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Nation/World

Trump uses travel to gain campaign edge

  • Author: David Nakamura
    , The Washington Post
  • Updated: May 21
  • Published May 21

President Donald Trump boards Air Force One as he departs Thursday, May 21, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Trump will visit a Ypsilanti, Mich., Ford plant that has been converted to making personal protection and medical equipment. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON — Since resuming their travel schedules, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have focused on battleground states crucial to their reelection chances, staging official government events at a time when likely Democratic nominee Joseph Biden and his top surrogates say they are unable to safely return to the campaign trail.

Trump and Pence have used recent trips to thank factory and health-care workers and set the stage for reopening the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic, but their itineraries have highlighted the political imperatives that have informed their response to the crisis.

On Thursday, Trump toured a Ford Motor Co. factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan, that has been temporarily converted into a ventilator production facility. The visit came after he traveled to manufacturing plants in Phoenix and Allentown, Pennsylvania, over the past two weeks. On Wednesday, Pence visited a nursing home in Orlando, Florida, and had lunch with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, at a local restaurant, and he also has traveled to Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin in recent weeks. Pence said he will return to Florida next week to attend a space launch, and DeSantis suggested Trump may make the trip, as well.

The president's trips, in particular, have taken on clear campaign overtones as he pushes for states to move beyond the pandemic and restart their economies despite continuing public health concerns and the rising death toll. Supporters have lined the streets to greet his motorcade as they hold American flags and Trump campaign signs, disregarding social distancing rules and outnumbering a smaller set of protesters.

Trump's campaign soundtrack played on the public-address system during his tour of the Owens & Minor medical supply plant in Allentown. At a Honeywell plant that was producing face masks in Phoenix, Trump invited a married couple he had met during a 2016 campaign rally to make brief remarks as he addressed the workers. And at the Ford factory, he held a "listening session with African-American leaders" that was composed of his supporters as he sat in front of a "Transition to Greatness" banner.

When he has stood in front of a lectern with the presidential seal at the events, Trump has delivered the campaign-themed message that he has done great things for the country, the economic damage done by the pandemic will fade quickly and that he is the one to deliver prosperity again.

"This country is poised for an epic comeback. This is going to be an incredible comeback. Watch. It's already happening," Trump told the audience at the Ford plant. He added: "I think we're going to do better the second time and it's very important that we win the second time or everything that we've done, including manufacturing jobs, all this it's going to be not in a very good position."

Democrats have criticized the trips and sought to portray them as reckless attempts to push for a return to normalcy that could worsen the outbreak.

"This was nothing more than a campaign trip for him," said Nancy Patton Mills, chair of Pennsylvania's Democratic Party, noting that Allentown remains in a code red, the most restrictive setting in the state's phased reopening system.

"We're all living our lives with caution because we don't want to get sick, and here comes Trump," she said. "Imagine what people would think if Biden all of a sudden came out visiting face-mask factories, disturbing local police and first responders to protect him. It was in very poor taste."

Trump allies said the president was demonstrating leadership and rallying the country to begin to restart businesses amid a historic economic collapse that has forced more than 30 million Americans out of work.

"Americans can see that President Trump is fighting to protect their safety and reopen the economy," Tim Murtaugh, communications director for Trump's campaign, said in a statement. "He is doing his job as president and critics would complain if he didn't go visit states. They are the ones playing politics."

But Democrats said Trump has used the factory employees as props for his reopening push without demonstrating sufficient caution for public health. Reporters did not see Trump wearing a face mask on his trips to the facilities in Phoenix and Allentown, though he later asserted he did so in Phoenix while out of public view.

At the Ford facility, Trump showed off a navy blue face mask with the presidential seal to reporters and said he wore it for some of the tour while out of the view of the press pool.

"I didn't want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it," he said. A photo later surfaced showing that Trump did, indeed, wear one for part of the tour.

Asked whether it was OK that Trump did not wear a mask for the public parts of the tour, Company Chairman Bill Ford told reporters, "It's up to him." The company later released a statement in Ford's name saying he encouraged Trump to wear one.

"He's using this crisis and federal dollars to come here and have a campaign rally in a plant," Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, said ahead of Trump's visit to the state.

Laura Cox, chair of Michigan's Republican Party, argued that Trump was justified in offering public praise for Ford for helping build ventilators during the crisis.

“They stepped up and built ventilators that are saving the lives of people every day, and the president wants to say, ‘Hey, good job,’ ” she said.

Democrats have sought to counter Trump's trips through Biden surrogates in the states, who have held conference calls with reporters and published newspaper opinion pieces critical of the president's handling of the pandemic. Biden has done remote interviews from his Delaware home with local television stations in swing states, and he released a statement to the Morning Call, a newspaper in Lehigh Valley, ahead of Trump's visit to Allentown, criticizing him for not having "done the work" to justify a safe economic reopening.

Trump and Pence have been able to resume their travel schedules with the aid of rapid coronavirus tests that are administered to all who come in close contact with them. Biden and his surrogates, including former president Barack Obama, do not have access to enough of those tests to ensure they and others are protected.

But Trump said in an interview last week that he would be willing to have his administration help provide the necessary coronavirus tests to the Biden campaign. "I'd love to see him get out of the basement so he can speak," Trump said on Fox & Friends.

Biden's aides said they are not worried that Trump is exploiting an advantage with less than six months until Election Day. They pointed to national polling that has shown Biden with a consistent lead over Trump, although the results in battleground states have been far closer, and they cited widespread public disapproval of Trump's management of the pandemic, which has killed more than 91,000 Americans. A new Quinnipiac poll showed Biden leading Trump by 11 points nationally and that 56 percent disapproved of Trump's handling of the pandemic, up from 51 percent in early April.

"This is not a time when people have a huge appetite for a whole bunch of political events," one Biden aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the campaign's strategy.

Sharif Street, a Democratic Pennsylvania state senator, said Biden’s roots in the state — he was born in Scranton — will remind voters that the former vice president has deep connections there, while for Trump the region is “just another stop on the campaign trail.”

Trump won Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida in 2016 over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and those states are expected to be crucial for him again this fall. Democrats are eyeing a potential upset in Arizona, which has voted for GOP presidential candidates in recent cycles.

Trump has not held a campaign rally since March 2. With the election likely to hinge on public views of Trump's response to the crisis, he has sought to demonstrate confidence that the public health emergency is receding, even as the death toll has soared well beyond his administration's projections. Most states have begun some form of economic reopening.

During his recent trips, Trump praised workers for producing crucial medical supplies for hospitals and compared the crisis to other moments of national resolve, such as World War II.

But the partisan political flavor of the events was underscored in Phoenix when Trump, while addressing factory workers, called Jorge and Betty Rivas to the microphone. The couple, who own a Mexican restaurant in the Tucson, Arizona, area, had caught Trump's eye in 2016, when he brought Betty Rivas onstage at a campaign rally after seeing her in the audience holding a sign reading, "Latinos Love D. Trump."

The Rivases also attended his rally in Phoenix in late February, where they appeared in the VIP section.

"All the Latinos are going to vote for you because we think you're doing . . . a very good job," Jorge Rivas told Trump at the Honeywell plant, where he and his wife provided workers with 250 burritos.

“I really appreciate it,” Trump replied. “That’s beautiful.”

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