksonville, Florida, when North Carolina balked at hosting such a large affair in Charlotte, only to see cases soar in the Sunshine State. What kind of celebration the party can have for him in Jacksonville remain unclear. Attendance at Trump’s first rally since the pandemic was less than promised and another over the weekend was scrapped, with officials citing poor weather.

To be sure, Trump has always sought to channel the complaints of his supporters and still casts himself as something of a vessel for them. “In reality, they’re not after me, they’re after you. I’m just in the way,” Trump tweeted last month. “The Silent Majority will reign!” he added Monday.

Trump’s 2016 campaign seized on disbelief and dismissal of his supporters, as Hillary Clinton’s branding of them as “a basket of deplorables” turned into a rallying cry.

Yet his interviews often veer back to himself. He brushed aside a Supreme Court decision last week that he didn’t have immunity from a New York investigation involving his personal finances. He pointed to an audit in declining to release his tax returns.

“They treat me horribly, the IRS, horribly. It’s a disgrace, what’s happened,” he said Thursday in an interview with Fox News.

Trump then tweeted Monday morning that it’s even becoming hard for him to watch Fox. He also appears to be in disbelief that he could be losing to Biden. ”Is this what you want for your President??? With no ratings, media will go down along with our great USA!” he tweeted Monday, along with a video clip critical of Biden.

The ability of presidents to shift blame for a crisis as significant as the pandemic is usually outweighed by the scale of the problem, said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University. “The president has not handled this well. He has politicized the solutions and separated himself from the science. The resurgence in the states is the clearest proof that the administration has failed to contain this virus,” he said in an email.

Trump has regularly lamented that the virus halted the economy’s expansion. “We built the greatest economy in history, the greatest economy we’ve ever had, the greatest economy the world has ever seen and then the plague came in from China,” he said at the White House Monday. “We did the right thing, we had to close it down, now we’re opening it up.”

Trump has brushed aside rising case totals by insisting, falsely, that the numbers are high just because the U.S. is doing more testing. The White House has echoed that, and even touted its response to the pandemic.

“In terms of the president and his record on coronavirus, he stands by the actions and the steps he’s taken in this historic response,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Monday. “Leading the world in testing, I would say, means we’re doing a pretty good job.”