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Trump may have wasted chance to help his re-election by showing empathy for those hurt by COVID-19

If U.S. President Donald Trump wanted to help his flagging re-election campaign, he could talk about his personal experience with COVID-19 and express empathy for the millions who have had to deal with the potentially fatal disease.

That would be the advice of American University communications professor Leonard Steinhorn, if he were counselling the president.

“If he used this as an opportunity to communicate with Americans on a sort of more personal basis, it could have, in some ways, a positive impact on his campaign,” Steinhorn told CBC News.

Instead, upon his departure from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday evening, Trump downplayed the seriousness of the disease, releasing a video telling Americans they should not fear the virus, not let it take over their lives and that he feels better than he did 20 years ago.

“He wants his personal experience to vindicate the policies, the policies he’s had to reopen America,” Steinhorn said. “And to vindicate everything he’s been saying and doing.”

The Republican president was admitted to Walter Reed on Friday after being diagnosed with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. On Monday, he returned to the White House, where he will be cared for around the clock by a team of doctors and nurses.

His return to the White House was also accompanied by a video statement he released via Twitter. Trump said he learned so much about the virus while in hospital and he promised vaccines are coming “momentarily.”

“Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it,” Trump said. “We’re going back, we’re going back to work. We’re going to be out front. … Don’t let it dominate your lives. Get out there, be careful.”

‘Willful blindness’

While the whole ordeal has been shrouded in secrecy and has led to contradictory statements from medical officials and White House staff, it was an opportunity for the president to express solidarity and empathy with those who have been impacted by the virus, said Andrew MacDougall, ex-director of communications to former prime minister Stephen Harper.

For Trump to “come out of a virus that has killed over 200,000 Americans, made millions more ill, and cannot offer one word of empathy or sympathy for what these families and their loved ones are going through … there’s just willful blindness that his experience is not everyone else’s experience.”

“It’s just me, me, me me, me, me,” said MacDougall.


Politically, however, what’s important to Trump is how his message will play to voters, particularly the undecided ones who are crucial for an electoral victory on Nov. 3.

“I accept that there’s a small percentage of people who do want to hear that [tough] attitude,” MacDougall said. “It’s not enough to shift new voters over to his column, which is what he needs to do. He needs to make up a lot of ground, there’s not a lot of time to do it and he’s wasted this opportunity — if anything, he’s polarized people even more about it.”

Brendan Buck, a former adviser to former House speaker Paul Ryan, told the New York Times that the president’s approach was not necessarily helpful to him politically because it “didn’t pass the laugh test for a super-serious situation that has ruined millions of people’s lives.”

For political leaders, contracting COVID-19 does seem to inspire some good will from the broader populace. Both British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro saw slight increases in their popularity after they announced they were infected. But those bumps were short-lived, polls suggest.

Will it help him?

In almost every conceivable poll, the U.S. president is behind, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the political analysis newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“The question we need to ask ourselves all the time, it’s not whether something will hurt him but whether it will help him,” Kondik said. “This whole coronavirus situation — what’s going to come out of this to help him?”

“I just go back to the general sense of chaos, which certainly has been a feature of this White House and has been a feature of this latest episode,” Kondik said. “And if you feel like that’s a problem for the president, and I feel like it is, it doesn’t help.”

The coronavirus ranks highly as a concern for voters, just below the economy, said Tom Bevan, co-founder of the politics website RealClearPolitics. The demographic where it’s of particular concern is voters over 65, where Trump is struggling.

“Trump is not doing as well with seniors. That’s been reflected in all the data. It’s a group he won in 2016 and now he’s trailing [Democratic presidential candidate Joe] Biden,” Bevan said. “I think it’s safe to say that at least part of that is attributable to his handling of the coronavirus.”

Bevan said it’s possible that those undecided voters may not be viewing the actions of Trump or his administration in the same way as partisans.

This photo shows the seating arrangement for several people in Trump’s inner circle who have tested positive for COVID-19 after the president and his wife confirmed their diagnoses on Friday. (CBC News)

“Maybe they like [Trump’s] message. Maybe they don’t. Maybe they don’t care. [Maybe] they just care about the economy and health care and all this stuff is sort of a sideshow,” Bevan said. “It’s too early to tell. I’ve no idea how voters are going to process that information [about his hospitalization], because it just came so fast.”

Outbreak at the White House

The White House is experiencing a larger coronavirus outbreak, with many staffers having contracted the disease. The outbreak may be the result of a Rose Garden ceremony on Sept. 26, when Trump announced his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

Many in attendance sat in close proximity and didn’t wear masks. Along with the president and the first lady, a number of prominent Republicans have tested positive for the coronavirus, including White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany; Republican senators Mike Lee, Thom Tillis and Ron Johnson; former White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway; and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

Meanwhile, the White House has decided not to trace the contacts of guests and staff members at the celebration, the New York Times reported. Instead, it has limited its efforts to notifying people who came in close contact with Trump.

Steinhorn said the question is whether voters will see Trump’s approach to his infection, and the White House’s response to its own outbreak, as a metaphor for how this administration has dealt with the pandemic more broadly.

“This episode magnifies the credibility gap that characterizes this White House,” he said. “But beyond credibility, it’s also the image of chaos.”

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