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‘You can’t tell people that happy days are here again when it’s 1932:’ Trump’s COVID disconnect threatens his reelection

President Donald Trump arrives on stage to speak at a campaign rally at the BOK Center, Saturday, June 20, 2020, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump arrives on stage to speak at a campaign rally at the BOK Center, Saturday, June 20, 2020, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)Evan Vucci/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A few days before heading to what he confidently predicted would be a packed indoor rally in Tulsa, Okla., President Trump reassured his fans on Fox News that the coronavirus was already “fading away” even without a vaccine.

But those who wanted to reserve a spot to see the president in person last weekend were required to sign a waiver freeing the campaign from any liability if they were to contract the still fast-spreading virus, which has killed more than 120,000 Americans.

That disconnect between the president and his team’s rosy predictions of the virus’ disappearance and the grim reality of the disease on the ground may help explain why the crowd size-obsessed president was greeted by an expanse of empty blue seats on Saturday.

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Trump’s COVID-19 denial and attempt to return to his prepandemic routine could also spell trouble for his reelection campaign. A president who largely operates in a protective bubble is out of step with the majority of Americans who still fear the disease as case numbers spike in red and purple states that are key to his path to victory.

“I think a lot of people looked at that and thought, ‘Do I really want to go into a crowded auditorium, sign a waiver in which if I get sick it’s on me?’” said Michael Steele, the former head of the Republican National Committee. “A lot of people chose not to, and I think that says where they are and where the president is on this are two very different spots, which is why I think he’s taking the hit in the polling numbers.”

Danielle Vinson, a presidential scholar at Furman University in South Carolina, said she was surprised to see the arena in a deep red state like Oklahoma only one-third full. “I think that may suggest that you can’t just wish the coronavirus away,” she said.

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The Trump campaign pointed out that millions of people watched the rally online or on TV. Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said Monday that Trump was “quite pleased” with the rally, denying reports that he was fuming about the lackluster turnout on the ride back to Washington.

Other factors may also explain the rally’s relatively low attendance — including the president’s declining approval rating and fears his supporters may have had about protests outside the arena.

But the upbeat rhetoric emanating from the White House, and Trump’s own claim last week that there was a “hunger” among Americans for his rallies contrasts with the widespread concern most Americans still feel about the disease.

A recent Fox News poll found that nearly 85 percent of voters are at least somewhat concerned about the spread of coronavirus, with 35 percent of Republicans reporting they are “very concerned” about it. Only 23 percent of voters believe it is a good idea for political candidates to hold large events or rallies right now, as public health experts warn against large indoor gatherings as potential hotbeds of spread.

“I think that his description of COVID is not how people feel,” said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “This is something I learned at the beginning of my career: You can’t tell people that happy days are here again when it’s 1932. They won’t believe it and they won’t listen to you.”

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Trump and his aides have downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19 from the beginning of the outbreak as he fretted over its effect on the economy — and his reelection prospects. He frequently compared coronavirus to the less fatal seasonal flu, claimed it was “very much under control” in late February, and touted the “great progress” his administration made in fighting it in April —before 90,000 more people died. Since then, the administration has halted regular coronavirus briefings featuring its public health experts, even as cases have begun to surge in the South and West in recent days.

“There is no second wave coming,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC on Monday, echoing Trump’s earlier assurance that the disease is “fading.”

After weeks of cases declining from their peak, the United States reported its highest daily new infection numbers over the past two days since April 25, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, led by a surge of infections in Florida, Arizona, and Texas. The president is visiting hard-hit Arizona on Tuesday for a “Students for Trump” event, and his aides have waved the surge away. They pointed out that fatalities, which typically lag new case numbers, are still far lower than their peak, and that new infections are more concentrated among young people.

But experts disagree. “The data show that COVID is not ‘fading away,’” said C. Robert Horsburgh, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University. “It’s just wrong. The president is ignoring the facts and painting the picture that he wants to paint.”

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Trump has shared with his supporters a desire to ignore the virus’ politically inconvenient prevalence. At Saturday’s rally, Trump said he asked officials to “slow the testing down” so fewer cases would be evident in the data. On Monday, he dodged a reporter’s repeated question about whether he did, in fact, make that request, after some of his aides claimed he had been joking.

Trump frequently is tested for the virus and his close associates are all screened for it. He has also refused to be seen wearing a mask in public, declining to set an example of using what public health experts say is one of the best tools for preventing coronavirus spread.

If cases continue to surge and the president maintains an upbeat and unconcerned tone, he risks looking like he doesn’t care about his supporters’ health. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden already has a 10 percentage point lead over Trump among voters who are asked to describe which candidate is someone who “cares about people like me,” according to the Fox News poll.

Trump’s handling of the crisis has opened up a political opportunity for his opponents. Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who helped form the Lincoln Project PAC that opposes Trump, said his organization is now running television and online ads in six states, including Kentucky and North Carolina, where they did not expect to be competitive. And their target groups now include people over 65, faith-based voters, and the most ardent core of Trump supporters — noncollege educated white men. As the infection rates rise in red states, the PAC sees potential for Trump’s numbers to only go down.

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The virus makes “this very, very real in a way that nothing else could,” Madrid said. “This isn’t chanting ‘Build the wall’ or ‘Lock her up’ anymore. People are sick and dying or in the hospital and the economy is in shambles.”

And unlike in past crises, the coronavirus shows no signs of being subsumed by the next headline from an often chaotic White House. “American voters have the ability now to watch Donald Trump engage on an issue that they are very familiar with, they have a lot of concern about and they have a lot of time to pay attention,” said longtime Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “There is not much his spin and bluster can do to move past this.”


Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa