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Trump team scrambles to refocus message after bleach debacle

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens as President Trump talks about the coronavirus response Tuesday at the White House.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens as President Trump talks about the coronavirus response Tuesday at the White House.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Trump’s public musing last week that doctors should consider injecting household disinfectant — a known poison — into coronavirus patients set off a political shockwave so severe that aides and allies scrambled to rein in his prime time nightly news conferences.

For the first time since mid-March, Trump took a two-day break from the podium over the weekend. On Sunday, he tweeted what seemed a decision, writing that the televised briefings — often lasting two hours or longer — were “not worth the time & effort.”

But the former reality TV star has refused to leave the stage.

On Tuesday, as U.S. deaths from COVID-19 topped 58,000 and confirmed cases exceeded 1 million, Trump appeared before the cameras twice, for 90 minutes total. He didn’t offer any dangerous new medical advice, but still managed to berate reporters, air familiar grievances and shower himself with praise.

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Polls show Trump’s approval rating has fallen in recent weeks. Some of the president’s allies in Congress and elsewhere have pleaded with him, both publicly and privately, to defer more to the experts on medical cures, stop scrapping with reporters and focus on reviving an economy that is effectively in a coma.

As a result, rather than one long, disjointed turn at the podium, Trump’s appearances Tuesday were more narrowly focused and relatively short. Each was designed to portray him as a leader of a nation in crisis, even as he claimed dubious achievements, made false claims and courted a state he desperately needs in November.

The change, such as it was, reflected the futility of trying to manage Trump, who remains obsessed with his TV ratings and image. In hopes of avoiding further damage to his reelection campaign, his aides didn’t deny him access to the cameras. They just removed him, for the moment, from prime time.

Trump invited TV cameras into the Oval Office on Tuesday morning while he met with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has taken heavy criticism for belatedly closing beaches and businesses in his state. Although Florida saw its largest single day of reported deaths on Tuesday, DeSantis said he would announce plans to reopen the state on Wednesday, when his current order expires.

Trump praised DeSantis, a Republican and strong supporter, for doing a “spectacular job in Florida,” and said he enjoys “very high popularity.”

Approval ratings for most governors have soared during the coronavirus crisis. DeSantis has seen his support plummet, however. One poll found he rated as the country’s third-worst governor at handling the crisis.

By most accounts, Trump can’t win reelection without Florida, which he won in 2016, and polls show his support there has ebbed. Two polls conducted in the last week by Fox News and Quinnipiac University showed Trump trailing the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, by 3 and 4 points, respectively.

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Trump took time to snipe at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who he claimed was at home “eating ice cream.”

If the reference seemed random, Pelosi recently appeared on James Corden’s “Late, Late Show” and showed her kitchen. The Trump campaign produced an attack ad that accused her of owning an expensive fridge filled with fancy ice cream while Americans are going hungry during the coronavirus crisis.

Pelosi fired back in a TV interview Tuesday. “I have ice cream in my freezer,” she said. “I guess it’s better than having Lysol in somebody’s lungs.”

Highlighting specific governors’ plans to reopen their economies is one of the new elements of the White House’s effort to give Trump’s public appearances more focus, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.

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The idea, the official said, is to limit Trump’s meandering and often self-sabotaging performances in the briefing room. The White House will instead try to present actions by friendly governors as responses to presidential directives, but still give Trump enough political distance to deflect blame if reopening beaches and businesses backfires and COVID-19 deaths climb again.

On Tuesday afternoon, Trump stood at a lectern in front of golden drapery in the East Room to tout the Paycheck Protection Program, which on Monday began distributing $310 billion in additional loans to small companies struggling to survive in the economic crash.

According to a statement from the White House, Trump’s “own remarkable business experience has made protecting small businesses a personal initiative for him.” In his comments, Trump claimed the bill “supported or saved 30 million American jobs at least.”

But the online portal for bankers to file applications to the Small Business Administration, which is running the program, has crashed repeatedly, creating chaos and widespread frustration among both lenders and borrowers.

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Many went on social media to complain about the administration of the program, under which small businesses, typically with fewer than 500 employees, can apply for forgivable loans of up to $10 million.

The first version of the program quickly ran out of its allotted $342 billion, in part because the SBA gave much of the support to large corporations, not just the coffee shops, barber shops, dry cleaners and other small businesses for which the money was intended.

During his many hours at the podium since the pandemic began, Trump has rarely expressed sympathy for those stricken or killed. As the nation’s COVID-19 death toll since February exceeded that of the entire Vietnam War, he was asked whether he had spoken to anyone who had lost a loved one.

“I have. I know many stories. I’ve spoken with three or four families unrelated to me. I lost a very good friend. Also lost three other friends, two of whom I didn’t know as well but they were people I did business with,” he said.

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Given the polling data and the potential fallout for down-ballot Republicans in November, more Republicans have encouraged Trump and new Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to end the nightly briefings.

One former administration official described a general sense inside the White House and shared by outside allies that the benefit of Trump’s long, often self-praising and acrimonious appearances has “run its course.”

“He’s overexposed,” the former official said, acknowledging that Trump had long dismissed these concerns from friends and staffers, pointing to his high ratings.

“There’s eyeballs and he wants to go to the eyeballs and feels this reflexive … view that his work on this is not being covered or approached or treated fairly,” the former official continued. “But I don’t think him battling with the press is what anyone wants to see right now. They don’t have enough to justify several hours’ worth of content.”

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Asked about reports that the White House planned to shift away from his nightly news briefings, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday he thought the move was “probably a good idea.”

“Certainly what the American people are most interested in is the advice from health professionals about how to conduct their daily lives safely,” McConnell said in a radio interview.

Trump also signed an executive order Tuesday evening, without any reporters present, to use the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing plants as critical infrastructure in order to keep them open amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases at some facilities that could threaten the nation’s food supply.

Times staff writer Noah Bierman contributed to this report.


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