Outpatient Trump itching to recharge election campaign

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump, under coronavirus quarantine in the White House and restricted from traveling, is grasping for ways to put a spark back in his struggling re-election bid and mount a comeback with four weeks left until Election Day.

Trump has been looking for options on how to get his message out and cut into Democrat Joe Biden’s lead in battleground states where the Nov. 3 election will be decided, advisers said.

They said they had been discussing Trump delivering a national address, while a speech to senior voters is being contemplated for Thursday. Vice President Mike Pence’s debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris in Salt Lake City will take center stage of the campaign on Wednesday.

Complications abound. Trump aides say he is impatient to get back on the campaign trail and insistent on debating Biden on Oct. 15 in Miami, but Biden said on Tuesday he will not participate if Trump is not virus-free.

The White House’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, said on Wednesday that Trump was eager to get back to work in the Oval Office. He has been working from a makeshift space in his residence in the White House since returning on Monday from three days in hospital.

“He wanted to go to the Oval yesterday. If he decides to go the Oval we’ve got safety protocols there,” Meadows told reporters, adding there would be adequate personal protective equipment and ventilation.

He described Trump, who has received treatment with a steroid that is normally used in the most severe cases, as being “in very good health.”

Any political boost Trump could get from a fresh injection of stimulus money into Americans’ pockets appears to be out of reach after he abruptly ended negotiations with Democrats on Tuesday, with both sides far apart on how much money to devote to a deal.

Both Biden and the top Democrat in the U.S. Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, accused Trump of abandoning needy Americans. Republican Senator Susan Collins, facing a tough re-election bid in her home state of Maine, called Trump’s move a “huge mistake.”

“The president turned his back on you,” Biden said in a Twitter post.

With layoffs in key industries mounting by the day and threatening the fragile recovery, Trump late on Tuesday urged Congress to quickly pass $25 billion in funding for passenger airlines, $135 billion for small businesses and provide $1,200 stimulus checks for Americans. “I am ready to sign right now,” Trump wrote in a tweet.

Meadows said he was not optimistic that a deal could be reached and that the Trump administration backed a more piecemeal approach.

“We’re still willing to be engaged, but I’m not optimistic for a comprehensive deal. I am optimistic that there’s about 10 things that we can do on a piecemeal basis,” Meadows told Fox News.

Meadows did not say what 10 items the administration wanted to tackle, but reiterated Trump’s position that he would back separate legislation addressing airlines, small businesses and stimulus checks for individuals.

Trump’s drive to get Judge Amy Coney Barrett confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate before the election also may be in doubt, since three Republican senators have been infected with the coronavirus and may not be able to vote.

COSTLY ABSENCE

A wave of infections at the White House among Trump’s top lieutenants and press office aides has left the West Wing struggling to find its footing. The latest infection came on Tuesday when immigration hawk and chief speechwriter Stephen Miller put out word he had tested positive.

ABC News said its count of cases related to the White House was now 23, including Trump and his wife, Melania.

Trump has attempted to use his coronavirus infection to his political advantage, making a dramatic prime-time exit from Walter Reed military hospital on Monday and whipping off his face mask before the cameras on his return to the White House.

He depicted himself as a man who vanquished the disease and emerged stronger. “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life,” he said in a widely criticized tweet on Monday.

But Trump’s handling of the virus since it first began infecting people early this year has been met with deep skepticism from Americans who have told pollsters he played down the calamity and has failed to express empathy for the more than 210,000 who have died.

Advisers say Trump wanted to be talking about other issues instead of the virus by this stage of the campaign, to put pressure on Biden.

Trump’s absence on the campaign trail appears to have been costly for him. He had been expected to go on a swing this week through Western states to raise millions of dollars for a campaign facing a deficit to Biden’s well-funded effort.

One adviser noted that almost exactly four years ago in 2016, Trump’s campaign was knocked off the rails by release of an “Access Hollywood” tape in which he boasted about groping women. He went on to beat the odds and win the election.

“He’s the real comeback kid and if anybody can come back from something it’s him,” the adviser said.

But with national polls showing him down double digits and Biden with sizeable leads in many swing states, Trump appears to have his work cut out for him.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert; Writing by Steve Holland and Alistair Bell; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Rosalba O’Brien)

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