Air Force One was descending into Detroit when President Donald Trump posed a question that would come to define his entire approach to the deadly coronavirus pandemic: “Do you think I should wear a mask?” he asked the aides and advisers gathered in the plane’s front cabin.
Trump was headed to visit a Ford Motor plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., which by May was already a coronavirus hot zone, with more than 5,000 dead, thousands more sickened - and cases still spiking - in the critical Midwest battleground state.
But the responses were nearly unanimous, with senior White House officials arguing that wearing a mask was unnecessary and would send a bad signal to the public about the magnitude of the crisis.
You’re the leader of the free world, they told him, and the leader of the free world doesn’t need a mask.
The conclusion of the episode - like so much of Trump’s presidency and reelection campaign - was a muddle. The president donned a mask for his private tour of the Ford plant as required by company rules, but took it off before appearing in public, telling the assembled media, “I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”
Around the same time, on a Zoom call with a core group of advisers, former vice president Joe Biden posed a similar question - “Should I wear a mask when I go out?” - in preparation for a Memorial Day visit with his wife, Jill, to a Delaware veterans park.
The occasion marked the first time Biden would leave his house in 71 days, and his aides were unanimous in their response: Of course he should wear a mask.
The group discussed whether he needed a highly protective N95 mask or if a cloth one would suffice since he would be outside, and decided on a cloth mask. His team specially procured black masks from a local business for the somber occasion.
For the event, Biden emerged from a large black SUV wearing aviator shades and a large black mask. He kept it on while laying a wreath of cream roses. And he kept the mask on while talking - “It feels good to be out of my house,” he said - only removing it when he was safely back in the vehicle.
Trump and his allies were quick to mock Biden and his mask, but the Democrat embraced the image, changing his social media avatar to a picture of him staring into the camera while wearing dark sunglasses and the black face covering.
“Wear a mask,” Biden tweeted.
• • •
As Biden worked his way toward eventual victory, the mask would become a symbol of his entire campaign - a durable cloth representation of Biden’s caution and deliberation, his steady leadership style, his adherence to science and facts, his reassuring vanilla decency.
The story of Biden’s victory is as much the story of Trump’s defeat - a devastating coda for a leader who has long feared weakness and losing above almost all else, but who became the first one-term president in nearly 30 years.
Trump was the most unpopular president of modern times: Divisive and alienating, he rarely sought to reach out to the middle and his erratic behavior and harder-edged policies were strongly opposed by most Americans. Even before this year, his reelection would have been difficult.
But the president finally lost, aides and allies said, because of how he mismanaged the virus. He lost, they said, over the summer, when the virus didn’t go away as he promised; when racial unrest roiled the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s death and protesters ran rampant through the streets; and when federal and local authorities gassed largely peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Square across from the White House so Trump could stage a photo op. And he lost, they said, during a roughly three-week stretch from late September to mid-October, when an angry and brooding Trump heckled and interrupted his way through the first debate and then, several days later, announced he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
He also lost, aides added, after years of confrontational and incendiary conduct turned off independent voters, who finally said they had seen enough.
The same impulses that helped lift him to victory in 2016 - the outsider ethos; the angry, burn-it-all-down cri de coeur; the fiery and controversial rants; the false reality forged through untruths and deception - contributed to his undoing just four years later. Exhausted voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, who once gave Trump a shot, turned on him Tuesday.
“If he loses, it’s going to be because of covid,” Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said shortly before Election Day.
• • •
This portrait of how Biden defeated Trump - and how Trump helped sabotage his own hopes for a second term - is the result of interviews with 65 Trump and Biden aides, advisers, confidants, lawmakers and political operatives, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid details of the 2020 campaign.
From the beginning, Trump and Biden made wildly different bets on the path to victory in 2020, taking divergent routes on nearly everything: from tone and message, to how to run their respective campaigns - and whether to wear a mask.
Throughout his first term, Trump was a leader who governed as he had first campaigned - freewheeling, chaotic, and as an outsider - despite now being the incumbent. He was controversial, profane and used racist rhetoric, offering up grievance-filled tirades that portrayed himself as the victim.
Biden, who said his decision to run came in the aftermath of the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, instead viewed the race as a battle for the soul of the nation, and tried not to deviate from the singular message that Trump was unfit to lead the country.
But the most drastic gamble each of them made was on how to address the deadly coronavirus pandemic, which choked the economy, has killed more than 236,000 Americans, and upended the presidential race.
For Trump, the coronavirus prompted a shake-up of his already-dysfunctional campaign, turned the contest into a referendum on his handling of the pandemic, and even sickened the president and his inner circle.
Yet through it all, Trump kept returning to a faulty strategy of trying to wish, tweet and riff away the deadly virus. He forced his team to create an alternate reality in which he held massive rallies - supporters packed together, few sporting masks - and said that the coronavirus was only a modest threat and was going to disappear any day.
Biden, again, took a different tack. He and his team focused on coronavirus precautions, going beyond the basic Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. At first, the former vice president rarely left his house, paring back his schedule and moving everything to Zoom. In addition to protecting the 77-year-old Biden, the strategy conveyed that, unlike Trump, 74, Biden took the virus seriously.
When Biden did appear, he rarely engaged Trump, and almost never on the president’s terms. Instead, he used his appearances to model good behavior - holding socially distanced events with a limited number of supporters - and hammer home his core message: Trump was a dangerous leader.
In the end, 82 percent of voters who said the coronavirus was their most important issue in choosing a president supported Biden, according to preliminary national exit polls.
But Democrats hoping for a repudiation of Trump and Trumpism were sorely disappointed, with the presidential race closer than many had hoped and with Republicans poised to gain in the House and possibly hold onto the Senate. Decisions to curtail Biden’s campaign schedule and halt in-person get-out-the-vote efforts for several months may have made sense from a public-health perspective, some Democrats said, but might also have limited the reach of his victory.
In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Trump falsely declared victory from the White House’s East Room - “Frankly, we did win this election,” he said - and followed up several hours later with tweets baselessly accusing Democrats of “trying to STEAL the Election” and claiming victories in several states he had not won.
The 2020 race, much like coronavirus, remained the rare challenge that Trump could not simply negotiate or spin to his will; Biden was the winner - and the next president of the United States.
By June, the country had been shuttered for nearly three months when Trump decided he was officially ready to move on. He wanted to hold a rally to show that the country was open again, and instructed his campaign team to bring him three options - one indoor, one outdoor and one more creative.
Brad Parscale, then the campaign manager, presented Trump with several rally possibilities during a meeting in the Map Room on the ground floor of the White House, but the winning option was indoors.
Vice President Pence, head of the coronavirus task force, suggested somewhere in Oklahoma, which he said was one of the most open states at the time. Some, including Parscale, warned that voters still worried about the virus might not show up for an indoor event. But Trump was determined to prove to the media that his supporters would turn out and chose Tulsa.
“You don’t know that people won’t show up,” Trump bellowed in the Map Room. “You don’t know that.”
Parscale was cautiously optimistic. Looking at the data, he saw that more than 100,000 Republicans within driving distance had RSVPed yes, and believed that 20 to 30 percent of people who RSVPed usually showed up - or 20,000 to 30,000, minimum. The campaign ordered an extra stage outside, and Parscale hyped the rally on Twitter - claiming organizers had received more than 1 million ticket requests.
The first release Parscale sent to Trump for approval said masks would be required, but Trump told his campaign manager to remove the word “required.” The next draft said masks were “highly encouraged,” but Trump excised “highly.”
Ultimately masks were only recommended, and all attendees had to sign a release saying that they “voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19” and agree not to hold the campaign or the venue liable should they fall ill.
• • •
On the day of the rally - moved back from its initial date on Juneteenth after an uproar - Parscale knew he was in trouble when he looked out and saw few children and or elderly supporters. “I never considered just 4 percent of the people who RSVPed would show up,” he said. “There were all these people who wanted to come and then got scared at the last minute.”
Expectations had also been inflated by thousands of young TikTok users and K-pop music fans, who banded together to drive up online sign-ups for the event as a prank.
As soon as Trump landed, Parscale said he called him to explain the bad news: "I told him, ‘Sir, I’ve let you down. I can’t get people here. I spent everything I could. I did everything I could.’ "
Trump delivered a grievance-filled speech to a sparse crowd in an arena with a capacity of 19,000, calling for schools to reopen in the fall and blaming an “unhinged left-wing mob” for destroying the country’s heritage.
News reports at the time described the president as livid, and he was angry. But advisers said Trump mostly seemed deflated, as if confronting his own political limitations. He mainly stayed in his private cabin on the flight back to Washington, a senior administration official said.
The Tulsa rally was meant as a reset of Trump’s campaign. But instead it was a stark example of how thoroughly the virus would overtake the 2020 race, and how each of the candidates' handling of the pandemic would prove determinative.
Early in the year, Trump’s advisers were riding high - and believed they had internal polling to back it up, though public survey numbers for the president at the time were not nearly as rosy. According to a Feb. 20 poll conducted by Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio and reviewed by The Washington Post, Trump was ahead of Biden by eight percentage points in Florida, four in Pennsylvania, six in North Carolina and 10 in Arizona. His approval rating was above 50 percent in almost every key battleground state, according to the internal campaign survey. Parscale, the campaign manager, told Trump he would win 400 electoral college votes.
The administration was hindered by its herky-jerky response to the virus. Pence officially oversaw the coronavirus task force, but Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, began working with his own virus response team, bringing in overmatched consultants dismissively known as the “slim-suit crowd.” The president, meanwhile, constantly undermined his own public health agencies and medical experts in unbridled news briefings that were spectacles of misinformation.
Advisers gave Trump polling information that showed his numbers “cratering,” especially among seniors, in the words of one top campaign official; and reports showing that voters overwhelming supported wearing masks to help curb the pandemic.
Trump rarely encouraged mask-wearing and often expressed skepticism about masks, and after a particularly dismal news conference - in which the president suggested injecting disinfectant as a cure for the virus - his regular briefings were put on hold. After the disinfectant briefing, top political advisers begged the president to halt them and showed him sliding poll numbers. Trump disagreed, said things were going well and compared the briefings to a Mike Tyson boxing match, the officials said.
Still, one senior campaign official said the pandemic had two especially deleterious effects: The virus magnified some of Trump’s worst qualities, while also allowing Biden to recede from the spotlight.
“Back in February, he had this reelection in his pocket. If it wasn’t for covid, he could have sat back on his laurels and won,” said Tom Bossert, the president’s former homeland security adviser. “He’s always been better at controlling the narrative than the levers of government.”
Still, Trump allies believed their ground game and get-out-the-vote operation could save them.
The Trump campaign organizers decided early that President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign would be their north star. They would invest heavily in data, build a massive volunteer network nationwide, and knock on millions of doors. A book about Obama’s 2012 campaign, “Groundbreakers: How Obama’s 2.2 Million Volunteers Transformed Campaigning in America,” was a must-read for senior organizers of the ground game. By the end, the Trump operation said it had bested Obama by that metric, scoring more than 2.6 million “trained and activated” volunteers. The operation logged more than 182 million “voter contacts,” a measure that included voice-mail messages and fliers, more than five times what the RNC had accomplished in 2016. For Team Trump, it mattered more that the number was greater than the 150 million Obama had claimed in 2012.
“We never stopped our get-out-the-vote operation at all,” McDaniel said.
Down the stretch, the Trump campaign placed enormous faith in its massive voter contact and mobilization effort, a project that cost more than $350 million. All campaign events, including the president’s rallies, were used as opportunities to mine for new data and bring people into the political system.
In the closing weeks of the race, campaign leadership also took comfort in the growing number of people who RSVPed to Trump rallies and actually showed up, and kept track of the crowds attracted by Trump’s three oldest children, Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric. Events of theirs that in 2016 drew just dozens of people now drew 1,500 or more, said one person briefed on the internal deliberations.
“Biden has placed a pretty big bet that he can run for president doing nothing other than buying television ads,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said shortly before Election Day.
Trump spent the final days of the campaign racing across the country. In the last week, he charged through more than two dozen rallies in more than a half-dozen battleground states, including 10 in the final two days. But the problem wasn’t where he was; it was what he said when he was there - offensive riffs, demeaning swipes, fantastical claims that the coronavirus was nearly gone.
"With the fake news, everything is covid - ‘covid, covid, covid,’ " Trump lamented one week before Election Day, in West Salem, Wis. “I had it. Here I am, right?”
• • •
On March 12, the day after Trump bungled a prime-time address from the Oval Office in a failed attempt to reassure the nation about the coronavirus, Biden traveled to the Hotel du Pont - the same location in Wilmington, Del., where Biden announced his 1972 Senate campaign - to deliver a speech that would turn out to be one of his final public campaign events for weeks.
His campaign continued to pay about $70,000 each month in rent for its Philadelphia headquarters, but most of his staffers would never return; their departure was so sudden that a leftover case of Yuengling and a forgotten “Happy Birthday” sign still haunt the Biden space. The staffers began spreading to various spots around the country - to suburban Washington, Winston-Salem, N.C., Martha’s Vineyard or back home with their parents.
Biden’s campaign determined early on that the coronavirus would be the grounds on which the campaign would be fought. To them, it highlighted all of the issues that they had talked about from the outset.
So that March afternoon, his campaign hastily organized a speech with all the trappings of a traditional presidential address - flags flanking the podium, a big blue curtain draped behind. The candidate wore an American flag pin and read from a teleprompter.
He focused on practical advice, urging Americans to rethink handshaking and hugs and to avoid large crowds. He unveiled a more comprehensive plan for what he believed the Trump administration should be doing, calling for free and widely available testing, the swift development of a vaccine and emergency paid leave for all Americans affected by the outbreak.
Biden then departed to the safety of his home.
Throughout the spring and into the summer, Biden, like millions of other Americans, grew comfortable in his own work-from-home routine. He aimed to get out of bed by 8 a.m. each day, then exercise in a home gym stocked with a treadmill, weights and a Peloton bike. He’d finish off the workout with a protein shake before retreating to a room for briefings with his health and economic teams.
Those briefings, his advisers say, gave the campaign a feeling of an administration in absentia. Though Biden was powerless to implement policy, these sessions with a constellation of former Obama administration officials helped put the campaign in the mind-set of governing rather than campaigning - and later led to a restructured policy platform.
He and Jill would walk their dogs, occasionally sneaking over to the track next to their house. In the afternoons, they would toss ice cream bars to their grandkids from their porch. Only a handful of their closest aides were allowed in the home, along with their newly assigned Secret Service detail.
The only public view of the candidate came through a hastily built studio in Biden’s basement, with a backdrop filled with books, family photos, an American flag and a football. There were embarrassing technical glitches at times.
Initially, the decision to refrain from in-person campaigning was an easy one. His team of a half-dozen health experts around Biden were clear about the risks.
"Every expert was saying, ‘This is not good,’ " said Greg Schultz, a senior adviser. “Only in Trump’s America does the fact that we listened to medical experts become some kind of shocking decision.”
Yet as new coronavirus cases began to level off in the early summer, there was also second-guessing of the campaign’s decision not to do any in-person events or canvassing. Although the Biden team could reach large portion of voters virtually, their allies worried they might struggle to motivate harder-to-reach segments of their base without knocking on their doors.
“Elected officials, party structures, other campaigns wanted guidance from us because they didn’t want to go around us,” said one senior adviser. “But we were just kind of slow-walking. And we knew all along there were parts of the base and part of our voters that are never easy to get to, and particularly with covid.”
When House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) saw a news report about the campaign’s plans to forgo door-knocking, he was outraged. Clyburn had endorsed Biden before the South Carolina primary, and perhaps more than any other person was responsible for Biden’s come-from-behind win in the Democratic primaries. During that race, too, Clyburn had told Biden he needed to be more effective with his ground operation. And he was about to tell him the same thing again.
Though the two men spoke often, this was one of the few times Clyburn initiated the call - and he minced no words about what he saw as a grave mistake.
“This was somebody who had lost their mind,” Clyburn recalled. “I don’t know what they hit their head on or what, but this just wasn’t going to be.”
When Biden responded that the campaign was increasing its television ad buy, Clyburn remained unconvinced. “These TV ads are placed by a lot of White people making a lot of money,” he told the former vice president, explaining that decisions like these were what “leads to this notion that Black voters feel Democrats take them for granted.”
Besides, Clyburn added, crucial Black voters needed a more personal connection to come to the polls.
“The Black vote does not respond to TV,” he said he told Biden. “Black people respond to high touch, not high tech. White people may respond to high tech. But if you don’t make the emotional connection, you just aren’t going to get the Black vote.”
Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, said the team received lots of criticism “from friends who felt that we were making a huge mistake by leaving the playing field to Trump.”
Some people were especially worried about Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings but, Dunn said, these people “fundamentally misunderstood that it did not matter how many daily briefings Donald Trump did if he actually wasn’t doing what a president should do, like fixing the problem.”
“He’s good on social media and he knows pictures go far,” Schultz said of Biden. “He understands the impact, and he wanted to literally show leading by example.”
But Biden’s rigorous adherence to mask-wearing also prompted some odd moments. During a roundtable discussion in Philadelphia in early June, Biden partially removed his mask but for nearly an hour left it dangling from his left ear. Trump noticed and mocked the image, and some of Biden’s top advisers thought it looked strange, too.
Schultz texted one of Biden’s advance workers inquiring about the droopy-eared look, and whether they intended to have Biden leave the mask dangling.
“No,” came the response. “It was totally the boss.”
As the Trump campaign faced a financial shortage in the final months and began cutting back on its TV ads, McDaniel, the RNC chairwoman, finally went to Trump directly in early September to express her concern. The campaign had burned through more than $800 million of the $1.1 billion it had raised, and Biden’s team now had more cash on hand for the homestretch.
She wanted to know why the president’s campaign was pulling down its TV ads.
Just weeks later, McDaniel delivered unwelcome news yet again when Trump called her from his hospital bed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he was recovering from coronavirus, to ask what she was seeing and hearing out in the country, especially in her home state of Michigan.
She mentioned a TV ad she had seen at her home about the peace deal that he helped broker between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. McDaniel was skeptical the ad would help Trump win a single vote in Michigan, and told him as much.
Trump was furious, although he eventually calmed down after an adviser explained that the peace deal spot was part of a larger national buy.
The agita over the campaign’s TV strategy - the differing opinions, the lack of communication, the anger and recriminations - was indicative of the broader tumult and tension that long plagued Trump’s reelection effort.
The campaign began historically early, nearly as soon as Trump took office, and was riven by the chaos and infighting that had come to define his entire presidency, prompting one ally to quip that the Trump reelection effort was a veritable “Hunger Games, . . . an ecosystem that fights themselves more than they fight the opponents.”
Tensions in the Biden operation were comparatively tame, with some staffers griping over how Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon sometimes began senior staff meetings by recapping the news, which everyone had already read. The main division was between longtime staffers who had slogged through the primary with Biden - bonding in defeat and then victory - clashing with some of the new staffers brought on by O’Malley Dillon when she became campaign manager in March.
• • •
The Trump campaign, meanwhile, took in aides Trumpworld wanted to keep around, like Hogan Gidley, a White House communications official who joined the campaign in July as press secretary.
Another aide, Jenna Ellis, regularly showed the president inaccurate information about voter fraud and encouraged his worst instincts by phone, while booking her own television appearances and rarely showing up at campaign headquarters. Parscale told others he had no control over her.
“My role with the president involves speaking with him directly often, as a personal attorney as well as the senior legal adviser to the campaign, which everyone on our team is aware of,” Ellis said in an email statement provided by the campaign. “This is nothing more than a vapid attempt to break our ranks and is false.”
A mid-July shake-up, in which Parscale was replaced by one of his deputies, Bill Stepien, brought a measure of discipline to the operation. When Stepien took over as campaign manager, he proposed an all-staff meeting, and was flummoxed when staffers told him there had never been one before. He asked campaign officials to examine the budget and was told they could not find a formal document.
But the overhaul also brought a new round of challenges and blame, much of the enmity squarely directed at Kushner, who had long been viewed as the campaign’s de facto manager, regardless of which handpicked loyalist was installed as its titular head. One former senior administration official in close contact with the campaign likened the operation under Stepien to “a vase that’s been glued back together, and the only question is when is the water going to start leaking out.”
Kushner, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed on the record for this story.
When Stepien took over, he began frequently repeating to those around him - many of whom had been loyal to Parscale - that the campaign was in distress. He also tried fruitlessly to minimize the number of campaign advisers who spoke directly with the president. People inside the campaign repeatedly described him as keeping a low profile - or noncommunicative, in the view of his critics.
The Trump campaign and the RNC had worked together on some key early decisions but never had a close relationship. McDaniel and Stepien spoke less than a handful of times after he took control.
The campaign distrusted the RNC’s data, the RNC distrusted the campaign’s budget, and at points the campaign distrusted even some of its own pollsters, especially as their numbers seemed to quickly leak to the media. Kushner grew frustrated with Fabrizio, whose polls he felt were overly negative for Trump and who he felt often brought grim assessments to the campaign without offering solutions. In the final weeks, the campaign added another pollster.
“If he loses, there’s going to be a lot of blame going around,” said a Trump ally close to the campaign.
One of the downsides of Trump and Kushner’s decision to launch his reelection effort so early became fully apparent in the final stretch of the campaign. By officially filing papers on the day of his inauguration in 2017, Trump and his team immediately began repeatedly asking their small-dollar online donors for money - failing to realize that three years later, some of those donors would eventually max out, or grow fatigued from months of giving.
Another frustration: The campaign never set up a true bundling operation for high-dollar fundraisers. Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox News star who is dating Trump Jr. and took over the effort, “is not a bundling program,” griped one Republican official. “She really is a Tasmanian devil tsunami.”
Early on, McDaniel and her chief of staff met with Eric Trump at the president’s Doral golf resort in Miami to raise concerns about the bundling operation, but Parscale dismissed her worries, arguing that their massive digital operation could compensate for the lack of high-dollar donors.
At least three of the four original regional directors left the bundling operation, in part because of what they described as an abusive work environment and requests to do things they did not find ethical, like promising meetings with Trump that they knew would not materialize.
Guilfoyle’s behavior, too, raised concerns among donors, who repeatedly complained to other fundraisers working in the Trump effort about the sexual innuendo she would use at events. Witnesses described Guilfoyle joking about how Trump Jr. had been “a bad boy” or “a naughty boy,” and made other coquettish allusions to how they conducted their private lives.
This behavior - along with her and Trump Jr. often flying privately to fundraising events - led to grumblings among Trump allies. A Guilfoyle ally said he didn’t recall all of the specific incidents, but added that both she and Trump Jr. often joke openly about their relationship and that most donors were not bothered by it.
At one event inside the Trump International Hotel, a fundraiser working for Guilfoyle screamed at RNC staffers, threatening that Guilfoyle would go into a dinner where McDaniel was meeting with donors and yell at the RNC chairwoman if she did not soon vacate the room, according to people familiar with the incident.
“Kimberly Guilfoyle is an excellent fundraiser and was a highly valued asset to the president’s team,” Murtaugh said. “There was nothing offensive about her presentations in context.”
The campaign, meanwhile, burned through what money it did have like a “drunken maniac,” in the words of one ally. Under Parscale, the team spent roughly $10 million on a splashy Super Bowl ad, as well as smaller sums to fly pro-Trump aerial banners over beaches in swing states. The operation even poured money into flattering TV ads in the D.C. area, a decision intended to appease and flatter the president.
There was also disagreement over whether the campaign should be running ads and pushing messaging to try to improve Trump’s approval ratings, or simply trying to negatively define Biden the way Trump had repeatedly hammered Clinton in 2016.
The campaign’s digital operation of about 200 people, led by Gary Coby, increasingly found itself in tense battles with Google, Facebook and other social media platforms about their advertisements.
• • •
Democrats were busy painting a scathing portrait of the president. In mid-March, after Trump had started daily coronavirus briefings, the Democratic group Priorities USA began polling possible attacks on Trump. The result was concerning: 49 percent of battleground state voters approved of Trump’s handling of the outbreak, compared to 45 percent who disapproved. A distant fear - that Trump would run for reelection as a wartime president who had led the country in crisis - seemed real.
On the second to last Sunday in March, Democratic pollsters and ad-makers met to map out a response.
“There was a lot of internal debate about obviously getting too far ahead of this and whether people would view it as a political attack,” Priorities chairman Guy Cecil said.
The group decided on a spot that used Trump’s own words against him - including his claim, “This is their new hoax” - contrasted against a chart showing the rising number of cases, which then stood at about 30,000 per day.
Cecil went hat in hand to organized labor, which put up the money: $500,000 each from Service Employees International Union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and American Federation of Teachers, and $200,000 from the Teamsters.
The Trump campaign sent cease-and-desist letters to television stations demanding that the ad come down because it used the “hoax” quote without the full context; Trump had been speaking of the Democratic response to the virus, not the virus itself.
For weeks, the ads kept hammering Trump in key states, without response. America First, Trump’s designated outside group, did not get on television to defend him until April 16, three weeks later, as the group waited for Biden to win the nomination and tried to pace its spending. The Trump campaign only went up on the air with ads in May.
But by then the story line about Trump’s handling of the pandemic had already begun to shift. By June, Priorities' internal polls showed Trump’s approval on his handling of the pandemic had fallen to 41 percent, with 56 percent disapproving, where it remained for the rest of the cycle.
By late October, the nation was recording more than 80,000 cases per day and had logged more than 9 million cumulatively.
Even some of Parscale’s critics said this dynamic - America First being more focused on funding the final fall campaign stretch - forced him and the campaign to put big money up early to defend the president, bleeding the campaign in a way that proved devastating in the fall.
“I was in a Catch-22,” Parscale said. “If I don’t run the ads, everyone would say, ‘Why are you leaving the airwaves empty?’ And if I did run the ads, then everyone is mad I’m spending the money.”
By the time Stepien met with the campaign fundraisers and finance team, he had decided that if the campaign kept spending at the rate it was, and kept raising money at the rate it was, it would go broke several weeks before Election Day. He privately told people that if the campaign lost, it would be primarily because of money problems and secondarily because of the pandemic.
Stepien and his team discussed three choices: pull back on TV spending, make other cuts, or go into debt before Election Day. The situation grew so dire that Coby pushed to include the “88022” text message donation number in convention programming, but was rebuffed by White House officials.
There were other tensions as well. McDaniel and Stepien, for instance, got into a heated argument in August at the campaign’s Virginia headquarters over Michigan and the candidacy of John James, a failed 2018 Senate candidate in that state who had been recruited to run again this year, according to several people briefed on the meeting.
Stepien said that if the president lost Michigan, it would be because James - who would end up performing as well as Trump - dragged the ticket down. The meeting grew so heated that Kushner finally intervened, telling Stepien he was out of line. McDaniel abruptly left the room and the building.
To many, however, Kushner bears the ultimate responsibility for Trump’s defeat.
“The only constant in this campaign, from Day One, to the very last day, was Kushner,” said one Trump ally who is close with the campaign. “So if the president wins, Kushner deserves credit, but if he loses, Kushner deserves the blame.”
Kushner made clear from the very beginning that it was he and the president who had final sign-off on all major campaign decisions. And critics say he was eager to install a loyalist, like Parscale, who reported directly to him, and whom he believed he could control. Even once it became clear Parscale was in a tailspin, and the president had soured on him, Kushner was loath to remove him.
Parscale, who had been demoted in July, remained on the campaign until a troubling incident in September, when he was hospitalized for his own safety after threatening suicide with a handgun during a confrontation with his wife at his Florida home, according to police. His wife said he had been drinking heavily and had been physically abusive toward her in previous days; police and a witness observed bruising on her arms. Parscale pointed to a statement later from his wife disputing that he abused her.
After the altercation, the campaign announced Parscale was taking a leave of absence.
At times, critics say, Kushner was too occupied with his White House portfolio - trying to secure a peace deal in the Middle East, helping to manage the administration’s coronavirus response - to devote the necessary time to overseeing the campaign.
“He was busy being president,” quipped one Republican involved in the campaign.
One Republican close to the White House said that he and others had approached Kushner over the summer to warn of a coming loss and the need for a course correction. Kushner was polite but dismissive, saying the president had a good message and a solid team, and that the polls were overstating the potential for catastrophe.
Kushner calmly predicted that if Trump and his campaign executed their strategy correctly, he would win, just as he had in 2016.
• • •
Compared to the drama inside the Trump campaign, the Biden campaign was far calmer. If Trumpworld was a reality-TV show filled with backstabbing, scheming and outsize characters, the Biden campaign was a 1960s sitcom, with occasional hurt feelings or personality clashes but rarely episodes with a visible impact on the campaign or the candidate.
Biden was surrounded by a nucleus of advisers who have been with him for decades. Their roles sometimes changed, but the group rarely did. The tensions inside the campaign were largely driven by clashes between those who had been with Biden for a long time - and who felt they knew him and his brand of politics - and the newer hires who were brought in for the general election.
Through the spring and the summer, they began adjusting their message to the new coronavirus reality. But their core argument still fit into their prior message: that Trump was an incompetent steward of the American government.
Since the start of his campaign, Biden had repeated a line in his stump speech about believing “truth over lies, science over fiction.” Trump’s approach to the coronavirus, his advisers felt, offered proof in real time of that argument.
Though his advisers faced outside pressure to have Biden travel and speak out more frequently, the campaign’s ethos was quality over quantity.
“The biggest strategic decision,” one adviser said, “was to stick to our strategic decision.”
But Biden, who had previously considered himself a transitional figure, began talking about himself as a transformational one, along the lines of Franklin D. Roosevelt, saying he would bring policies on the scale of the New Deal. His openness to an infusion of major government funding - paid for in part by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans - came at a time when he was also trying to unite a fractured Democratic Party, and he developed a message that had some appeal to supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other progressives.
Trump carried a major advantage on the economy, which had been a grave concern for Biden’s advisers. But they now saw an opportunity to link Trump’s response to the coronavirus to the economic collapse.
Throughout the summer, Biden delivered a series of speeches to hone that more revolutionary agenda. He proposed building 500 million solar panels, overhauling policing and pumping far more money into public schools. The new plans were based on a 110-page policy document crafted with Sanders allies - a group of proposals that Trump would later ridicule as “a manifesto.”
The criticism of Trump was often implicit, and the campaign deliberately tried to avoid arguing with Trump on a daily basis. When Biden delivered his convention speech, he offered a rebuttal to the current style of politics. But he didn’t mention the president’s name once.
The strategy came with grave risks for Biden. His campaign’s top advisers were pelted with worried calls from elected officials, particularly in the Upper Midwest. They fretted that Biden’s laissez faire approach to campaigning was going to backfire. He needed to get out more, they said, and the campaign needed to do more traditional campaigning.
There was also grave consternation about how Biden would respond to the movement to defund police, which grew louder over the summer following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed in police custody in Minneapolis. His advisers clashed over the issue, with a small group inside the campaign arguing that Biden should not be quick to rebuff a movement that was calling for major cuts to police departments.
But some of Biden’s longtime aides, channeling his career as a moderate and a pragmatist who in the past had earned police support, pushed back against the idea and wanted Biden to be clear that he was against calls for defunding the police.
Those advisers won the internal debate and Biden was clear in his opposition. As Trump tried to make it a more prominent issue - frequently mischaracterizing Biden’s position - Biden was asked about it in almost every interview but had largely inoculated himself as polls showed low support for the movement.
Biden’s campaign tried to expand its digital operation and began virtual phone banking to target voters. But it wasn’t until late September that advisers finally decided it was safe to allow canvassers to resume knocking on doors.
Still, the campaign benefited from a decision made late last year by the Democratic National Committee. At a time when the party was going through a crowded primary with deep uncertainty over who would emerge as the nominee, top DNC officials decided to start sending staffers into key battleground states.
For top Democrats like DNC Chairman Tom Perez, the stakes could not have been higher.
“Don’t worry, Tom,” Obama told Perez when he was fighting to get the job as chairman. “It’s just the fate of Western civilization.”
Trump, meanwhile, also seemed to understand the stakes, at least for himself; he intensely hates losing. But he approached his campaign’s messaging differently, with a frenzied, all-of-the-above strategy, and his team largely followed his lead.
One senior administration official described the campaign operatives as “Twitter warriors” - advisers who tried to emulate the president’s brash style themselves, touting Trump boat parades on social media and shouting about “Lyin' Biden,” but lacking a clear, discernible message for why their boss deserved a second term.
With the exception of a small group - Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president who left her White House post at the end of the summer - there were few top staffers willing to offer Trump tough-love advice that he didn’t want to hear.
When Biden first announced Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) as his running mate, for instance, “birtherism” rumors - the racist claim that she was not born in the United States - cropped up in far-right, conspiracy theory circles. Some in Trump’s orbit, including senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, fed the misinformation to Trump. During an Oval Office meeting one day, Trump posed a question to the group: Did they think he should go after Harris with the claim?
Even for Trump, who has long used racially divisive rhetoric, his team knew that pushing birtherism was an inadvisable strategy, likely to backfire with many he needed to win. But nearly everyone remained silent, save for one adviser who - popping into the Oval for another meeting - heard the discussion and told Trump that it was a horrible idea and a third rail of politics that he shouldn’t touch.
A senior administration official denied the incident.
In the end, Trump did not proactively stoke the falsehood - but did not play it down either. When asked by reporters about a Newsweek op-ed that outlined the conspiracy theory, Trump said, “I heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements. I have no idea if that’s right.” He went on to praise the author of the op-ed, which was later retracted.
The president continued to ping-pong between self-sabotaging riffs and rants, as he and his team often undermined their own plans.
At one point, after he tweeted an appeal to “Suburban Housewives of America,” several senior advisers urged him to change his rhetoric, suggesting he use “suburban moms” or “suburban super women” instead. “We needed a different tone with suburban women,” McDaniel said.
At another point, the campaign grew increasingly concerned about Trump’s repeatedly unsubstantiated claims that voting by mail was rife with fraud, a senior campaign official said. Advisers worried that the president’s outlandish rhetoric might push his own supporters away from voting by mail, and convened several meetings to discuss preventing that outcome.
In some moments, allies fretted Trump was getting bad advice from the people closest to him. After the death of Floyd, the nation erupted in protests, some turning violent as looters took to the streets. Kushner initially counseled the president not to crack down on the violence, saying he would alienate Black voters if he did, said three people familiar with the discussions, who added that they viewed Kushner’s assessment as patronizing.
A senior White House adviser said Kushner never offered such counsel, but that some may have confused Kushner’s concern over Trump’s overly harsh rhetoric - calling the protesters “thugs,” for instance - with a broader opposition to a tough posture against rioters.
The constant noise emanating from the president had often helped him muscle through rough patches, replacing one controversy with another. But in his reelection bid, the chaos proved distracting, undermining the campaign’s efforts to negatively define Biden. Nothing ever stuck to the former vice president, griped one senior administration official, because Trump was always stealing the spotlight.
Another top adviser warned that if the question on Election Day was " ‘Trump or Not Trump,’ Trump will lose," urging the president to make the race a choice between him and Biden, rather than a referendum.
“A successful reelection campaign really needs to be focused on disqualifying your opponent, but the president spent most of this year keeping the spotlight focused on himself, which is antithetical to a winning strategy,” said Steven Law, president and chief executive of the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Republicans.
During a late-summer meeting at the White House, infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci urged Trump and Pence to own the coronavirus problem, a senior administration official said. “The only way you’re going to fix the problem is if you own the problem, because if you ignore it, you can’t fix it,” the official said, paraphrasing Fauci, who sits on the coronavirus task force. “If you blame somebody else, you can’t fix it. The only way to fix it is to own it. But they were unwilling to own it - that’s the problem.”
As the election neared, Trump continued to play down the virus, ignoring warnings from Fauci, coronavirus adviser Deborah Birx and other administration officials, and instead holding large events across the country.
Trump also kept retreating to the nostalgia of his 2016 upset victory, and what had worked then. He reprised not only some of the same tactics - the divisive, racist and misogynistic rhetoric - but even the same targets, portraying himself as the victim and filling his rallies with snarling asides about the “Russia hoax” and Clinton.
Referring to Clinton, one Republican operative in frequent touch with the White House quipped that Trump “might as well be talking about Franklin Pierce.”
Perhaps the most direct effort to revive the 2016 playbook was Trumpworld’s attacks on Joe Biden’s son Hunter - echoing “Crooked Hillary” attacks by painting the former vice president as a creature of the Washington swamp who allegedly let his son cash in on the family name. But Trump allies struggled to link Hunter’s business dealings to his father.
Speaking just five days before Election Day, the president told a crowd in Tampa that fellow politicians were urging him to lay off the Hunter attacks, and to focus instead on his economic success. " ‘Sir, you shouldn’t be speaking about Hunter,’ " Trump said, recounting the advice, which some of his own aides had also pushed. " ‘You shouldn’t be saying bad things about Biden because nobody cares.’ "
Yet Trump just couldn’t seem to help himself. “I disagree,” he added, to cheers. “You know, maybe that’s why I’m here and they’re not.”
• • •
The first presidential debate, at the end of September, was Trump’s opportunity to reframe and recharge his floundering campaign.
To prepare, the president ensconced himself in the White House Map Room, where advisers wandered in and out of the ad hoc sessions, offering advice and barking questions at him. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, urged the president to be aggressive with Biden - to push him off his talking points and trip him up. Advisers eschewed a traditional briefing book for notecard reminders, with bullet points outlining his key achievements so far and his goals for a second term.
And Fox News host Sean Hannity - who all summer had warned Kushner, Stepien and McDaniel that the campaign was faltering - texted suggestions, urging Trump to prepare rigorously, and raising additional concerns about the president’s standing and campaign strategy.
But shortly after taking the stage in Cleveland, it became clear that Trump was not going to turn in the performance his team was hoping for. He was confrontational and combative, brooding and belligerent. He failed to forcefully denounce white supremacy, at one point calling on the Proud Boys, a far-right, all-male group known for its violent tactics, to “stand back and stand by.” He interrupted Biden and the moderator a total of 145 times.
“The average American will choose a doddering old fool who is past his prime over a jerky bully every day of the week and twice on Sunday,” said one Trump ally close to the campaign. “That first debate was the worst of Trump without any of the good of Trump.”
The debate was one in a series of bruising missteps for Trump ending with the final debate in Nashville, about three weeks later. Between late September and mid-October, Trump announced Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett at a Rose Garden event that became a “superspreader” gathering; weathered several devastating news cycles, including the revelation in the New York Times that he paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2017; contracted the coronavirus himself as the West Wing became its own virus hot spot; refused to participate in the second presidential debate; and failed to denounce QAnon conspiracy theorists during a nationally televised town hall.
By the time Trump delivered a more measured debate performance Oct. 22, and Barrett was confirmed to the Supreme Court four days later, aides believed the president had finally begun to stabilize his sinking operation. But they also worried, in the words of one close confidant, that it was “too little, too late.”
Biden and his team approached the first debate differently, with the former vice president curtailing his already sparse schedule to hold rigorous preparation sessions.
Biden’s entourage was tested the night before the debate, so they could all fly to Cleveland together. Some flew out early that morning so they could get tested again. All of them wore masks. They kept a social distance. They washed their hands frequently.
“We’re in this hermetically sealed bubble,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who was in the small group of longtime Biden confidants who attended the debate. “We were all still distanced and still wearing masks.”
“Then they all come in, striding in not wearing masks,” Coons continued, referring to Trump’s family and advisers. “This isn’t just an attitude. This is dangerous.”
Then the debate itself began.
“That was just an unbelievable dump truck full of bile. It was a hate tornado,” said Coons, who found himself sitting within 10 feet of both Jill Biden and Donald Trump Jr. “If you had any doubt about the balance and the capabilities of our president, that one should have made that clear. This is not a balanced man. I mean, it was a wrestling match. It was a WWE throw-down. And that’s not what this moment calls for.”
Just over two days later, Trump announced he had tested positive for coronavirus.
Aides had hoped the president might use his diagnosis as an opportunity, emerging from his bout with the virus a more sympathetic figure - someone capable of showing compassion and empathy to a scarred nation. But Trump did not evolve.
During his stint at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, while still contagious, he took a spin outside the hospital in a Secret Service SUV to greet his supporters - a joyride that unnecessarily endangered the health of his security detail. And upon arriving back at the White House, still possibly infected with the virus, he triumphantly took off his mask before entering the residence.
“Trump’s own covid diagnosis made him a metaphor for the problem,” Law said. “In addition, the president’s persona and communications style were just the opposite of what the occasion required, in terms of buttoned-down messaging and expressing sympathy.”
Biden’s campaign advisers expressed public concern for Trump and his health, but they also decided to begin announcing more information about their candidate’s coronavirus testing, announcing every test result as a deliberate contrast from the White House.
Trump’s team felt the final debate could be pivotal. Trump had called Fox News host Tucker Carlson in the wake of the first debate, and Carlson offered blunt advice that many in Trump’s orbit were afraid to give: that the debate had gone poorly, in part because it was a mistake for Trump to assume that he could rely on a faltering Biden to simply deliver him a victory.
Trump’s advisers stressed that he needed to let Biden speak. Conway told Trump that the former vice president was easily flummoxed and didn’t have strong answers for many of his past positions.
By most accounts, Trump did better in the final debate. But by then, nearly 50 million Americans - a historically high number - had already voted.
“I was watching and I remember thinking that if this was what we were talking about, we would be winning,” said a former senior administration official. “But what does it matter now that 50 million people have now voted?”
Josh Holmes, a longtime McConnell adviser, said that for Trump, "the pandemic is the difference between him winning and losing.
“The better question is: Could he have still won during the pandemic?” Holmes continued. “I think we’ve seen a number of times when America has had great challenges, when you have leadership that’s rewarded. That just didn’t happen here.”
The Washington Post’s Dan Balz contributed to this report.