rump team’s new mission: Defend the ‘wartime president’
Slammed by a threat he called “totally under control” in January, Trump is trying to re-brand his presidency and campaign just before an election.
When America is at war, voters prefer not to swap presidents in the middle of battle. James Madison sailed to reelection after launching the War of 1812. Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address a month before the Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox. In the shadow of World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt notched a third term. And the year after deploying troops to Iraq, George W. Bush defeated a war veteran, Democrat John Kerry.
What if the enemy is invisible? Not a foreign country, or the perpetrators of a brazen terrorist attack, but a lethal disease that forces Americans to shelter in place indefinitely as their health, jobs and wages hang in the balance?
President Donald Trump is about to find out.
After fumbling his administration’s initial response to the devastating spread of COVID-19, and dismissing the threat of the novel coronavirus for months as it spread from China, Trump has turned to the one concept that seems to work politically to overcome monumental challenges. Days after he issued a national emergency declaration to help combat the global pandemic, the New York businessman — who famously avoided the Vietnam draft multiple times — informed Americans on Wednesday that he is now “a wartime president,” and said the country should prepare to fight.
“Every generation of Americans has been called to make shared sacrifices for the good of the nation,” Trump said at a White House briefing featuring Defense Secretary Mark Esper, U.S. Veterans Affairs chief Robert Wilkie and members of the administration’s coronavirus task force.
“Now it’s our time,” Trump continued, recalling the bravery America showed during World War II. “We must sacrifice together, because we are all in this together, and we will come through together.”
The wartime posture Trump has adopted in his tone and actions — he invoked the Defense Production Act on Wednesday, giving him the authority to influence private industries for emergency response purposes — marks an extraordinary new phase in his attempt to reclaim public support for his handling of the deadly outbreak, and it raises questions about the potential measures Trump could take if the crisis spirals even further out of control.
“He is trying to create a sense of command-and-control and authority now that it’s obvious this is going to be a big challenge for the country,” said Tony Fratto, a White House aide to President George W. Bush.
Trump already has announced plans to dispatch two Navy ships with operating rooms and hospital beds to New York Harbor and the West Coast to assist local medical workers as they grapple with an influx of patients who have contracted COVID-19 and require treatment for the virus. The idea to reposition the two ships — the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort — gained steam after Trump last Friday issued his emergency declaration, which served as a “green light” for the Pentagon to begin taking more aggressive measures, according to a well-placed Defense Department official.
Earlier on, there had been internal disagreements between Pentagon officials who wanted the administration to take “prudent measures,” such as travel restrictions, and those who wished to avoid rash decisions that could exacerbate political consequences and the current economic downturn, the official said. Some White House officials were hesitant to enlist the Navy ships prematurely since the Comfort is currently undergoing maintenance that could take weeks to complete. (The Mercy, which is currently stationed in San Diego, could deploy within days.)
The administration is also weighing the deployment of National Guard and Reserve troops at the federal level if conditions worsen in the coming weeks. Contingency planning began Tuesday at the Pentagon, where officials discussed enlisting guardsmen to deliver food and medical supplies to vulnerable populations, build temporary hospitals and retrofit facilities that could be used as hospitals, and work with local police units to enforce curfews like they have in coastal areas facing hurricanes. Nearly 20 governors have already activated national guardsmen as they work to contain the rapidly spreading virus within their own states, and some have encouraged the president to mobilize the Army Corps of Engineers in a further step to address the outbreak.
“We believe the use of active duty Army Corps personnel would not violate federal law because this is a national disaster,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wrote in a New York Times op-ed Sunday.
For now, the president’s greatest tool has been his rhetoric — particularly the ways in which he is using the war metaphor to try to boost public morale, reach supporters who remain dismissive of the worldwide pandemic and preemptively position himself as a president who rose to the occasion when voters weigh their options this November.
“President Trump has figured out that he has to put aside that proudly reckless style of governance that has been a staple of his presidency to date, and adopt a posture that’s more typical of what presidents have done in crises,” said David Greenberg, a Rutgers University history professor.
“At the same time, it’s not so much about calling himself a wartime president as it is about whether he matches the rhetoric with actions that make us safer,” Greenberg added.
To that end, Trump has enlisted the help of nearly everyone in his usual orbit — and beyond.
According to two people familiar with the discussions, Trump has privately encouraged White House aides, personal friends and corporate executives to brainstorm creative steps they can take to curb the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, keep health care professionals equipped to manage patients and prevent hospitals from becoming overcrowded and doctors overwhelmed.
Officials involved with the White House Office of American Innovation, for example, have spent the past several days conferring with major tech companies about how they can help distribute public service announcements related to COVID-19 and prevent severe supply shortages as consumers prepare for weeks of minimal social contact outside their homes and hospitals worry about the availability of protective personal equipment — including surgical masks, goggles and gloves — and office supplies.
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law who has spearheaded much of the outreach to Big Tech and other industries, is specifically trying to marshal the private sector behind the president.
Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are pressuring GOP lawmakers to quickly pass a massive aid package of more than $1 trillion to stabilize the economy and soften a coronavirus-induced recession. And on Wednesday, Trump announced a mutual agreement with Canada to close the United States’ northern border to all nonessential traffic — a step that came as the president simultaneously weighs new restrictions on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ultimately, Trump’s push to portray himself as a wartime leader has gained broad attention not because of his efforts to get the military, the government and private industries involved in responding to the coronavirus outbreak, but because of the manner in which his entire administration and 2020 campaign appeared to adopt the same message overnight.
By Wednesday morning, the president, his allies and top administration officials were nearly all employing the rhetoric of war: encouraging sacrifice, promising better days ahead while acknowledging difficulties now, promoting patriotism and praising “bold” actions that might quickly return the country to normalcy.
In the opinion pages of USA Today, Pence asked young and healthy Americans — some of whom spent last weekend going about their normal lives — to commit to making small sacrifices to keep others safe, writing that “there is no substitute for the action of the American people.” In an email blast Wednesday afternoon, the Republican National Committee praised Trump’s “wartime footing” and “whole of America” approach.
Senior Pentagon officials even advised Esper to talk more about the Pentagon’s efforts to protect all Americans — not just military personnel — in his public comments, according to a former Defense Department official.
Even former Vice President Joe Biden, who is close to securing his spot as Trump’s Democratic challenger in the 2020 election, described the coronavirus outbreak in warlike terms. Speaking to supporters from his Delaware home after a series of primary victories Tuesday, Biden said “tackling this pandemic is a national emergency akin to fighting a war.”
“This is a moment where we need our leaders to lead, but it is also a moment where the choices and decisions we make as individuals, and collectively as a people, will make a big difference in the severity of the outbreak…,” Biden said.
An outside adviser to the Trump campaign said the president’s 2020 team is hoping to capitalize on Trump’s new messaging strategy by launching a series of digital ads as soon as next week that highlight the president’s efforts to battle the “invisible enemy” — a phrase Trump has recently used to describe the deadly respiratory syndrome. A Trump campaign spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing the Trump campaign expend some resources to communicate to his supporters that this is important,” Fratto said. “And if he has to use wartime language to do it, it’s in all of our interests to let him.”
If the president’s strategy works, he could have a shot at finding himself back on the Speaker’s balcony for his second swearing-in ceremony next January, having won reelection because voters either cut him slack — something his predecessors who became wartime leaders appeared to benefit from even as economic turmoil persisted — or because the country recovered from a war their commander-in-chief led them through.
But there’s no guarantee Trump will meet the same fate as Madison, Lincoln, Roosevelt or Bush even if Americans agree that this is war.
Damaged by his handling of the war in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson stunned the country in 1968 when he announced he would not run for reelection.
And a quarter century later,
President George H.W. Bush
lost his bid for a second term
to an Arkansan named Bill Clinton
a year after the 1991 Gulf War.