World·Analysis

Why Trump's re-election could hinge on a fight over the history of COVID-19 in the U.S.

Donald Trump’s chances of being elected to a second term may now hinge on what version of history most American voters believe when it comes to the coronavirus. It's going to be a bitter fight. Even his lawyers are involved, suing over an ad they want pulled off the airwaves.

The president's lawyers are suing over an ad as he defends his version of the early days of the pandemic

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on Monday. Trump didn't appreciate it when a reporter pressed him about what measures his administration took in February to try to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Donald Trump's chances of being elected to a second term as president of the United States may now hinge on what version of history most American voters believe when it comes to the coronavirus.

It's going to be a bitter fight. His lawyers are already involved.

They are suing a television station in a key swing state, Wisconsin, because it aired an ad from a Democratic group that they consider misleading. 

The specific details of the case involve one snippet from the ad, which is just a series of clips of Trump's own words about the pandemic.

In summary, Trump was at a rally praising his own performance protecting the country against the coronavirus. He called Democrats' complaints about him a "hoax," but the ad includes a snippet that makes it sound like he's calling the virus a hoax. Now, his lawyers want it pulled and are suing.

But it's the context of this legal fight that makes it part of the biggest story in American politics — potentially the deciding factor in whether Trump becomes a one-term president.

Trump has been fighting with Michigan's Democratic governor over the federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It could be a problem, as she's popular and Michigan is a key swing state. But on Tuesday, he held an event at the White House with COVID-19 survivors and sat next to another Michigan Democrat, state Rep. Karen Whitsett, right, who recently recovered from the illness. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Trump's lawyers even allude to those stakes in Page 4 of the legal summons they issued Monday. They say Trump's effort to acquire votes rests on his reputation.

And no issue matters more to a politician's reputation these days than the pandemic, especially to the only G7 leader facing an election this year.

One Republican operative in that battleground state of Wisconsin said that even if things happen to drastically improve nationwide in the short term, COVID-19 will still be a major vote-driver in the fall election.

"It's critically important," said Matt Batzel, executive director of the conservative organizing group American Majority. 

"It is the highest, No. 1 issue that people are thinking and caring about. It's people getting back to work if they're not working. It's people putting food on the table." 

He says Trump has done a good job, which included declaring a public health emergency and announcing travel restrictions for China while still in the thick of the Senate impeachment trial.

The history Trump prefers to tell 

That was on Jan. 31. 

In Canada, for the sake of comparison, on that same day, the government said it would not follow the American lead in declaring a health emergency. As for travel, Ottawa did suggest in early February that Canadians should leave China, but only restricted travel weeks later.

That's the part of the story Trump likes talking about.

He's fond of raising the China angle, mocking his opponents for protesting his travel ban; tarring Democratic rival Joe Biden as soft on China; and, now, halting funding for the World Health Organization for, he says, being overly credulous toward China.

In addition, his allies also point out some hypocrisy from media outlets now bashing Trump for inaction. Many of them carried news reports at the start of the year that quoted medical experts downplaying the global risk of COVID-19.

Then there's the other part of the story — the part Trump avoids. 

It involves numerous falsehoods he's shared with the public, widespread testing failures, and the fact the U.S. has a far higher per-capita death count from COVID-19 than Canada.

This is the narrative Democrats have already been trying to drill into the electorate in a barrage of attack ads that will last throughout the year.

The gap in Trump's story includes the month of February.

Missing month in Trump's version 

That's when Trump spent weeks saying things like the virus would "disappear," and cases would soon be "close to zero," as state officials began expressing panic over equipment shortages.

Tellingly, in a White House promotional video praising Trump's work on COVID-19, shown at a news conference this week, the highlights of Trump's own actions went from his announcement of travel restrictions for China on Jan. 31 and skipped ahead to March.

WATCH | Trump defends his administration's response to the COVID-19 crisis: 

U.S. President Donald Trump defended how his administration responded to COVID-19 and used video to counter negative reports in the media. 2:02

Now, approximately 25,000 Americans have been killed by COVID-19. The U.S. per-capita death toll is roughly three times higher than Canada's.

Trump faces some significant political headwinds:

  • His earlier spike in popularity during the crisis has begun levelling off. In head-to-head polling matchups against his likely opponent, Biden, Trump has lost 24 of the last 25, with one tie.
  • Americans are deeply worried about the virus's spread — 94 per cent told a Fox News poll they were concerned.
  • On his handling of the outbreak, Trump is getting, at best, mixed reviews. The Fox poll shows him doing better, with 51 per cent approval, but that's far behind other national and state officials.

The results of a Morning Consult survey are far worse. Among registered voters, 23 per cent said they think he's done an excellent job, and 42 per cent said he's done a poor job.

The scariest numbers there for Trump are among critical Independent voters. While it's unsurprising that Trump's rock-solid base supports him, these less-partisan voters will matter in November. Just 15 per cent of Independents said he's doing an excellent job. In the electorally critical Midwest, just 20 per cent said the same.

Trump has made announcements that weren't real. He has promoted an untested drug as a possible treatment for COVID-19. He has bashed governors, including the popular governor of a critical swing state, Michigan.

He has aired grievances — again, and again.

In just one marathon news conference Monday, which lasted two hours and 24 minutes, Trump repeatedly bashed the press and his campaign rival. He mentioned the "fake news" four times, the "media" three times, the "press" six times, Joe Biden 10 times, and he mentioned the "great" or "incredible" job his team was doing eight times.

"The fake news is saying, 'Oh, he didn't act fast enough.' Well, you remember what happened. Because when I did act [with the China travel ban] I was criticized by [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi, by Sleepy Joe Biden," Trump said. 

"I was criticized by everyone. In fact, I was called xenophobic."

At his daily COVID-19 briefings, Trump repeatedly bashes the media and insists he's not getting enough credit for his handling of the crisis. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

After he played the promotional video at that news conference, observers noted that Trump's team also did some selective editing.

For example, the video aired a podcast snippet where New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman credited Trump's travel restrictions on China. 

Left absent from the video was what Haberman said right after — that after the travel restrictions, Trump spent weeks doing very little to try to control the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S.

Batzel said the president should just stay focused on getting things done for all Americans, and avoid being drawn into petty partisan feuds with Democrats. 

On that score, there was a telling moment at the White House on Tuesday, where Trump held a meeting with COVID-19 survivors.

The survivor seated next to him was from Michigan, that key swing state. It was Karen Whitsett, a Democratic member of Michigan's House of Representatives who credited Trump and the drug hydroxychloroquine for her survival.

"I like Democrats. I especially like this Democrat," Trump said. 

He has been urging use of the malaria drug Whitsett took, although it's still unclear the treatment actually works against COVID-19.

In front of the cameras, there was no mention of the cautionary details — the experts casting doubt on the drug's effectiveness, and warning that because it can cause serious side-effects it can potentially do more harm than good.

Trump's most vocal supporters won't be dwelling on those details either. Chief among them is Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and Trump friend. 

Until a few weeks ago, Hannity bemoaned the "mass hysteria" over COVID-19, calling it "over the top" and a Democratic "hoax."

On Monday night, Hannity praised Trump's bold actions, including the Chinese and European travel restrictions, and saluted Trump for bashing the media at that marathon news conference.

"[He] rightfully tore them to shreds," Hannity said.

"When they lie, they never admit they're wrong. They just move on to the next set of lies."

About the Author

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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