Joe Biden is on the campaign trail. Donald Trump is in the hospital.
In a role reversal, the president who mocked his rival for being weak and hiding “in his basement” is stuck in isolation under doctors’ supervision while Biden jets off to states like Michigan on Friday and Florida on Monday, with the battleground map all to himself.
It’s a contrast the Biden campaign intends to sharpen as long as Trump is sidelined from coronavirus. Only a month remains until Election Day, and a record 3.2 million Americans already cast early ballots in 21 states, with Democrats out-voting Republicans so far.
“There is no reason not to show the country that, yes, you can go about your business — if you do it safely, if you wear masks, if you socially distance,” Biden adviser Anita Dunn told POLITICO. “The vice president has talked about this since March.”
The Biden campaign, under strict orders from the candidate to not speak ill of Trump personally while he’s in the hospital, announced it was pulling its negative ads out of respect to the president, though some still aired on stations that didn’t take them down quickly enough.
The positive-ad announcement had an ulterior motive, another Biden adviser acknowledged: To pivot to the closing argument stage of the campaign, in which the Democrat tries to rally voters with an uplifting case for change. Besides, that adviser said, Biden doesn’t need to say much about Trump’s struggles to contain coronavirus because, now that the president is hospitalized for it, it’s obvious.
“It’s harder and harder to see how Trump wins. What’s his argument?” said the adviser, who was not authorized to speak for attribution. “Donald Trump did everything to pretend coronavirus didn’t exist. Now there’s no way he can escape it.”
Over the weekend, the drumbeat of bad news drowned out any positive message Trump’s campaign or White House tried to articulate.
Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, debate coach Chris Christie and Sen. Ron Johnson all announced they tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday night and Saturday morning. That was in addition to positive tests for the president, his wife, White House adviser Hope Hicks, Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).
Biden’s campaign, by contrast, is covid-free. Biden tested negative Friday before heading to Michigan. He said Saturday he was not tested since but would be tested again Sunday.
Biden’s campaign, pointing to all the national and battleground-state polling, felt he was winning even before Trump announced early Friday that he tested positive. It has been further encouraged by early voting numbers.
Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor who tracks early voting, said the 3.2 million ballots cast so far is a record, if only a fraction of the number of ballots that will ultimately be cast. Democrats are returning early ballots in bigger numbers and at higher rates than Republicans, he said.
“Normally, you don’t see that from Democrats. Normally, it’s Democrats who sit on their ballots and don’t return them as much as Republicans,” McDonald said. “We’ve never seen anything of this scale before.”
McDonald said more Republicans might be waiting to vote in person since Trump has discredited mail-in voting.
On Monday, Biden heads to Miami for an NBC town hall moderated by Lester Holt. His advisers see town halls as an ideal forum for Biden because they allow him to engage directly with voters. It will be Biden’s first nationally televised appearance since the caustic Tuesday debate and Trump’s announcement Thursday that he was ill.
Trump, meanwhile, can’t catch a break. From the New York Times exposé that he paid $750 in federal income taxes for two years straight, to his widely panned debate performance, to his contraction of Covid-19, it’s been a hellish week for the president and his campaign.
Even the updates on Trump’s health, already a potential liability for the president, became controversial when White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows Saturday appeared to contradict the rosy assessment of his condition at a press conference outside Walter Reed hospital. It can take weeks for someone who contracts coronavirus to defeat the virus and no longer be contagious.
Trump’s doctor said Saturday that the president started a 5-day course of remdesivir on Friday that typically requires the patient to remain in the hospital if he completes the full course. Trump’s campaign is turning to Vice President Mike Pence to fill in for him on the trail, starting in Arizona on Thursday. His campaign said Saturday that Donald J. Trump, Jr., Eric Trump, and Lara Trump would also serve as surrogates.
In recent weeks, Trump’s campaign has held relatively large outdoor rallies where few people have worn masks. The president’s disclosure of his positive Covid-19 test, which led him to cancel events in Wisconsin and Florida over the weekend, has cast a new spotlight on encouraging mask use.
“People have the First Amendment right to express their political views and choose to come hear from the Vice President of the United States,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said. “We always enact health and safety precautions for participants and attendees.”
Murtaugh faulted the Biden campaign for “being hypocritical” as it steps up in-person campaigning during the pandemic and reversed its position on door-knocking activities. He said the Biden campaign knows “they’re getting outworked on the ground.”
Biden has long maintained a need to have a certain amount of civility in politics, though he grew exasperated at Tuesday’s debate and called the president a “clown.” A major part of Biden’s campaign speech consists of questioning the president’s honesty.
Biden tried to back off that Friday, when he flew to Grand Rapids, Michigan and again Saturday during a virtual appearance with the Amalgamated Transit Union.
“As we’ve all seen, Covid-19 is still a threat to our health and our economic security,” Biden said in an oblique reference to Trump. “I don’t want to be attacking the president and the first lady now because they have contracted the virus. Jill and I pray for their quick and full recovery.”
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a Biden adviser from his home state, argued that Trump’s health scare has crystallized the choice between the two candidates.
“This moment reinforces that one candidate listened to the experts, wore masks and drastically scaled back on public appearances. And the other one didn’t,” Coons said. “On that stage in Cleveland, I heard President Trump mocking Joe Biden for wearing a mask. He’s mocked him for not doing public events, for being appropriately cautious and careful. The consequences are obvious. I take no joy in saying this.”
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