Washington — President Donald Trump returned to the campaign trail on Monday night, boasting at a rally in Florida that he felt “so powerful” after his recovery from Covid-19 that he wanted to walk into the audience and “kiss everyone”.
“I am so energised by your prayers and humbled by your support,” Trump said at the outdoor rally at the Orlando Sanford International Airport, where there was little social distancing though some spectators wore masks. “Twenty-two days from now we’re going to win this state, we’re going to win four more years at the White House.”
The crowd at one point broke into a chant of “we love you” as Trump renewed his attacks on his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.
“Now they say I’m immune. I feel so powerful. I’ll walk into that audience. I’ll walk in there, I’ll kiss everyone in that audience. I’ll kiss the guys and the beautiful women and the — everybody,” Trump said.
Hours earlier, his doctor said Trump had tested negative for Covid-19 on consecutive days. In a memo released by the White House, the president’s physician, Sean Conley, said the tests, along with guidelines from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, informed the conclusion that Trump “is not infectious to others”.
Trump’s trip to Florida was part of an effort to reverse his slide in polls in the swing state. Biden is leading Trump in Florida by 3.7 percentage points in a RealClearPolitics average of nine polls taken since late last month, a reversal of fortune for the president in a state he narrowly won in 2016.
The Florida event, along with three others planned this week, threaten to advance the spread of the coronavirus, Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, warned in an interview on CNN earlier on Monday.
The virus has hit the state hard and has contributed to the president’s declining popularity. His decision to resume large-scale rallies risks reinforcing perceptions that he has been cavalier about a disease that has killed 215,000 Americans and sent the economy into recession.
Trump sought to energise the crowd by highlighting the partisan battle over his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
“A lot of people said I was elected because of the Supreme Court,” Trump said on Monday night, “but if it is true, it is more true now than it was four years ago.”
The president and his campaign aides believe Barrett’s confirmation hearings can be a turning point with just three weeks until election day activating conservative and religious voters who care deeply about the composition of the high court.
The focus on Barrett seeks to increase pressure on Biden to endorse or reject a plan favoured by liberals to pack the high court with additional justices if he and his party recapture the White House and control of the Senate. Biden said Monday he is “not a fan of court packing”, his clearest answer on the issue after weeks of dodging the question.
But rallies were a crucial element of Trump’s upset victory in 2016, and polls suggest the president would need to capture similar magic in the final weeks of this year’s campaign if he hopes to be re-elected.
Biden holds a 54%-42% lead nationally among likely voters, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Sunday. Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis further cemented voters’ unease about his handling of the pandemic.
Two-thirds of registered voters say the president failed to take appropriate precautions against the virus, 62% distrust his comments about the disease, and 73% say they are worried that they or an immediate family member will contract Covid-19.
Biden and other Democrats have been hammering Trump over his decision to resume rallies, where there is typically little effort among the audience to socially distance. Biden said in a statement before the event that Trump brought to Florida “reckless behaviour, divisive rhetoric and fear mongering.”
The president’s team is banking on the Barrett nomination to move the race back onto more favourable terrain.
“This is a big deal, not just for the court, not just for the country, but also for the campaign politically. It has given a real shot in the arm to our grass-roots efforts,” said Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien.
But the pervasive impact of the coronavirus was looming over the opening day of Barrett’s confirmation hearing on Monday, underscoring the challenge at hand. Coverage of the opening day focused on the appearance of Senator Mike Lee, the Utah Republican who attended the proceedings despite testing positive for coronavirus earlier this month.
Lee was one of 11 people — including fellow judiciary committee members Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — known to have contracted the virus after attending a White House event celebrating Barrett’s nomination.
Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican locked in a tight re-election battle, chaired the hearing days after refusing to submit to a coronavirus test before a debate with his Democratic opponent. Eighty-seven-year-old Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley has also refused to get tested despite interactions with other committee members who contracted the disease.
Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris appeared at the hearing virtually, citing concerns over the infection risk.
Recovery as political asset?
Trump has even pitched his recovery from the virus as a political asset, claiming that, unlike Biden, he is now “immune” to the deadly disease. The president’s repetition of that claim on Twitter prompted the social media network to add a disclaimer to his post.
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said last month that it has “limited information about reinfections with the virus that causes Covid-19”. It said there were no confirmed reports of reinfection within three months of initial infection, suggesting that recovery from the novel coronavirus may be like other similar diseases that offer some level of immunity.
Before he began speaking in Florida on Monday night, Trump tossed masks into the crowd
He later dismissed reports his campaign is running low on cash. Those claims are “not true”, he said on Twitter, adding that “if it were so, I would put up money myself”.
Trump said in a second tweet that he has prioritised spending on the campaign’s ground game, adding that he would personally “spend additional money if we are not spending enough”.
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