White House aides divided over Trump coronavirus visibility

WASHINGTON — White House officials are split over what role President Donald Trump should have in responding to the record-breaking numbers of new coronavirus cases, with some advisers urging him to stay on the sidelines while others warn he does so at his own political peril.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway has been arguing Trump should be more visible on the issue, saying his approval numbers have fallen since he curtailed his daily coronavirus briefings. Conway said she isn’t advocating for a return of the two-hour daily press conferences Trump held in the spring, but does think he should be speaking out more on the issue and touting the administration’s response.

“His approval rating on the pandemic was higher when he was at the podium — it was 51 percent in March — and I think people want to hear from the president of the United States,” Conway said Friday in response to a question from NBC News.

But other White House aides have pushed to keep Trump distant from the response, hoping that by keeping him out of the day-to-day public narrative, the administration can "depoliticize" the pandemic, a senior administration official said earlier this month. Trump’s comments on everything from masks to taking the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine have sparked controversy, resulting in public battles with the Democrats and public health experts.

Lately, Trump has only discussed the pandemic in passing during speeches or when asked specifically about it by reporters. Instead, Vice President Mike Pence has become the public face of the response, traveling to the hardest-hit states, updating the press, and meeting with governors.

The White House intentionally held several coronavirus press briefings outside of the White House last month to try to distance the events from Trump and make them feel less political, a senior administration official said.

Trump doesn’t regularly attend the coronavirus task force meetings, though he is briefed daily on case numbers and progress with a vaccine and therapeutics, officials said.

Public opinion of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus has fallen sharply since May, according to several recent surveys. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Friday found just 38 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s response to the pandemic, down from 46 percent in May and 51 percent in March. More than half of the respondents said they “strongly” disapprove of his handling of the crisis.

Trump’s overall job approval numbers have also tumbled over the past two months, going from 49 percent on May 13 to 38 percent at the end of June, according to Gallup.

"It's causation, not coincidence that the president's handling of coronavirus was higher among public opinion when he himself was addressing” the pandemic, Conway said.

But the decline in approval also coincides with unease over the president's response to the protests following the killing of George Floyd, and with record numbers of COVID-19 cases in some of the nation’s biggest states.

When Trump has addressed the pandemic in recent weeks, he has painted a rosier picture than the one that millions of Americans are witnessing in their day-to-day lives, appearing to deny there is large-scale community spread and pushing for schools to fully reopen next month.

Mixed messaging from federal health agencies and the president on the issue of wearing masks continued on Friday as he said he disagreed with his administrations's director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about how effective they would be in stopping COVID-19.

In an interview with Fox News' Chris Wallace, which is set to air on Sunday, Wallace referred to recent comments from CDC head Robert Redfield that if everyone were wearing masks, the virus could be under control within weeks.

"No. I want people to have a certain freedom, and I don't believe in that, no," Trump said.

So far, those inside the White House pushing to keep Trump focused on other issues have appeared to be succeeding. This week, Trump held events at the White House on law enforcement and rolling back regulations during which he used his public remarks to claim that a Biden presidency would lead to massive crime and the destruction of America's suburbs.

Trump also traveled to Atlanta, where the mayor is attempting to require the public to wear masks as the state sees a surge in new cases. But the event was focused on infrastructure and Trump made only a brief mention of the pandemic.

“It was a terrible thing and it could have been stopped and it should have been stopped right where it started, in China. Together we will defeat this virus and emerge stronger than ever before,” Trump told the crowd before going on to tout the regulations his administration has repealed, make unproven accusations about the security of mail-in ballots and attack Joe Biden.

Still, even as he avoided coronavirus-themed events, Trump has waded into the debate over whether schools should reopen in the fall despite the pandemic, dismissing concerns about the potential health risks of that move as politically motivated.

"We have to open the schools," Trump said Monday at a law enforcement event. "We have to get them open, and I think there's a lot of politics going along. I think they [Democrats] think they'll do better if they can keep the schools closed in the election."

Still, the debate over whether or not the president should be delivering more of the White House's messaging on the coronavirus begs the question of whether voters want to hear coronavirus messaging from the president — and there is growing evidence they may not: a Quinnipiac University poll released this week found just 30 percent of registered voters say they trust information Trump provides on the issue.

“Donald Trump ignored the warning signs,” Biden said about the virus COVID-19, elaborating that he ignored the pillars of the country’s “moral and economic strength” in the process.

”Now, he’s hiding,” he said about Trump. “What’s he done?”

”He’s literally waved the white flag, he’s walked away,” Biden said.