President Donald Trump is eager to hit the road.
As his own health officials continue to warn against non-essential travel, Trump has privately urged aides over the past week to start adding official events back to his schedule, including photo ops and site visits that would allow him to ditch Washington for a few hours. The day trips would be similar to those Vice President Mike Pence has made visiting businesses during the viral pandemic, according to three people familiar with the planning.
Speaking at a coronavirus task force briefing this week, Trump noted he hasn’t “left the White House in months,” except to send off the USNS Comfort from a Virginia naval base and visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency‘s headquarters in March. The president has otherwise stayed within the executive complex for six weeks, an extraordinary stretch of confinement for a president who — even while stuck in Washington — loves to golf and visit his businesses. Trump's last big trip outside the beltway to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta ended with a three-day fundraising swing in Florida, during which he stayed at his Mar-a-Lago beach club and golfed at a nearby course he owns.
His itch to get away from Washington comes as his administration pressures governors to begin loosening restrictions on interstate travel, business operations and public gatherings — part of a three-phase plan the federal government released last week to reopen the U.S. economy after a near-total shutdown due to Covid-19. The roadmap has been criticized by some state officials who say they lack the testing capacity needed to safely reopen communities in accordance with the president’s timeline. Trump officials insist enough testing is already available to handle the first phase of reopening.
The first step of the administration’s “Opening Up America Again” strategy maintains restrictions on small gatherings if physical distancing measures cannot be adhered to and discourages Americans from pursuing non-essential travel, setting Trump on a potential collision course with swing-state governors who are reluctant to host him or presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for official or political events in the near future.
“If we’re listening to our best medical minds in this country, political events are going to be some of the last activities that are phased in as we reboot our economy,” said Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who has sparred with Trump over his response to the health crisis and his administration's ability to provide test kits, ventilators and other critical supplies to her state.
“I think it’s going to be a long time before anyone thinks it’s safe to have big gatherings,” Whitmer said in an interview. “It’s important that we’re all very mindful, and that goes for campaign rallies on both sides of the aisle.”
Other officials from 2020 battleground states said they would hesitate to permit events that do not comply with the federal government’s guidelines. Trump is almost always accompanied by an entourage of advisers and U.S. Secret Service personnel during official and political trips, making it difficult to practice social distancing guidelines in line with the administration's current recommendations.
During his trip last month to the Naval Station in Norfolk, Va., he spoke to an empty parking lot and traveled with a limited group of aides and reporters on Air Force One. Still, the combined presence of security, staff and media on the ground exceeded the size limits his administration placed on group gatherings in mid-March.
“If there was a situation where the president was trying to violate his own guidelines, we would certainly have a conversation about that,” said an aide to Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers.
A Trump campaign official said the president’s 2020 operation will remain in the digital sphere for the time being and does not currently have any “Keep America Great” rallies — a hallmark of Trump’s reelection strategy — or physical fundraisers planned for the remainder of April or May. But the same official said the White House is in charge of the president’s schedule and could add events at any given moment.
On Friday, Trump abruptly announced his plans to deliver this year’s commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His June 13 appearance will occur on the academy’s campus 50 miles north of New York City, which has seen more than 10,000 coronavirus-related deaths since March 1. The White House declined a request for additional details about the president's schedule.
“I understand they’ll have distancing. They’ll have some big distance, and so it’ll be very different than it ever looked,” Trump said at a White House briefing.
Pence delivered a commencement address at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs on Saturday. Nearly 1,000 cadets sat eight feet apart on the school’s parade field during the event, offering an eerie glimpse into what Trump’s own appearance at West Point could look like if strict social distancing measures remain in place through mid-June.
Pence also recently traveled to a Walmart distribution center in Virginia and told reporters aboard Air Force Two on Tuesday, during a trip to a Wisconsin factory, that he will visit a General Motors plant in his home state of Indiana next week. The vice president has used these visits to highlight the role of the private sector in manufacturing and distributing vital equipment and supplies for healthcare facilities across the country.
In some cases, state officials said White House aides have provided limited notice prior to a visit from the president or vice president. According to the Evers aide, Pence’s team notified the Wisconsin governor’s office of the vice president’s visit to the Madison-based GE Healthcare plant only after they had already finalized the trip.
“We got a notice after it was already planned, like, ‘by the way, we’ll be in town,’” recounted the aide. “It’s not a good idea to bring a bunch of people into a facility right now and they did not coordinate with us at all.”
A White House official disputed this account and said Pence's team first contacted Evers' chief of staff on April 12 to alert them of Pence's upcoming visit to Wisconsin and to offer an in-person meeting between the governor and vice president. The two men ended up speaking by phone Tuesday morning, hours before Pence arrived in Madison.
“The Office of the Vice President reached out to the governor’s office multiple times, both last week and early this week, as we began forming our plans. The governor’s office did not indicate that they would like an in-person meeting while the vice president was in Wisconsin,” said Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller.
Other states that will determine the outcome of the November election don’t yet appear to have even considered guidelines related to campaign events or presidential visits in the coronavirus era. Asked about the permittance of political activities in the coming months, a spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf referred POLITICO to the Pennsylvania Department of State, which said the state’s Department of Health was best equipped to respond.
“The Department of State does not in any way permit or prohibit or even offer guidance regarding political rallies,” communications director Wanda Murren wrote in an email.
In lieu of the high-energy campaign rallies he normally holds, lately Trump has turned the James S. Brady briefing room into his own political roadshow — hijacking briefings by his own coronavirus task force to single out political opponents and battle with members of the media. According to data compiled by the C-SPAN Video Library, Trump has made 41 appearances at the daily briefings as of Tuesday evening, more than any member of the Covid-19 task force, including its leader Mike Pence.
A Republican who speaks to the president regularly said Trump has been in good spirits throughout the public health crisis, but like many Americans is eager to get out of his house. This person said Trump is expected to soon follow Pence’s lead and begin traveling again, but only for official trips and not political events. The Trump campaign has canceled in-person events and fundraisers because of the pandemic, and has instead held virtual weeknight gatherings with supporters and prospective voters.
“I hope we can do rallies. It’s great for the county. It’s great spirit. For me, it’s a tremendous way of getting the word out. We win where we have rallies,” Trump said at a task force briefing last Friday.
A White House spokesperson declined to say if the president has additional events on his schedule besides his appearance at West Point in June. But Trump’s recent focus on field hospitals built by the Army Corps of Engineers — combined with his penchant for patriotic settings — could mean he could lean into military options as he did with the Norfolk visit.
In what was perhaps a tell-tale sign of his own feelings as he entered another weekend holed up in the White House residence, Trump broke from top U.S. health officials at a White House briefing on Friday to lend support to demonstrators who gathered in state capitals to protest stay-at-home orders.
“They seem to be very responsible people to me,” he said with a shrug.
Anita Kumar contributed reporting.