As President Trump attempts to project an image of America rising out of quarantine and beginning to reopen, he's set to travel to an Arizona factory that's expanded into production of N95 face masks to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
And while the trip is in part meant to tell a positive story about the Trump administration's response, it also highlights the challenges of the current moment.
Arizona remains under a modified stay-at-home order until May 15, though Republican Gov. Doug Ducey allowed some retail establishments to begin to open voluntarily Monday. The state hasn't yet notched the two consecutive weeks of reduced COVID-19 cases called for as a first step in the White House guidelines for reopening. In fact, the number of confirmed cases in the state is on the rise.
And Trump's trip itself will be anything but normal. Those traveling with the president or coming in close proximity to him in Arizona are being tested for the coronavirus. Social distancing measures are expected.
"The President takes the health and safety of everyone traveling in support of himself and all White House operations very seriously," White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement provided to NPR. "When preparing for and carrying out any travel, the White House's operational teams work together to ensure plans to incorporate current CDC guidance and best practices for limiting COVID-19 exposure are followed to the greatest extent possible."
Asked last week if he would wear a mask on the trip, Trump was noncommittal.
"I'm going to have to look at the climate. I'd have no problem wearing a mask. I don't know," Trump said at the White House. "I'm supposed to make a speech. I just don't know: Should I speak in a mask? You're going to have to tell me if that's politically correct. I don't know. If it is, I'll speak in a mask."
Vice President Mike Pence faced criticism for not wearing a mask while visiting the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota last week, in apparent violation of the center's policy. Sitting next to Trump at a televised town hall Sunday night, Pence said he "should have worn a mask at the Mayo Clinic."
Pence has left Washington, D.C., a few times recently — a series of trips the White House used in part as test runs for Trump to get back on the road.
Different than the big rallies
Tuesday's travel is a far cry from Trump's last trip to Arizona, for a campaign rally on Feb. 19. He didn't mention the coronavirus in his speech that night, and when asked about it in an interview with a local TV reporter, he downplayed the risk.
"I think it's going to work out fine," Trump told Fox 10 Phoenix. "I think when we get into April, in the warmer weather, that has a very negative effect on that and that type of a virus. So let's see what happens, but I think it's going to work out fine."
As of Monday morning, more than 350 deaths had been attributed to COVID-19 in Arizona, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, with about 68,000 deaths nationwide.
Trump still yearns for those big rallies of the not-so-distant past, musing about the day when he can pack arenas again and not have to have people spaced 6 feet apart. But for now, he's relishing the idea of escaping the confines of the White House. Aside from a trip to the presidential retreat at Camp David last weekend, this will be Trump's first trip away from the White House since March 28, when he sent off the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort in Norfolk, Va. While it's been a little more than a month, Trump has described himself as stuck at the White House "for many months."
In Phoenix, Trump will tour a Honeywell aerospace manufacturing facility that freed up space to start making N95 respirator masks. According to a company spokesman, the first masks rolled off the line on April 30, ahead of schedule. Once up to full capacity, it will make 10 million of the masks per month. The company said it would be adding 500 employees to make the masks. Another Honeywell factory in Rhode Island also started making masks last month. Most of them are headed to the federal government, which is distributing the protective equipment. Mask shortages have been a major concern for health care workers treating patients with the highly contagious coronavirus.
Although there isn't officially a political component to the trip, Arizona is a state Trump won in 2016, but that Democrats expect to be competitive in 2020.
Trump's visit clearly underscores how he isn't taking anything for granted in the state in 2020. His goal is to remind voters how the Arizona economy was booming before the pandemic.
"Arizona is a state where President Trump's campaign will be aggressive, where we have had a presence since 2015," said Erin Perrine, principal deputy communications director for the reelection campaign. "We will reach voters where ever they are — sharing the message that only President Trump can bring back the booming Trump economy and highlighting his strong leadership during the coronavirus."
For several election cycles, Democrats have been eyeing Arizona as a state they might put in the presidential win column. Analysts say Democrats challenge will will be to win in the suburbs and get a solid turnout from Hispanics, even as the pandemic's effect on campaigning and on the actual process of voting is yet to be known. No Democratic nominee had carried the state since Bill Clinton in 1996. In 2016, there was talk of a late play for the state by Hillary Clinton's campaign, but that was seen more as overconfidence than her actually have a real shot at winning there. Then, when the votes were counted, Trump won the presidency, including a victory in Arizona, but his margin in the state was only 3.5%.
Four years earlier, GOP nominee Mitt Romney carried the state over President Obama by more than 9 percentage points. Democrats took Trump winning so narrowly in the state as a sign that maybe the future was closer than people realized. Longtime GOP strategist Chuck Coughlin says Democrats kept the story line going two years later by winning four statewide offices, including an open U.S. Senate seat and secretary of state. Now strategist Coughlin says, "There is a trend line going on, Republicans have had to acknowledge that, and the swing voters have become more important — independents and Republican suburban women." He says those are the keys to a Democratic victory in the state.
An average of recent polls shows former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, leading in head-to-head matchups. Although horse race polling this far out, and especially in the middle of an unprecedented crisis, isn't necessarily predictive, it's one of a few causes for alarm for Republicans.
In 2018, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won an open U.S. Senate seat in Arizona. Another Senate seat is up in 2020, and the latest campaign finance reports show Democratic challenger Mark Kelly with nearly twice as much cash on hand as incumbent Republican Sen. Martha McSally. Kelly has also led in recent polls.
McSally portrays herself as a strong ally of Trump's, even echoing his style of negative campaigning. Here's how she began her remarks when Trump called her up to speak at that big rally in February, "I just want to say I have a message for the liberal hack media in the back," she told the noisy crowd, "Arizona is going to vote in November to keep America great and send President Trump back to the White House.
In April McSally tweeted that she was able to secure ventilators for her state after talking to Trump.
"Huge news for Arizona!" McSally tweeted. "I spoke with @realDonaldTrump on Wednesday afternoon to request additional ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile. Today, POTUS delivers with 100 ventilators headed to AZ. Thank you to President Trump and @VP for hearing our call."
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