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How President Trump And His Democratic Rivals Are Balancing Crisis And Campaigning


With just months to go before he stands for reelection, President Trump is trying to manage a major national crisis and his own political future. Here's part of the message he sent at a White House press conference yesterday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The choice we make, the precautions we put into place are critical to overcoming the virus, reducing its spread and shortening the duration of the pandemic, which is what it is.

MONTAGNE: Meanwhile, his Democratic rivals are trying to send their own messages to both help the public and their campaigns. NPR political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben has been following this and joins us now. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: The president is working to marshal resources, both for the government and the private sector. But, you know, often, of course, presidents are most influential as messengers. What do some of the experts you've been talking to say is really helpful in a crisis like this?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, first things first, they say that a crisis like this - I mean, crises like this are rare. This crisis is unique. Mike Leavitt, who was a Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush, he pointed out to me that this isn't like a hurricane or a tornado where there's a discrete localized impact. It's - for a lot of people, it's a sort of rolling potential disaster. And people are, for an extended period of time, continually trying to avoid it.

MIKE LEAVITT: These are complicated, tricky emergencies different than a weather event - a tornado or a hurricane - different from a terrorism event - different in a sense that they happen everywhere at the same time.

KURTZLEBEN: So with this happening everywhere to all Americans at the same time, I mean, the most fundamental thing is to communicate truthful information. Now, CNN this week counted literally dozens of falsehoods about coronavirus that Trump and his administration had spread. And that was before, by the way, his Wednesday night Oval Office address in which he seemed to get his own policies wrong.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, right. And people, I think, have a sense of no control, and they really are looking for somebody in control in a situation like this. Keeping people from panicking can, though, be very hard, even for a president. How does he manage that?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, so one way is keeping experts close at hand, sort of showing that you have smart people around you telling you what to do. I asked a scientist, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins - her name was Emily Gurley - about this. And she pointed out, you know, it's not just showing people that you're getting good information, but also that, listen; I have people telling me when I need to change course if we need to change course and that we can do that quickly. And the president was putting Anthony Fauci and other experts out front in an effort to do that.

Now, it is also true, though, that if there's a disconnect between what the president says and what experts suggest, that could add anxiety because of mixed messages. For example, he announced that travel - the travel restrictions regarding Europe, and some experts have said that that just isn't useful.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, the Democratic candidates have not shied away from criticizing Trump's responses here. What has stood out for you from Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, one thing is, first of all, they both gave speeches this week. Actually, Sanders gave two. And a big thing is, you know, they didn't really criticize each other in those speeches. They both seemed to have backed off of viewing each other as rivals here. And, of course, they don't want to be seen as taking political advantage.

Now, that said, they are definitely criticizing Donald Trump's governing style. Joe Biden this week called it a failure on testing that is colossal, and he also called it a failure of planning, leadership and execution. Now, Sanders also has said this administration is, quote, "largely incompetent."

Now, however, they are taking a little bit of advantage. Sanders is taking the opportunity to promote "Medicare for All" right now. Biden is pivoting to the general election. Really, they're just trying to show that they could be president during a crisis.

MONTAGNE: NPR political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, thanks for joining us.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.