Will President Trump Hear the Republican Cries for Help?

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It’s highly orchestrated, not remotely subtle, and likely doomed to fail: A late, and desperate, campaign by Republicans urging President Trump to ease up on his self-destruction so he can win a race he appears intent on losing. Republican senators are telegraphing helpful ideas to him through the media about a course correction, having finally accepted that Trump is poised to take, as the president would say, their GOP Senate majority down the tubes with him. Their plan is for Trump to stop making the election about him, and instead adopt a more unifying message about how to resolve the country’s overlapping, excruciating crises. In other words, stop tweeting accusations of Joe Scarborough murdering someone, outrage over Michael Flynn, attacks on peaceful protesters, falsely casting doubt on the integrity of November’s election, or retweeting posts from white supremacists.

Good luck to them.

All week GOP senators created a chorus of suggestions, guidance, and advice — though understated, God forbid they get a mean tweet in response — to their party leader whose polling position four months to Election Day can only be described as treacherous.

The number two Republican in Senate GOP leadership noted the president’s loss of support among independents, and said that reversing the trend would require “not only a message that deals with substance and policy but, I think, a message that conveys, perhaps, a different tone.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters this week his advice to the president would be: “Just make it more about policy, and less about your personality.”

The Wall Street Journal even joined the fun — interesting timing, perhaps coordinated as well – by sounding the alarm in an editorial Friday that stated Trump “still has no second term message beyond his own grievances.” It went on, in blistering specificity. The piece noted that Joe Biden is not as unpopular as both Trump and Hillary Clinton were in 2016, that Trump has “reverted to his worst form,” has “little time to recover,” has “no second-term agenda, or even a message beyond four more years of himself,” and that “millions of Americans are close to deciding that four more years are more risk that they can stand.”

The Journal writers, also trying to help Trump win, went right to his fragile ego in their conclusion by stating that by losing the election “he will have let down the 63 million Americans who sent him to the White House by losing, of all people, to ‘Sleepy Joe.’” The “of all people” part, of course, is what they hope will juice the president’s rehabilitation.

The morning after publication, there was 86-year-old Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, tweeting about the Journal editorial: “Will somebody w access to the Oval Office read the WSJ editorial ‘The Trump Referendum’’ to President Trump. We won’t hv more good scotus justices or the best economy in 50 years like we hv had if he doesn’t follow that advice.”

After the indignity of begging on Twitter, the senator then went further, asking Fox News to be more helpful campaigning for Trump. While it wasn’t Sean Hannity’s fault Trump couldn’t say what his agenda was for a second term and careened off into his trademark nonsensical, self-consumed, ego-driven drivel, Grassley would like Fox to join the GOP effort to transform Trump into someone he is not.

“Does FOXNews want Trump Re-elected?Watched Hannity/Trump interview/KEY QUESTION“What goals in next term?Trump starts answer/gets off point and Hannity helps digress and that’s end of the most important Q to get FOUR MORE YEARS OF DRAINING THE SWAMP &Justices,” read the second tweet.

While enduring Trump has been difficult all along for Republicans lawmakers, the month of June 2020 has been the nadir – from June 1 when his Bible-thrusting photo op at St. John’s Church involved gassing peaceful protesters (including one of the church’s priests) to his evidence-free suggestion that a 75-year-old protester knocked to the ground and bloodied by police was an antifa agitator. Throughout all this, his fleeting attention to COVID-19 has been comprised of far more self-congratulation than empathy or urgency. The economic news, despite what the Federal Reserve says, is great and about to become spectacular, according to the president.

Republicans privately admit Trump’s instincts amid a pandemic with no end in sight, an economic recession and a month of demonstrations across America have failed the test the moment demanded in a way that will be hard to erase before Election Day.

They are aware of what Trump aides are leaking to the media that they’re not entirely certain he wants to win. The New York Times spoke to those aides recently and reported the president is “acting trapped and defensive,”  and that ”rather than focus on plans and goals for another four years in office, Mr. Trump has been wallowing in self-pity about news coverage of him since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. … He has told advisers that no matter what he does, he cannot get ‘good’ stories from the press, which has often been his primary interest.” The Times story included an account from three presidential aides who told him his continued self-destructive conduct was likely to cost him the election, to which he said, “I have to be myself.”

As the coronavirus now ravages Trump country, GOP officials are resigned to the fact that the pandemic will dominate the campaign and define his presidency. Trump is disinterested in the pesky pandemic that has lasted too long and revealed his limits. An account in the Washington Post last week stated that while vice President Mike Pence still regularly speaks with governors and helps coordinate the federal response to states in search of supplies, etc., White House advisers say Trump no longer participates in that process and just gets updated by Pence. Data shows rising positivity rates and surging hospitalizations in states where the virus is exploding prove the new infections are not merely a reflection of more tests, but Trump continues to tweet and repeat in interviews this is all because of the increase in testing.

The awkward return of the White House coronavirus talk force briefing Friday was roundly mocked as Pence did his classic lauding-of-progress-meets-awkward-filibuster two-step to tell America: things are going real well (but for some youngsters here and there) as the death rate lowers; we have to go back to work; and no one can make me say masks or social distancing are necessary – a CDC recommendation completely ignored at the president’s large indoor events over the past week.

Noticeably, hours later Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saw fit to suddenly join a new Republican mask PSA parade that appeared, strangely timed or not, to speak over Pence’s stammering denial.

“Until we find a vaccine, these are really important,” McConnell said, holding a mask. “This is not as complicated as a ventilator, and this is a way to indicate that you want to protect others.”

The same afternoon former Vice President Dick Cheney appeared in his daughter Liz’s Twitter feed photographed wearing a mask with the message “Dick Cheney says WEAR A MASK.” The congresswoman included a hashtag “#realmenwearmasks.” Around the same time Twitter located a video by former Defense Secretary James Mattis promoting mask wearing in which he says, “Over the course of my career I’ve learned that divisiveness will never work in defeating an enemy.”

If the White House had not yet gotten the message, things couldn’t have been clearer when the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee went on a Sunday talk show — something he works hard to avoid — to try to flatter the president into wearing a mask.

Sen. Lamar Alexander phoned in to CNN to say, “I wish the president would wear a mask; millions of Americans admire him, and they would follow his lead,” adding later, “I think it would be a sign of strength if he would, from time to time, wear a mask.” Alexander made this appearance knowing CNN would pummel him with numerous questions about the president’s mismanagement of the outbreak, with video of his many denials and prescriptions for magical cures. His kind quotes were released by his staff in a press release later that day for those who may have missed them on air.

Pence got the message. Later that day he broke from Trump for the first time, using the words “wear a mask.” During his trip to Texas, a hotspot, Pence masked up for a church service where 100 unmasked choir members sang together without any social distancing.

No matter the denial of the virus’ deadliness or the importance of mask wearing, smart Republicans are watching the polls. Those show majorities do not approve of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic and so support mask wearing. Those surveys also show concern over the virus toll spiking since early June in the South, illustrating that negative reactions over the management of the outbreaks are likely to increase even among GOP voters.

On Monday Trump was tweeting about his record on candidate endorsements and also that polls Republicans keep worrying about are “Fake” and he will be owed an apology when he wins. Yet, the president had taken down his retweet of a senior citizen screaming about “white power’’ at The Villages in Florida after Sen. Tim Scott said Sunday on CNN that it was “indefensible” and ought to be removed. A short while later, while the president golfed with Graham, the retweet was deleted. Neither the president nor the White House made any statements rejecting appeals to “white power”; they merely underscored how fond the president is of the — largely Republican — Villages retirement community and denied he had heard those words uttered just eight seconds into the video he retweeted.

McConnell was back to mask messaging on the Senate floor Monday. Later he sent a tweet about it. And GOP lawmakers were dodging questions about whether Trump was lying about not knowing of reports Russia had paid bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. service members, and why he hadn’t done anything to respond yet.

It looked to be another long week, and not much had changed.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist.