It’s safe to say that if most political campaigns had seen its candidate, campaign manager, and more than a dozen associates test positive for COVID-19 within days of each other, they would likely reassess the strategy of holding large, in-person events that could be potential breeding grounds for the highly-infectious and deadly disease.
Not so with the Trump campaign.
While briefly pausing in-person events after President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump disclosed their positive diagnoses on Oct. 2, the campaign announced, just a day later, that “Operation MAGA”—a series of in-person events that the campaign touted as a way to “energize and mobilize the MAGA universe to maintain full speed until the President returns to the campaign trail”—will commence later this week. Trump himself tweeted on Oct. 5, the same day he was discharged from the hospital, that he “will be back on the Campaign Trail soon.”
The Trump campaign’s schedule is already jam-packed. On Oct. 8, Vice President Mike Pence will hold a rally at a tactical gear manufacturing company in Peoria, Ariz. On that same day Donald Trump Jr. is scheduled to hold an event at a Holiday Inn in Panama City, Fla., Lara Trump will join Trump campaign advisers Mercedes Schlapp and Katrina Pierson for a “women for Trump bus tour event in New Castle, Pennsylvania, and Eric Trump will host two events in North Carolina.
“I expect us to have upwards of fifty folks all around the country,” said Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday, “flooding the zone in the battleground states later this week.”
Republican strategists say that one main reason the Trump campaign struggled to pivot after the President’s diagnosis is because its strategy, unlike many other Presidential campaigns in the past, is almost entirely dependent on the man on the top of the ticket. Instead of switching the focus to messaging about specific policy promises or other moves a second-term Trump Administration might embrace, they’re hamstrung by their dependence on Trump’s personal draw as a candidate.
“This campaign relies on the candidate to carry [it] more than most campaigns do,” says Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s 016 presidential run. “It’s clearly not helpful to not have the candidate traveling the country in the final weeks of the election.”
But the Trump campaign’s decision to stick to the current strategy carries its own risks. Trump is trailing Biden in the polls by double digits, and a CNN poll released on Oct. 5 found that two thirds of Americans thought he handled the risk of coronavirus irresponsibly. It’s unlikely that continuing to hold in-person events will improve the President’s standing on this latter point.
Pence and Trump Jr.’s in-person rallies this week pose a particular issue. If these events are similar to the rallies President Trump held before he contracted the coronavirus, the campaign can expect thousands of attendees, many mask-less and packed together, in clear violation of the guidelines recommended by the U.S. government’s own Center for Disease Control and Prevention. While both Pence and Trump, Jr. have tested negative for the virus, the decision to flout public health guidelines could endanger Trump supporters while making the Trump campaign appear careless with American lives.
“From a purely cynical perspective, Republicans should want their voters to be healthy enough to get to the polls. And that means encouraging masks and social distancing and the likes,” says Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist who worked for Jeb Bush’s and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns. “There is zero margin for error. We’re too close.”
Conant says that even if these rallies don’t become super-spreader events, they’re politically risky since they raise questions about the Trump administration’s stance on the virus—a topic the campaign would like to avoid, given the current polling. “Anything that keeps the focus on the virus is problematic,” Conant says. “If someone is exposed and then goes to a traditional campaign event, a lot of the coverage around that event is going to be about coronavirus and the controversy of not quarantining. I think that’s a real challenge for the campaign.”
Both Gorman and Conant added that the Trump campaign must be careful to avoid questions about how seriously they are taking the outbreak, in order to redirect attention to topics, like the economy, that they see as more politically beneficial. “Incorporating the diagnosis into the campaign is a rabbit hole they don’t want to go down,” Gorman said. “Talking about Trump’s COVID diagnosis is not going to be beneficial…turning to the economic message is really important to try and steer the debate in their favor.”
When asked what health precautions would be taken at upcoming campaign events, a Trump campaign aide told TIME that, in Arizona, hand sanitizer would be provided to every attendee, masks would be given out and “encouraged” and that there would be universal temperature checks before entering the venue. The tactical gear business where Pence will host a rally this week confirmed that the event will be outdoors, but deferred all other questions to the campaign. Campaign aides did not respond to request for comments about what precautions would be taken at the other events.
“People have the First Amendment right to express their political views and choose to come hear from the Vice President of the United States. We always enact health and safety precautions for participants and attendees,” said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s Communications Director, in a statement.
Public health experts are skeptical: the precautions outlined by the campaign are not sufficient to prevent a coronavirus outbreak among the crowd. Scientific data has repeatedly shown that the best way to reduce the spread is by requiring—not only encouraging—mask use and practicing social distancing, which is the opposite of gathering in-person and en masse.
Dr. Leana Wen, a public health specialist and visiting professor at George Washington University said people like Pence, who have been in contact with Trump, should be in isolation and not attending campaign events at all. “There needs to be very careful contact tracing of anyone who has had close contact with individuals who are positive and they should be quarantining themselves,” she said.
The President, even since contracting the disease, has also been notably blasé about precautionary measures. On Sunday, while still hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Trump chose to ride around in an enclosed vehicle greeting supporters, while exposing secret service agents who were in the vehicle with him for his protection. And after he was discharged from the hospital on Monday, he took off his mask before heading inside the White House, which is filled with executive and household staff, who could also be exposed. On Monday, two White House housekeepers tested positive for COVID-19.
—With reporting by Alice Park