(CNN)As President Donald Trump began a packed day of events Friday, he delivered an unusually somber message to seniors — a group he won in 2016 and desperately needs to win back — speaking of the pain and grief inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“My heart breaks for every grieving family that has lost a precious loved one,” Trump said in Fort Myers, Florida, where he also promised the crowd that he would dedicate his life to seniors. “I feel their anguish and I mourn their loss. I feel their pain. I know that the terrible pain that they have gone through, and you lose someone, and it’s nothing to describe what you have to bear. There’s nothing to describe it.”
But it wasn’t long before the President’s surprising shift in tone — one that might have actually helped him win back the many voters he has alienated — was gone, and he had pivoted back to his old tactics at two campaign rallies later in the day.
Nearly two weeks before Election Day, Trump is trailing former Vice President Joe Biden by wide margins in national and key swing state polls. But he undercut his own message again on Friday, showing how unwilling he is to stick to any strategy that would broaden his appeal beyond his own base.
There were more than 68,000 new coronavirus cases in the US on Friday — the highest one-day total since late July. But Trump spent the afternoon pushing the fantasy that the virus is receding. “The light at the end of the tunnel is here,” he told the Fort Myers audience, adding that the US is “rounding the turn,” even though all the evidence says otherwise.
“Don’t listen to the cynics and angry partisans and professional pessimists,” the President said, with no hint of irony about his own angry rhetoric and partisanship. “We are Americans and we will prevail. We are prevailing. We are.”
But instead of outlining a plan to curb the spread of the virus, or his agenda for the next four years — though it’s unclear if he has one — he spent most of his day unspooling debunked conspiracy theories about voter fraud, Democratic spying and the Bidens.
Slipping into the familiar role of aggrieved victim, Trump overlooked the pressing needs of the nation to define the election as a battle against “big tech” and the press, angered by the fact that both reporters and social media companies have called out the disinformation he spreads, as well as that of his allies.
While minimizing the impact of the pandemic, Trump issued slashing, evidence-free attacks on the Biden family, accusing them of corruption.
“The Biden family is a criminal enterprise,” he claimed in Macon, Georgia, where the crowd chanted “Lock him up!” “Frankly it makes Crooked Hillary Clinton look like an amateur,” Trump added.
Throughout the day he referred to Hunter Biden, one of Biden’s sons, as “a vacuum cleaner” to argue that the younger Biden took advantage of his father’s connections. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden. Even Senate Republicans’ probe into the Bidens’ dealings in Ukraine, widely regarded as politically motivated, ended in September without uncovering any evidence that Biden abused his powers or changed US policy because of his son’s business ties.
Trump also gave another wink to his conspiracy-embracing supporters with a shout out to Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, who’s on track to win a US House seat in Georgia and has praised the pro-Trump conspiracy theory known as QAnon. At a town hall on Thursday night, Trump again refused to disavow the dangerous movement under sharp questioning from NBC moderator Savannah Guthrie.
Trump does little to address deficit with female voters
At a time when Trump’s reelection prospects could hinge on whether he can win back middle-of-the-road suburban women and encroach on Biden’s enormous lead among female voters, Trump revived the sexist trope of the hysterical woman to complain about his treatment in the NBC town hall. In echoes of his misogynistic attacks against former Fox News host Megyn Kelly during his last presidential run, he called Guthrie “crazy” after she aggressively questioned him and fact-checked him in real time.
“You watch last night,” the President told his Georgia supporters on Friday, referring to the NBC town hall, “and you see the anger and the hatred. And I’m saying (to Guthrie) ‘Look, let’s just do this thing. Take it easy. Relax.’ … You see that thing where she’s screaming?”
“With Savannah,” Trump continued, “it was like — her face — the anger, the craziness,” he said, making motions with his hands to suggest a cloud of anger exploding around her head. “I mean, the craziness last night.”
“We got very high marks last night, but they thought it was very unfair,” he added, not specifying who “they” was, but accusing ABC News of taking a much softer approach questioning Biden during their policy-focused town hall — even though Trump claimed earlier in the day that he hadn’t bothered to watch Biden’s simultaneous event.
Predicting that there will be a “red wave” on Election Day — in contradiction with all the current polling — Trump dismissed his own problems with “suburban women” at another point during the Georgia rally.
“I heard they like my policies, but they don’t like my personality,” Trump said. “They don’t care about my personality. They want to be safe, and they want to keep their American dream.”
Biden is posting historically strong numbers with female voters, as CNN’s Harry Enten noted in his analysis last week. Biden was up by 25 points among women voters in an average of the last five live interview polls. In the final pre-election polls in 2016, Hillary Clinton had a 13-point edge among likely female voters.
Despite the strong polls, the Biden team still needs a big turnout to win, especially given concerns about a tight election and how people can react as Trump stokes skepticism. The campaign announced Saturday that Sen. Kamala Harris will return to the campaign trail after being temporarily sidelined “out of an abundance of caution” Thursday after her communications director and a flight crew member from her plane tested positive for Covid-19.
She’ll travel on Monday to Florida — where nearly 2.5 million voters have already cast their ballot by mail two days before early voting begins in the state, according to Florida’s Division of Elections statistics.
Some Republicans create distance from Trump
The President’s weakened position as he heads into the final stretch of the campaign is giving prominent members of the GOP greater latitude to express their concerns about the direction that Trump has steered the Republican Party as they look to protect their own ambitions and futures.
During a sharp denunciation of Trump on a call with constituents that leaked this week, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse described the risks to his party in stark terms: “We are staring down the barrel of a blue tsunami,” he said.
One factor in that possible blue tsunami is Democrats’ robust fundraising efforts, and the fact that many Democratic Senate challengers are smashing records as the prospects for the GOP in many down-ballot races look increasingly grim.
And with just weeks to go until November 3, Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon was urging supporters to remain active and engaged, saying in a memo set to be distributed Saturday, “We need to campaign like we’re trailing.”
“We cannot become complacent because the very searing truth is that Donald Trump can still win this race, and every indication we have shows that this thing is going to come down to the wire,” she wrote in the memo obtained by CNN and first reported by The New York Times.
O’Malley Dillon said the campaign is looking to raise another $234 million before Election Day, after the campaign announced it entered October with $432 million cash on hand.
Trump on Friday waved off the concerns, even among his allies, about the fact that his own campaign has fallen far behind Biden in fundraising, with September reports showing that Biden and the Democrats outraised Trump and the Republicans by $135 million.
“I could raise more money, I’d be the world’s greatest fundraiser, but I just don’t want to do it,” Trump said Friday night in Georgia, claiming that donors would expect him to grant favors in return.
In his own “red wave” predictions, he also dismissed the evidence of strong enthusiasm among Democrats in the presidential race, as well as in down-ballot races — despite long lines at the polls in many early voting states and the fact that some 20 million voters have already cast their ballots. He called it “negative enthusiasm,” inspired by Democrats’ dislike of him, and claimed enthusiasm from his own supporters could overpower it.
But after tiptoeing around Trump for three-and-a-half years, some prominent Republicans, including Sasse, have distanced themselves from the President as his support continues to erode nationally.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear recently that he has not visited the White House in many months because he doesn’t think the White House coronavirus protocols are adequate.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who contracted coronavirus and spent seven days in an intensive care unit, bluntly expressed his regrets about not wearing a mask at the White House during debate prep sessions with Trump and at the Rose Garden ceremony where the President nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Christie said he was lulled into a false sense of security because of the supposedly rigorous White House coronavirus testing regimen.
During his phone call with some 17,000 constituents, Sasse said the President “kisses dictators’ butts” and that the United States “now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership.” The Nebraska Republican’s comments were first obtained by The Washington Examiner.
“The way he treats women and spends like a drunken sailor. The ways I criticized President (Barack) Obama for that kind of spending I’ve criticized President Trump for as well,” Sasse said in comments on the call, which were confirmed by CNN with his office. “He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He’s flirted with White supremacists.”
Sasse also said that the President’s “stupid political obsessions” and his tactics are hurting Republicans with women and young people.
“If young people become permanent Democrats because they’ve just been repulsed by the obsessive nature of our politics, or if women who were willing to still vote with the Republican Party in 2016 decide that they need to turn away from this party permanently in the future, the debate is not going to be, you know, ‘Ben Sasse, why were you so mean to Donald Trump?'” Sasse said on the call. “It’s going to be ‘What the heck were any of us thinking that selling a TV-obsessed narcissistic individual to the American people was a good idea?’ It is not a good idea.”
The President dismissed the Nebraska senator as “a liability to the Republican Party” in a series of Saturday morning tweets. But Sasse spokesman James Wegmann hit back in his own, writing, “Ben said the same thing to Nebraskans that he has repeatedly said to the President directly in the Oval Office. Ben is focused on defending the Republican Senate majority, and he’s not going to waste a single minute on tweets.”
Former White House chief of staff, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, who has criticized the President before, has told friends that Trump “is the most flawed person” he’s ever met, according to reporting in a new CNN special scheduled to air Sunday night. “The depths of his dishonesty is just astounding to me,” Kelly has said.
And Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican who has broken with Trump in the past, released a statement on Friday stating that the President’s refusal to denounce “the absurd and dangerous conspiracy theory” QAnon during Thursday night’s town hall “continues an alarming pattern.”
The 2012 GOP presidential nominee said Trump was part of a pattern where politicians and parties “refuse to forcefully and convincingly repudiate groups like Antifa, White supremacists and conspiracy peddlers.”
“Rather than expel the rabid fringes and extremes, they have coddled or adopted them, eagerly trading their principles for the hope of electoral victories,” Romney said. “As the parties rush down a rabbit hole, they may be opening a door to a political movement that could eventually eclipse them both.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Saturday.
CNN’s Betsy Klein, Arlette Saenz and Sarah Westwood contributed to this report.