WASHINGTON – For weeks, President Donald Trump has been eager to publicly turn the page on the coronavirus pandemic. Now fears are growing within the White House that the very thing that finally shoved the virus from center stage — mass protests over the death of George Floyd — may bring about its resurgence.
Trump this week has eagerly pronounced himself the “president of law and order" in response to the racial unrest that has swept across the nation, overshadowing the pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 105,000 Americans and imperiled his reelection prospects.
But political dangers for the president remain.
Thousands of Americans — many without protective face masks — have jammed the nation’s streets over the past week in defiance of social distancing guidelines from governors and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The White House coronavirus task force, which has dramatically scaled back its operations as states reopen their economies, is scrambling to track the potential impact on infection rates.
Any uptick in cases in the weeks ahead could slow the economic rebirth that Trump’s advisers believe he needs before he faces voters again in five months.
“A second wave, whether now or in September, would obviously be a setback to the economic recovery and Trump’s reelection hopes,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “What Trump needs more than anything is a resurgence of consumer and business confidence. A second wave or prolonged civil unrest will undermine that.”
It could take weeks to judge the impact of the nationwide protests on the spread of COVID-19, which had been dramatically ebbing across most of the country before the killing of Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes even after he stopped moving and pleading for air.
Those infected with the virus sometimes take several days to display symptoms, creating a lag in the data. And many protesters were masked and skewed younger — a population that is less affected by the virus but may also have greater numbers of asymptomatic spreaders — complicating predictions.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the administration’s coronavirus coordinator, has been monitoring the protests since they began, looking for indicators of potential resurgence in cases, a White House official said. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, said Birx was expected to present the task force with early impressions this week but the fuller picture likely won’t be known for some time.
Questions are swirling about whether the White House is prepared to handle a possible resurgence after deliberately placing the government's public health response on the back burner to put more focus on restarting state economies.
The task force received a stay of execution last month when Trump decided not to dissolve it. The group now has a smaller portfolio as the federal priority shifts to helping states safely reopen and the race for a vaccine has been put under the separate auspices of “Operation Warp Speed.”
The task force is still collecting data, coordinating the distribution of supplies and test kits, and serving as a sounding board for states, but officials said there's less to do now that critical supply shortages have been largely eliminated and tests are more broadly available. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, told CNN this week that he had not spoken to Trump in half a month.
White House officials are warily watching metropolitan areas where the protests have ignited, hoping the outdoor settings reduce the risk. The administration will also encourage governors to reestablish testing sites that were destroyed or shut down due to the protests.
“President Trump continues to lead the nation through this unprecedented pandemic, including expedited vaccine development and responsibly reopening our economy, while also taking decisive action to restore law and order to our streets and ensure justice,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere.
Soon after the coronavirus reached American shores, the president expressed frustration at how quickly the pandemic crippled the economy, depriving Trump of his best argument for reelection. Trump also had hoped to revive his 2016 playbook to tarnish Democratic rival Joe Biden as an ineffective and corrupt Washington insider, only to have the pandemic all but suspend the campaign.
Desperate to change the subject, Trump labeled the Obama administration's use of a routine intelligence procedure known as unmasking as “the biggest political crime in history" to slam Biden and promoted an unfounded murder conspiracy theory against MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a frequent Trump critic.
The president has spoken about the coronavirus only sparingly over the last week, mostly to level broadsides against China and the World Health Organization for what he sees as a failure to adequately warn the world about the threat of the virus. Aides have been encouraged by the lack of a significant spike in cases after Memorial Day and some states’ reopening.
Trump is slated Friday to visit a factory in Maine that makes swabs used to test for the coronavirus, his first pandemic-themed travel in more than two weeks. The event has a 2020 backdrop: Maine divides its electoral votes, and the event will be held in the state’s 2nd Congressional District, which Trump won four years ago and is banking on again this November.
All of Trump’s recent official travel has been to electoral battleground states, including Florida, Pennsylvania and Arizona, as advisers nervously track his standing in polls. His campaign has welcomed the recent shift to law-and-order themes, believing the president’s combative rhetoric and talk about sending the military into cities will reassure voters concerned about lawlessness, including senior citizens and suburban women.
But, just as with the pandemic, the Biden campaign sees Trump’s handling of the protests after Floyd’s death as fresh proof for the former vice president's argument Trump is dangerously unfit for the presidency. Its pitch is that Biden has the experience and temperament to clean up the mess and “restore the soul of the nation.”
“The American people are crying out for leadership,” said Biden spokesman Andrew Bates. “Narcissism, fear, and smallness will never meet this moment, but Trump doesn’t know how to offer anything else.”
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.