President Donald Trump is in an August, coronavirus-induced slump — and his team is feeling it.
The White House’s negotiations with Capitol Hill over a fourth economic stimulus package fell apart on Friday after three weeks of stalled talks, leaving aggrieved administration officials to suggest Trump just take unilateral action. The number of coronavirus deaths continues to rise, and Trump has yet to present a promised strategy to curb the spread of the virus. Trump and his team are having trouble settling on a daily message — or finding a way to effectively wound Joe Biden, the president’s presumptive 2020 rival.
It’s all added up to an ever-growing sense of doom and gloom about the president’s political future.
Recent national polls show Trump trailing Biden by anywhere from 3 to 10 percentage points, with swing states like Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania increasingly up for grabs. Some Republican donors and outside groups are even focusing their attention away from the White House to holding on to the Republican majority in the Senate, according to three Republicans close to the White House. Several Trump allies acknowledge if the election was held today, Trump would likely lose.
“It is kind of like Groundhog Day,” said one of the Republicans close to the White House. “You think it’s better, but then it is not.”
Trump’s allies and political advisers acknowledge the polling on Trump is not great but insist he can overcome the setback. A top Trump campaign official said the campaign was focused on its own internal polls, which the official said shows Trump either matched with or ahead of Biden in the 17 key states the campaign is monitoring. The official declined to offer more specifics.
One political adviser argued that If Trump can close the gap with Biden to just 4 percentage points in the coming months, he could win — even if it is by a small margin. The person noted Trump was similarly behind in the polls in August 2016 before prevailing in November.
“Trump is better at running behind than ahead because it makes him more aggressive. He won’t take it for granted,” said Dan Eberhart, a prominent Trump donor who runs an oil drilling company. “The lesson in 2016 supposedly was that the media and polling was wrong, but I throw away that line of thinking. The lesson I draw away from 2016 was Trump didn’t want to lose. He did not want to be a loser, so that motivated him.”
But with just three months until the presidential election, numerous Republicans and administration officials are not sure Trump will be able to pull off another upset win.
His administration’s handling of the coronavirus has hurt his standing with senior citizens, suburban voters, independents and women — and if schools do not reopen this fall, it will offer another illustration of how the U.S. has fallen behind other developed countries in combating the virus.
For months, top White House officials have battled over how to message the administration’s coronavirus work — arguing over the best language and debating over whether to hold Covid-19-specific briefings. Yet officials say the same level of attention has not been applied to the actual solutions associated with fighting a pandemic.
Several current and former senior administration officials said they feel the White House is obsessed with the president’s image at the expense of making meaningful policy decisions — on either fighting the virus or successfully working with Congress to pass another stimulus bill.
“They are so concerned with the optics right now, but where is the substance these days?” said one former senior administration official. “Who is working on the policy ideas we will tackle in the second term? Instead, we are too busy worrying about the messaging.”
One White House official said aides are working on the policy process for a second-term agenda, which will include continuing to respond to the coronavirus, rebuilding the economy, securing better trade deals and standing up for law and order — all while continuing to push policy priorities through executive orders.
The same aide added that stalled negotiations on the Hill are Democrats’ fault.
Morale inside the White House remains low — a throwback, officials say, to the early chaotic days under then-chief of staff Reince Priebus, when backbiting consumed officials’ time. These days, decisions are increasingly made by a tiny circle of top advisers, like Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law; Hope Hicks, the longtime Trump communications aide; and chief of staff Mark Meadows — leaving whole offices inside the White House sidelined.
The Office of Legislative Affairs, for instance, has largely been excluded from the negotiations playing out on Capitol Hill — even though its entire job consists of coordinating with lawmakers and their staff.
Several White House and administration officials have also started to reach out to other Republicans to try to find jobs in the private sector as quickly as possible — both because they feel their roles inside the White House have diminished and because there is consternation that they need to find new gigs in case Trump loses in November, drying up the market for Trump-connected aides.
“Anyone who underestimates or writes off President Trump does so at their own peril,” said White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere. “The president and his entire administration are focused every day on keeping the promises he’s made the American people, defeating the China virus, opening our economy safely and responsibly preparing for a second term that will ensure America is safer, stronger and more prosperous than ever before.”
A campaign official disputed the notion that anyone inside its headquarters feels a sense of pessimism about the president’s prospects.
“There are 86 one-day campaigns left in the race, and even fewer if you consider early voting,” said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign communications director. “Every day there is a game-day mentality inside the campaign. If we win more days than Joe Biden wins, President Trump will be reelected. It’s as simple as that.”
Several Trump allies and aides are happy with the new team running the campaign, including campaign manager Bill Stepien and senior adviser Jason Miller. Together, the duo brings a tactical knowledge of individual battleground states, as well as a good sense of how to sell ideas to a mercurial Trump.
The Trump campaign is also starting to settle on its message to hit Biden, attempting to define him as a candidate who will do the far-left’s bidding if he wins the White House.
The campaign is focused on rolling out advertising in states like Georgia, Ohio and Florida — all early voting states, and an official said the team has been heartened by Trump’s continued and strong fundraising and the recent drop in unemployment. Advisers are hopeful Biden’s upcoming vice presidential pick will give them new fodder to attack the Democratic ticket as overly progressive or part of the “deep state.”
“We are in a better position now than we were two weeks ago, and there are still 17 weeks left,” said another Trump political adviser. “The minute Biden announces a VP, there is no more hiding. That is the best moment for the Trump campaign to talk about this presidential campaign and make the contrast.”
Other Republicans argue that unless Trump becomes a more disciplined candidate, he will continue to fall behind in the polls — and staying on message has never been Trump’s strong suit.
Some outside conservative groups and donors are increasingly turning their attention and money away from Trump and toward maintaining Republican control of the Senate. But longtime operatives say it will be impossible to divorce Trump’s policies, proclamations and tweets from the fate of Republican senators, several of whom now occupy vulnerable seats in Colorado, Maine and Iowa.
“Back in the winter and spring, donors poured everything into Trump,” said a second Republican close to the White House. “But now all they are thinking about is the Senate. The Senate is the Alamo right now.”