President Trump Bows to Reality: This Week in the 2020 Race

Welcome to our weekly analysis of the state of the 2020 campaign.

  • Fox News released polls from Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota showing President Trump trailing Joe Biden by anywhere from 9 to 13 percentage points.

  • Most Americans worry that sending children back to school could be dangerous, a range of polls showed. In an Associated Press/NORC poll, 80 percent of respondents said they were at least somewhat concerned.

  • On Facebook, Trump is outspending Biden, $2.2 million to $530,000.

This was the week when President Trump started looking like he was facing reality about America’s coronavirus pandemic.

On Monday he tweeted a picture of himself wearing a face mask — something he had long resisted — and encouraged the country to join. At a Tuesday news conference, he said the virus would likely “get worse before it gets better,” instead of acting like the worst was in the rearview mirror. His news briefings were shorter and less antagonistic than those in the spring. He spoke of setting a good example for the country.

But Mr. Trump’s attempt at a Covid Reset for his presidency — in the face of soaring cases, as well as his falling poll numbers — raises two important questions:

How long will it last?

Will many people believe it?

The president usually reverts to combative form after a seeming change in tone, a pattern of behavior that helped make him famous — and now endangers his re-election. His response to the pandemic has been widely panned by Americans in public polling and public health experts, who say these actions should have come in March or April, not July. About 145,000 Americans have already died.

After months of bluster, the president has seemingly come to understand what many have known for months: he cannot wish away the coronavirus. The refusal to acknowledge the reality of rising cases and deaths has hurt Mr. Trump’s poll numbers and hampered the country from a coordinated response. It has alienated him from key groups of swing voters, including seniors and ideological moderates.

In several interviews and news conferences this week, Mr. Trump tried to change course. Here’s how:

  • Teed up with an opportunity to criticize Dr. Anthony Fauci from Fox News host Sean Hannity, Mr. Trump ignored it.

  • On Thursday, Mr. Trump said schools should delay reopening in coronavirus hot spots — a reversal of his previous position that all schools should open in the fall.

  • That afternoon, the president canceled the Republican National Convention in Florida, citing the threat posed by the virus. Some Republican leaders had already said they would not attend.

The relationship between President Barack Obama and his vice president, Mr. Biden, was so publicly affectionate that it was its own meme genre. The relationship helped Mr. Biden secure the Democratic nomination, and on Thursday, Mr. Obama returned to the virtual campaign trail, releasing a sleek video conversation with Mr. Biden filmed in the 44th president’s D.C. office.

The discussion focused on Mr. Trump’s response to the coronavirus, and contrasted how a potential Biden administration would deal with unforeseen crises. But more than any individual policy, Mr. Obama sought to brand Mr. Biden as compassionate and decent, the type of person who stands out against Mr. Trump’s combativeness.

“The thing I’ve got confidence in, Joe, is your heart and your character, and the fact that you are going to be able to reassemble the kind of government that cares about people and brings people together.”

Some other highlights from the video release, which totaled 15 minutes:

  • Mr. Obama called the Affordable Care Act a “starter house,” saying it’s time for Democrats to expand coverage.

  • Both men encouraged those who have been leading protests against racial inequality and police brutality. Mr. Obama’s administration was, at times, criticized by activists for not embracing systemic police reform. Mr. Obama said Mr. Biden would be an ally to bigger change.

The whole idea behind moving the convention from its original location in Charlotte, N.C., to Jacksonville was to make it easier to give Mr. Trump the spectacle he wanted: televised images of packed crowds cheering him into the final sprint of his re-election campaign, a dangerous reality that Republicans thought would not be possible under strict social distancing rules that Democratic governor of North Carolina, Roy Cooper, was requiring.

But bringing together a large crowd during a surging pandemic proved to be much more difficult than simply finding a new location with a supportive Republican governor and mayor.

And on Thursday, Mr. Trump broke the news himself that he was pulling the plug on his second attempt at a large-scale celebratory convention.

“It’s not the right time for that,” Mr. Trump said, nodding to the growing cases in Florida and the problems with security that local law enforcement officials had expressed.

The end was welcomed by Republican officials who had been tasked with putting it together. Some talked of celebrating the president’s decision by cracking open expensive bottles of wine on Thursday night.

How did we get here?

  • Republicans said raising money had been difficult, and making last-minute adjustments — like sending attendees in-home Covid-19 test kits, had been complicated. They also assumed that Mr. Trump would ultimately be blamed for a coronavirus death tied to the convention.

  • The Jacksonville City Council president opposed a bill that would have given the mayor, Lenny Curry, the power to spend $33 million in federal security funds however he deems necessary.

  • The sheriff of Jacksonville, meanwhile, said of convention security on Monday: “We can’t pull it off.” The Republican National Committees response? “Jacksonville has accommodated upwards of 70,000 people for football games and other events, and we are confident in state, local and federal officials to be able to ensure a safe event for our attendees,” Mandi Merritt, an R.N.C. spokeswoman, said.

  • Florida continued to see a rise in coronavirus cases and deaths overall this week, and Jacksonville is no exception. Over one-fifth of Jacksonville’s coronavirus deaths were reported in last seven days, according to local news sources.

Isabella Grullón Paz and Giovanni Russonello contributed reporting.

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