Inside the White House’s attempt to signal its exit from the coronavirus crisis

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WASHINGTON – Attempts by the White House to come out of the coronavirus crisis with an intensified public safety campaign this month have encountered a pair of internal hurdles: a lack of dramatic and concrete political actions to match the communications push – and a president who often struggles to follow the same discussion manual as his team.

The administration is making a concerted local media push, with more than 200 interviews in current and emerging hotspots urging Americans to wear masks and avoid large gatherings, a senior administration official said. Behind the scenes, Dr Deborah Birx pushed state and local governments to issue masked warrants and close bars, and a small task force was formed at the White House primarily focused on public messaging, the Minister said. responsible.

But there is currently no talk of a nationwide mask mandate, a call to take back shelters by placing orders, or a retreat on Trump’s pressure to reopen schools – which many health experts have claimed – said the official.

And the administration’s messaging efforts often continue to be compromised by Trump and his allies.

The president’s tone on the masks changed somewhat this month at the behest of advisers, as he began to advocate for their use, even donning one himself in public on occasion, and urging to social distancing during a trip to the hard-hit state of Florida on Friday.

But he has also been seen several times without one in recent days, promoting a video this week of a controversial doctor who falsely claimed that masks and other social distancing measures were unnecessary because there were had a cure for the virus.

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Hours before Trump shared the video Monday night, Birx, head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, was in Tennessee to urge the state to impose masks, close bars and limit meals to inside. Birx also called on Trump supporters to wear masks.

“I hope if they are a supporter of Donald Trump and they live in rural Tennessee and they have heard him say that masks are important I hope they are listening to this,” said Birx. Wearing masks is “the power we have in our hands” to fight the spread, she added.

At least one governor and Trump supporter was unmoved: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said he would not close bars or impose masks statewide, despite calls from Birx to do so . Trump’s ally, Rep. Louie Gohmert of R-Texas, who tested positive for coronavirus on Wednesday just before traveling with Trump on Air Force One, even suggested he may have been infected while wearing a mask.

During Tuesday’s weekly conference call with the country’s governors this week, Birx again stressed the importance of mask warrants in helping stem the spread of the coronavirus, according to a source over the phone. Birx also spoke to mayors of cities on the verge of becoming the next hotspot in the pandemic, urging them to put in place mask warrants if their state does not issue an ordinance.

Key Trump aides, like senior advisers Jared Kushner, chief of staff Mark Meadows and campaign manager Bill Stepien, have urged the president to echo the public health messages of his doctors, the official said.

Senior Advisor Kellyanne Conway said earlier this month that she believed the drop in Trump’s polls was related to his lack of the response – which drew low marks in recent surveys – and a urged to resume regular coronavirus briefings, which have been shorter and generally more scripted than in the past.

“There is an understanding within the White House that we have to put our arms around this, given the 90 day period in which we are heading,” the official said, referring to the home stretch of the election. , adding, “We haven’t been expecting to see that kind of spike right now. ”

But infighting in the White House continues to spill over into public. After Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro made a pitch on Fox News on Wednesday for the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, the administration’s senior infectious disease specialist Dr Anthony Fauci said studies on the drug had shown “consistently” that it was “not effective” in the treatment. disease caused by the coronavirus.

Of the 13 states identified by the White House as hot spots, with more than 10% of tests coming back positive, officials see 14 more at risk of becoming the next Florida or Arizona, according to an internal report first reported by the New York Times. States with 5-10% positivity rates include a number of battlefield states, such as Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.

In a hearing with senior administration health officials on Friday, Representative James Clyburn, DS.C., said the report highlighted the “disconnect that seemed to exist between what the White House is saying publicly and what which it sends to States in private. . ”

The separate White House working group focused on public messaging, chaired by Birx, meets for 30 minutes each day. It includes Kushner, the chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, Marc Short, and staff from the communications office.

But after being criticized for his retweet of a video that was ultimately banned from major social media platforms such as Twitter, the president himself spent part of the week steadfastly without a message, praising the doctor who played in the clip – and highlighting the scale of the White House communications challenge as the campaign’s home stretch approaches.

“I can tell you this, she was on the air with many other doctors,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “They were huge fans of hydroxychloroquine, and I found her to be very impressive.”

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