President Trump is so far earning favorable reviews from Americans for his handling of the coronavirus outbreak – but that isn’t stopping some of his political opponents from trying to sow doubts, according to CBS News political correspondent Ed O’Keefe.
A series of television commercials began appearing Wednesday on cable and broadcast television and on some social media platforms as part of ongoing multimillion-dollar ad campaigns to attack the president and buoy the eventual Democratic nominee.
The attempt to discredit the president’s handling of the crisis comes as a CBS News poll released on Tuesday finds that 53% of Americans think the president is doing a “good job” of handling the pandemic, compared to 47% who think he’s doing a “bad job.” The poll also finds that 54% of respondents are optimistic about the administration’s ability to handle the outbreak.
Unite the Country PAC, a group spending money to bolster Joe Biden’s chances, is out today with a new message that directly questions Mr. Trump’s handling of the crisis.
“Crisis Comes” opens with images of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Barack Obama flash on-screen as an announcer says, “Donald Trump didn’t create the coronavirus, but he is the one who called ‘hoax.’ Who eliminated the pandemic response team. And who let the virus spread unchecked across America. Crisis comes to every president. This one failed.”
The group is spending roughly $1 million initially to air the ad nationwide on cable news channels and on some broadcast television news programs, according to Steve Schale, executive director of Unite the Country PAC.
“The reality is that we are in this mess because he didn’t take the crisis seriously at a time when he needed to,” Schale tells CBS News. “This election in November is going to be defined probably largely by how the U.S. responded to the health crisis and how we get out of it economically. It’s an important conversation to have.”
Priorities USA, a major Democratic super PAC vowing to spend at least $150 million to back Biden, also launched an initial $6 million push this week to raise similar concerns.
Priorities blames Mr. Trump’s “disastrous response to the rapidly worsening coronavirus pandemic” and seeks to “contrast Trump’s chaotic, unstable behavior with the honest, steady leadership that Vice President Joe Biden would bring to the job.”
One of the ads the group is placing in rotation, “Exponential Threat,” uses the president’s past words about the virus’s spread against him – juxtaposing words like “We have it totally under control” on-screen alongside a growing chart tracing the number of coronavirus cases across the country.
The ad ends with these words onscreen: “American Needs a Leader We Can Trust.”
Similar ads from other groups are expected in the coming weeks.
The Trump campaign is calling on TV stations not to run one of the ads because it inaccurately portrays the president as having called the virus “a hoax.” Instead, he has clarified that he was referring to how some Democrats characterized his response to the crisis.
FROM THE CANDIDATES
From his basement makeshift broadcast studio, Joe Biden on a virtual press conference today said he was “chomping at the bit” and said he wishes he was still in the Senate so he could be making an “impact” on the COVID-19 response legislative packages. When asked about a new Gallup poll showing the president’s approval had ticked up five points to 49%, Biden brushed off the news, CBS News campaign reporter Bo Erickson reports. “I don’t care whether the president’s numbers are going up or down,” Biden said when asked about the bump and later added, “I hope that he is so strong that he is way above [current approval] because we need the help now.”
The other bit of news was Biden’s dismissing the idea that there should be another debate with Bernie Sanders in April, an idea raised by Sanders’ campaign. “My focus is dealing on this crisis right now – I think we have had enough debates,” Biden said, “We should get on with this.” While campaigning during “social distancing” has presented challenges, it has also allowed the mostly traditional campaign to shake things up.
Later Wednesday, the teetotaling Biden is inviting “young Americans” to grab their favorite beers, wines or alternatives and join a “virtual happy hour,” according to the invite, an effort to reach out to a voting bloc he has struggled to attract.
ISSUES THAT MATTER
STUDENT LOAN DEBT
A tax incentive for businesses that could bring some relief to more than 44 million Americans saddled with student debt has been included in the $2 trillion stimulus bill the Senate is expected to vote on Wednesday. The provision was originally part of a bill reported on by CBS News political correspondent Ed O’Keefe in May 2019. It appears in the stimulus bill in Section 2206 and gives employers the ability to help employees pay off their student loans without being taxed, whether the payments are “paid to the employer or to a lender, of principal or interest on any qualified education loan…incurred by the employee for education of the employee.” Currently, a company can contribute up to $5,250 tax-free each year for tuition assistance, helping workers who are attending classes while on the job. But no such tax break is in the IRS code to help workers who are paying off student loans on degrees they’ve already earned.
Senators John Thune and Mark Warner introduced the bipartisan original bill to allow companies the tax credit. The measure already had the support of companies like Starbucks, Verizon and Hewlett Packard, and first daughter Ivanka Trump also liked the plan. Dozens of senators and over 140 House members backed the bill, but because it’s so difficult getting bipartisan legislation passed in this partisan climate, the bill was a little stuck — until the widespread economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus opened a window for it. That the measure offers fast help to both Americans struggling with their bills and companies that are trying to stay afloat likely made it an easy sell for inclusion in the stimulus. One thing worth noting here — this is a temporary program. It would have to be renewed after January 1, 2021 to provide more lasting relief. It is likely to become part of the massive tax extenders package that is usually passed at the end of the year and fattened with all sorts of special-interest tax breaks. Supporters say they hope to make the program permanent and will fight to do so in the coming year.
Wisconsin’s online voter registration is now back online, after a federal court ordered the state to extend its registration deadline to March 30 ahead of the April 7 primary, reports CBS News campaign reporter Adam Brewster. Republican state legislative leaders today indicated they want to move forward with the election as planned in April, citing local elections that are also taking place that day for terms that are about to expire.
On Tuesday, Green Bay filed a lawsuit in federal court to delay the election, cancel in-person voting and move it to voting by mail. So far, more than 626,000 absentee ballot applications have been received by the state. In the lawsuit, Green Bay asked for the registration deadline to be pushed to May 1 and to allow local clerks to count returned mail ballots until June 2. According to the lawsuit, Green Bay was facing a backlog of more than 4,000 absentee ballot requests on Friday, and only 54 of the city’s 278 poll workers have agreed to work the April 7 election.
GETTING OUT THE VOTE
The third stimulus package the Senate agreed to early Wednesday morning includes $400 million in election funding to help states expand access to the polls, reports CBS News political unit associate producer Eleanor Watson. The Brennan Center for Justice said the funding is insufficient and estimates it could cost $982 million to $1.4 billion to ensure voting by mail is available to all voters. That includes costs for postage, ballot printing, securing drop boxes for ballots and improving absentee ballot processing. Democratic senators led by Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden introduced a bill last week aimed at expanding no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail to all states, extend early-in-person voting, and reimburse states for additional costs in administering the elections.
Klobuchar and Wyden released a statement Wednesday calling the new funding “a step in the right direction” but added “we must enact election reforms across the country as well as secure more resources to guarantee safe and secure elections.”
The announcement of the new funding comes as states are grappling with how to hold elections during the coronavirus outbreak. Already eight states and Puerto Rico have postponed their primaries, and all three states still holding contests on April 4 have switched to vote-by-mail only. In an open letter to Congress released on Wednesday, the chairs of the National Association of Secretaries of State encouraged Congress to aid the U.S. Postal Service since it is necessary for sending and receiving mail ballots from absentee, military, and overseas voters.
IN THE SENATE
Candidates for down-ballot races are turning to new ways to campaign because of the coronavirus outbreak. On Wednesday, veteran Amy McGrath launched a new initiative called “Commonwealth, Common Health” to establish a Food Bank Relief Fund, reports CBS News political unit associate producer Eleanor Watson. McGrath is running in the Democratic primary to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.
McGrath introduced the initiative in an ad called “Cooped Up” in which she speaks over the noise her children are making in the background as they’re playing at home with her husband. In the ad she says, “Like many of you, I’m cooped up at home with Eric and our kids. But we know we’re fortunate. Because of the coronavirus, we’ve decided to focus our campaign on helping families and seniors throughout Kentucky.” The initiative will match volunteers with Kentuckians who need assistance and will be operated by the Blue Grass Community foundation.
More states are asking the White House to make major disaster declarations to help them battle the coronavirus. CBS News political unit broadcast associate Aaron Navarro reports the federal government has officially approved requests from five states as of Wednesday afternoon: California, New York, Iowa, Washington and Louisiana. Governor Mike Parson of Missouri also made a request for a declaration Wednesday, and Governor Greg Abbott of Texas Tweeted that his state has also been approved for the declaration.
The declarations help free up funds for states to use for needed resources, and in the case of Louisiana, reimbursing workers at the frontline of the pandemic. “All these laws are designed to allow the government to bring all available resources to the aid of states,” CBS News legal analyst Jonathan Turley said. “We have a different model from a lot of countries and it’s a very good model because it uses the federal government to coordinate, rather than control state efforts.”
In addition to looking to the federal government for assistance, Navarro counts 20 states that have taken their own measures with official “Stay-At-Home” orders. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Idaho Governor Brad Little both declared stay-at-home orders on Wednesday, and North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, who has not yet issued a statewide order, hinted that further restrictions could be on the way.
JUST FOR FUN
TURN IT UP
If you haven’t been to Club Quarantine, you’re missing out. DJ D-Nice, the Bronx-raised spinmaster who has gone viral with his Instagram Live dance sets, is getting into the mix with Michelle Obama’s non-profit, When We All Vote. D-Nice, whose real name is Derrick Jones, brings his beats to the group’s #CouchParty Wednesday. The virtual voter registration drive aims to reach at least 50,000 eligible voters through a texting campaign, reports CBS News correspondent Nikole Killion.
“These past few days, I’ve realized even while we practice social distancing to keep ourselves, neighbors, and communities safe, we can still use this opportunity to connect and for good,” Jones said in a post. Obama serves as a co-chair for the nonpartisan organization. “We thought if we partner with him and make this one big party, we’ll be able to touch a host of people that we might not have been able to reach,” said When We All Vote communications director Stephanie Young, who added that Mrs. Obama is “super-duper excited” about the initiative.
The former First Lady is one of thousands of virtual guests, along with Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who has dropped by Jones’ jam sessions. “The moment that she popped in, I just froze,” Jones told CBS This Morning. “It’s not like I haven’t DJ’d for her before, [but] I froze up. I didn’t know what to play! The music faded, I was like, ‘Oh, I know what she loves, she loves Beyoncé. Let’s play that.’ It was awesome.”