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Party conflict erupts after GOP Senate fundraising arm tells candidates not to defend Trump over virus

Party conflict erupts after GOP Senate fundraising arm tells candidates not to defend Trump over virus

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Donald Trump has thoroughly botched the response to the COVID-19 outbreak that it is certain to be his defining legacy. He will go down as the president who failed the American people during a brutal pandemic, as the president who consistently downplayed concerns, dismissed the virus as a Democratic hoax, and who spent his time attacking political rivals when his country needed him to focus and actually do his job.

Unfortunately for the White House, there is no real way for Trump to use his incredibly limited arsenal of political tricks—which consists almost entirely of his penchant for bigoted rhetoric that stirs his base and personal bullying—to explain away his administration’s coronavirus failings and it looks like it’s starting to hurt him politically.

Politico reports that just this month a 57-page memo was sent out by the National Republican Senatorial Committee that directed candidates to temper their public support for the president over COVID-19. “Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel ban — attack China,” it reads.

The memo explicitly suggested that candidates should—if asked directly about Trump’s handling of the pandemic—transition right into slamming China instead of digging in and defending Trump.

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In other words, it appears that the people responsible for keeping Republicans in power believe sticking up for Trump’s coronavirus record is a losing battle that would be better fought by focusing on distractions than what he has actually managed (or failed) to accomplish.

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Not surprisingly, the Trump campaign was deeply displeased. After Politico first reported on the memo, Justin R. Clark, the Senior Counsel for Trump’s reelection campaign, informed the NRSC that candidates who heed the memo would not receive the support of the Trump campaign. Several other campaign officials contacted the NRSC to register similar discontent.

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One line of the memo in particular stuck in the craw of the Trump team because it seemed to admit that the president should have done more to curb the spread of the virus. “I wish that everyone acted earlier – that includes our elected officials, the World Health Organization, and the CDC,” it reads.

Kevin McLaughlin, the NRSC’s executive director, responded to Clark’s threat by claiming that the committee wasn’t actually directing its advised candidates to shy away completely from defending Trump’s virus record. He further claimed that the memo should have been more carefully worded.

“There is no daylight between the NRSC and President Trump. Senate Republicans have worked hand in glove with the Trump administration to ensure a highly effective federal response to Covid-19,” Clark said in a statement.

What this story reveals boils down essentially to two things. One, even Republicans are starting to realize what a liability Trump is going to before the party in November. And two, Trump has such a tightfisted stranglehold on the GOP that even as they come to the realization that some distance between him and other Republican candidates could be advantageous, they’re too afraid to fully advocate that distance. They know he’s sinking them but they’re terrified to unchain themselves from him.

Original reporting by Alex Isenstadt for Politico.

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