Instead of driving a message, or trying to cast attention on Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump’s aides were mostly paralyzed as they tried to respond to audio recordings of their boss speaking freely with Mr. Woodward, acknowledging he intentionally minimized the threat of the virus to avoid “a panic” and declaring the virus was “in the air” well before government officials said that publicly.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump announced a surprise news conference where he had nothing to announce. He entered the briefing room simply to reiterate false statements about the administration’s coronavirus response and defend himself, again, against revelations in Mr. Woodward’s book.
Mr. Trump often feels compelled to defend himself, but that almost always merely keeps a story alive. “I didn’t lie,” he said Thursday when asked to explain why he told Mr. Woodward the virus was “deadly stuff” and admitted it was more deadly than “even your strenuous flu” while telling the public the opposite. He also claimed that “everyone knew it was airborne” back in February.
The Woodward fiasco came after several days of Mr. Trump’s being consumed by another damaging narrative, spurred by an article in The Atlantic. The article, citing unidentified sources, described a history of the president making denigrating statements about members of the military. When the uproar over the story was finally dying down on Monday, the Labor Day holiday, Mr. Trump breathed fresh life into it by holding a news conference and talking about it again.
Mr. Trump’s advisers would like him to turn the race into a choice between himself and Mr. Biden. Instead, Mr. Trump is more comfortable turning the campaign into a referendum on himself.
“Donald Trump doesn’t appear to be in control of the news cycle fundamentally because he’s not in control of events,” said Steve Schmidt, a longtime Republican strategist who is an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump, and who advises the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project. “The country is profoundly out of control under his watch.”
Mr. Schmidt, who advised President George W. Bush as he was running for re-election in 2004, said that in the final weeks of a presidential race, the person who the race is a referendum on is frequently the person who is losing. Right now, he said, “the race is substantially about Trump, and everything he tries to do to change the subject just isn’t working.”