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With Rallies On Pause, The Trump Reelection Campaign Goes Virtual


President Trump's reelection campaign was supposed to be built around a strong economy. Then the coronavirus hit. Millions lost their jobs as measures to contain the virus forced businesses to shutter. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has this look at how the Trump campaign is adapting to this new reality.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It was only a month ago when President Trump held his last campaign rally, before coronavirus changed everything. The crush of humanity cheering and chanting have been replaced with this.


LARA TRUMP: Hey, everybody. Welcome to our very first Women for Trump live digital broadcast. We're so excited to have you join us. This is a first for us.

KEITH: Trump's daughter-in-law Lara Trump moderated a streaming video conversation with campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany and national political director Chris Carr. It included tips for surviving life stuck at home, a dash of media bashing and a lot of praise for President Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic, like this from McEnany.


KAYLEIGH MCENANY: I've seen the president change lives. And right now, the president is saving lives across this country. This could've been so much worse.

KEITH: But there were also glitches - video buffering, audio problems.


TRUMP: Kayleigh, what would this country look like maybe if Joe Biden and the Democrats had been at the helm? Oh, did we lose Kayleigh? Chris, are you still there?

CHRIS CARR: Yes, ma'am. I'm here.

TRUMP: OK. Well, Chris, what are your thoughts on them?

KEITH: On various platforms, about a million people have now watched that video, which also included instructions on how to volunteer for the campaign from home. Just as President Trump was announcing the initial 15 days to slow the spread, his campaign, along with the Republican Party, was supposed to be launching a national week of in-person volunteer training events that suddenly had to go virtual.

ELLIOTT ECHOLS: We weren't sure how it was going to go.

KEITH: Elliott Echols is the national field director for the Trump victory campaign. The training sessions moved from living rooms and field offices to Zoom meetings. And all told, volunteers and organizers made more than 3 million phone calls using voter contact apps. Their message was all about the pandemic and the president's response and directed people to Echols says this is about building relationships for later when Election Day is closer.

ECHOLS: You know, we switched our campaign over to a virtual campaign in 24 hours - like that. And when we can go back to getting out and being in public spaces and knocking on doors again, we're going to flip that switch again. And the volunteers that were making the calls - they're going to be back at those people's doorsteps, continuing the conversation with them.

KEITH: Recent polls have shown a small bump in President Trump's approval rating as he holds daily press briefings about the coronavirus. The rallies may be gone for now, but Trump has a more direct line into American homes than ever before. Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, says this poses a challenge for the opposition.

GUY CECIL: The fact that he chooses to use that pulpit to share misinformation and to deceive I think is the challenge.

KEITH: Priorities USA is now running this ad in battleground states...


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We've done one hell of a job. Nobody's done the job that we've done. No, I don't take responsibility at all.

KEITH: ...Highlighting the problems with the president's coronavirus response and some of the things he said that have turned out to be tragically wrong. The political stakes are high. Trump's fate in November could well be determined by whether the public blames him for the death toll or credits him for it not being worse. That narrative is being set now.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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