By ZEKE MILLER and JONATHAN LEMIRE, The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is set to once again take center stage in the government’s coronavirus response after a White House debate over how best to deploy its greatest and most volatile asset — him — played out in public as his poll numbers falter.
Trump advisers have stressed the urgency of the Republican president adopting a more disciplined public agenda in an effort to turn around his lagging poll numbers against Democratic rival Joe Biden.
“I think it’s a great way to get information out to the public,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Monday, saying he hopes to discuss progress on vaccines and therapeutics. His once-daily turns behind the White House briefing room podium largely ended in late April after the president’s off-the-cuff suggestion that injecting toxic disinfectant could help treat the coronavirus.
In another sign of recalibration, Trump belatedly tweeted a photo of himself in a face mask Monday, calling it an act of patriotism, after months of resistance to being publicly seen in the coverings — deemed vital to slowing the spread of the virus — as a sign of weakness.
White House aides said the format, venue and frequency of the president’s forthcoming appearances haven’t been finalized. And it wasn’t clear whether he would field questions or share the stage with others, including Vice President Mike Pence and Drs. Deborah Birx or Anthony Fauci.
But it all pointed to an apparent course-reversal. Trump for months had heeded aides who pushed for him to all but ignore the virus and instead focus on the economy and more politically advantageous terrain.
Trump will use the briefings “to speak directly to the American people about the federal government’s coronavirus response and other pertinent issues,” said White House deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews.
The return to briefings has been championed in the West Wing by senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, who advocated publicly last week that Trump should return to the podium to more clearly highlight steps toward economic recovery but also create a stage to display leadership by addressing Americans’ concerns about COVID-19.
“His approval rating on the pandemic was higher when he was at the podium,” Conway said Friday, in a tacit admission of what is largely unspoken aloud by Trump aides: that he is behind in both public and private surveys. “It was at 51% in March. And I think people want to hear from the president of the United States.”
“It doesn’t have to be daily,” she added. “It doesn’t have to be for two hours. But in my view, it has to be.”
In addition to discussing medical developments, Trump also was expected to focus on his advocacy for schools to reopen for in-person education, following his threat to try to withhold federal funds from those that stick to remote education.
Other Trump aides have for months pushed the president to keep a lower profile on the virus response and instead champion the economic recovery and other issues with a clearer political upside. That camp, led by chief of staff Mark Meadows, has attempted to plot out something close to a traditional messaging strategy for Trump to contrast him with Biden on policy issues.
In the last week, they’ve organized White House events highlighting Trump’s efforts to support law enforcement, talk tough on China and roll back regulations, all while sharply criticizing Biden. And Trump himself has teased forthcoming moves on immigration and health care.
Meadows was among the most forceful White House aides in pushing Trump to end the once-daily coronavirus briefings more than two months ago after the president mused about injecting disinfectants as a cure for the virus. It sparked state medical warnings against the potentially deadly move.
The daily briefings were scrapped soon after that misstatement, fulfilling the hope of aides who saw them dragging down the president’s poll numbers, particularly with older voters.
But the president himself had not abandoned the idea of reviving them in some form, telling aides he missed the early evening window in which he would dominate cable television ratings. Tellingly, when he announced Monday that the news conferences could return, he did so with an eye toward its time slot.
The view in Trump’s circle is that the president needs an alternate means to reach voters with his trademark rallies largely on hold because of the coronavirus. The president voiced frustration in recent days about his inability to hold a rally, blaming Democratic governors in battleground states for not waiving COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings.
“I want to get out there and do the rally as soon as we can,” Trump said Saturday on a call with Michigan supporters. “Between COVID and your governor’s restrictions, it really makes it very difficult, but we’ll be out there eventually. But in the meantime, we’re doing it telephonically.”
But there are few states that don’t have rising COVID-19 cases or stringent restrictions.
Even in states where Republican governors may be willing to lift restrictions, campaign advisers worry about surging infection rates that could dissuade supporters from attending a rally. A rally slated for New Hampshire, which has a low COVID-19 rate and a Republican governor, was scrapped in part because of fears of low attendance.
Instead, the campaign and White House are attempting to create alternate methods of holding events that could drive media coverage. Trump has recently taken to delivering more politically themed speeches from the Rose Garden and, in a recent trip to Florida, held an unofficial event at U.S. Southern Command and a campaign event with Venezuelan and Cuban immigrants. More trips of that nature are planned in the coming weeks.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.