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No rallies, but Trump gives White House trips some campaign flair

Trump gives White House trips campaign flair

Though President Trump would love to be back on the campaign trail, the in-person experience remains off-limits for now, as coronavirus cases continue to tick up nationwide. Lately, however, the president has begun to leave Washington for brief White House trips.

Strains of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" swelled on overhead speakers ahead of Mr. Trump's remarks in Allentown Thursday, his second visit to a battleground state this month on his tour to reopen America. He took the stage to his signature campaign tune, Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," despite the fact that this was an official White House event, and it's usually "Hail to the Chief" that heralds his entrance.

U.S. President Trump visits medical supplies distributor Owens & Minor in Allentown, Pennsylvania
U.S. President Donald Trump takes the stage to speak in front of giant american flag and boxes of medical supplies following a tour at medical equipment distributor Owens & Minor during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Allentown, Pennsylvania, U.S., May 14, 2020. Carlos Barria / REUTERS

He was visiting a medical equipment company, Owens & Minor, located squarely in the political bellwether of Lehigh Valley, just over 60 miles northwest of Joe Biden's campaign headquarters, and in a state he won in 2016 by a margin of less than 1%.

The music wasn't the only element of the trip that had the feel of the rallies the president misses. He solicited applause, poked his political rivals and pointed out the press. "There they are, right there," Mr. Trump interjected. "They are a disaster." 

"Under the previous administration, the stockpile was depleted and never fully refilled," the president said, referring to a shortage of N95 masks following the 2009 H1N1 swine flu epidemic. "Most of the N95 masks were distributed during the N1H1," he continued. "Now you know who says that, right? N1H1. Who says that? Sleepy Joe Biden." The president jabbed his likely Democratic opponent, who mistakenly referred to H1N1 as N1H1 during a March debate. 

Pre-coronavirus, the president used to have taxpayer-funded official events in a locale, followed by nearby political rallies or fundraisers, in a practice that predates the Trump presidency. Now, superficial elements of the campaign are appearing in the White House-sanctioned events. 

For critics, this isn't a blurring of lines, so much as "a thinly veiled campaign stop in the midst of a pandemic," Democratic Representative from Pennsylvania, Brendan Boyle, told CBS News. "It's deeply irresponsible."

"I think the president is coming because he's desperate to try to win Pennsylvania again," state chair for "Organizing 2020" Amanda Green Hawkins told CBS News. The group supports Democratic efforts to take on the president's political machine. 

But Republican Senator Pat Toomey defended the president, telling CBS-3 in Philadelphia he believes "it is perfectly OK for the president of the United States to come in and draw attention to the great work that they're doing." 

Mr. Trump's visit to the state also presented the opportunity to highlight his clash with Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, over how quickly to reopen Pennsylvania. "We have to get your governor of Pennsylvania to start opening up a little bit," Trump told workers Thursday. "You have areas of Pennsylvania that are barely affected and they want to keep them closed. You can't do that."

He had already tweeted his support for Pennsylvanians looking to reopen the state. "The great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails," Mr. Trump wrote Monday. "The Democrats are moving slowly, all over the USA, for political purposes. They would wait until November 3rd if it were up to them. Don't play politics. Be safe, move quickly!"

Wolf retorted that since Pennsylvania, has seen nearly 60,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, it needs to move in a "measured" way. "The irresponsible thing to do is to just willy-nilly go off and pretend we can wave a magic wand and go back into business and suspend the reality of this virus that surrounds us," he told reporters.

Also on Monday, the president accused Democratic lawmakers, including Pennsylvania's governor, of dragging their feet in order to hurt his re-election prospects. "There just seems to be no effort on certain blue states to get back into gear," Mr. Trump told reporters. He called Democratic governors' decision to keep states closed "a political thing," Thursday, in an interview with Fox Business.

Wolf has allowed 24 counties in Northern Pennsylvania to begin reopening and plans to do so in another 13 Friday. But restaurants remain takeout and delivery only, businesses like hair salons are closed across the state, and 30 counties have not announced an end date for their stay-at-home orders. Those counties, Wolf has said, have not sufficiently contained the virus or are at too high risk of serious outbreaks to begin reopening. 

"The great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails," President Trump wrote in a tweet. "The Democrats are moving slowly, all over the USA, for political purposes."

Protesters demanded a reopening in April, and after several counties announced plans last week to defy Wolf's stay at home order and begin reopening Friday, the governor threatened to withhold federal stimulus discretionary funds if they defy his order. 

Seventy-two percent of adults in Pennsylvania approve of Wolf's handling of the coronavirus outbreak, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll released Monday. The same survey shows that he holds a 90% approval rating among Democrats and 50% among Republicans.

Less than six months ahead of the presidential election, Mr. Trump is trailing Biden in Pennsylvania polls. A Fox News survey released last month showed the President trailing Biden by 8 points, 50-42 percent). The president has been frustrated with his recent poll numbers and eager to return to the campaign trail ahead of the election. 

Ten weeks since the president's last stadium event, the Trump campaign is now thinking about holding "virtual rallies" ahead of the November election. Campaign senior adviser Lara Trump told reporters Tuesday that while the president hopes to return to the physical campaign trail in September, campaign officials are "prepared" to pursue other options. 

No official campaign stops are currently on the calendar, and the president's travel remains limited. In a month, he plans to deliver the commencement address at West Point, which will bring back about 1,000 cadets to its New York campus.

For the time being, Mr. Trump will have to be content to comment on the new realities caused by the coronavirus.

"All that social distancing! Look at you people all spread out." "That's pretty impressive," the president exclaimed at the Allentown event, gesturing toward the rows of employees spread out evenly in black folding chairs along a factory floor. Attendees, attired in highlighter yellow shirts, baseball caps and masks, laughed. "But we like it the old way a little bit better, don't we? We'll be back." The president continued. "We'll be back to that soon."

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