With just over three months to go until November’s presidential election, Donald Trump is trying a new tactic: humility.
With more and more national opinion polls giving Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, a widening lead over Mr Trump, the president returned to the White House podium last week for his first coronavirus press briefing in nearly three months with a markedly different tone.
Mr Trump, who has repeatedly downplayed the severity of Covid-19, said on Tuesday that the outbreak, which has already killed more than 140,000 Americans, would “get worse before it gets better”, and encouraged people to wear face masks if they were unable to socially distance.
Two days later, the president said Republicans had scrapped plans for a big convention in Jacksonville, Florida, saying the timing was “just not right . . . There is nothing more important in our country than keeping our people safe.”
Mr Trump continued to strike a more reflective note in the days that followed, even saying in one interview that he “too often” regrets his outbursts on Twitter.
Political analysts say the shift is a direct response to the president’s faltering standing in the opinion polls, both nationwide and in key battleground states such as Florida, which has been hit particularly hard by Covid-19.
“A great many people in the White House know what is expected of a president during the most serious pandemic in the last century,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “They would dearly love for the president to provide the kind of leadership that a number of governors of both parties around the nation have provided.”
Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who is close to the Trump campaign, said the White House “wants to make the case that [the president] is leading the charge to combat the coronavirus and save American lives”.
“It is all about being front and centre on the coronavirus,” Mr O’Connell said. “If President Trump continues to make coronavirus briefings as he did this week, where he is succinct, realistic and informative . . . not only will the key voters he needs come home to him . . . but many other voters will be far more receptive to his messages concerning Biden.”
Mr Biden, the former vice-president, leads Mr Trump nationally by a nearly nine-point margin, according to the Real Clear Politics average. A Quinnipiac poll published on Thursday showed Mr Biden up in Florida, a crucial swing state won by 13 of the last 14 presidential election victors, by a sizeable 13 points.
“Right now, this election is Joe Biden’s to lose. Period,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “As the news has become worse and worse, it is much harder for this administration to combat that.”
But top Trump advisers insist the president has a clear path to victory in November. Bill Stepien, an experienced political operative who took the reins of Mr Trump’s re-election campaign earlier this month, told reporters on Friday that polls and “experts” could not be trusted.
“Six months ago, the experts, pundits, people on cable TV, they all thought that Donald J Trump was on a glide path to re-election,” said Mr Stepien, a former senior aide to ex-New Jersey governor Chris Christie. “Today, the same people are saying the same thing about Joe Biden.”
“Neither was, or is, true,” Mr Stepien said. “This will be a knockdown, drag-out fight to the very end.”
The president has struggled in the polls for months, and trailed Mr Biden in a head-to-head matchup since before it became clear that the former vice-president would be his party’s nominee. But Mr Trump’s standing has fallen further in recent weeks, with more Americans objecting to his handling of the public health crisis and economic fallout, as well as the civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd.
Mr Trump promoted Mr Stepien less than two weeks ago, after demoting Brad Parscale following a June re-election rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that had been intended to revitalise his already flagging campaign. Some 6,200 supporters attended, even after Mr Parscale had boasted that more than 1m people had been interested in tickets. Mr Trump won Oklahoma in 2016 by an overwhelming 36 points over Hillary Clinton.
Mr Stepien said on Friday that the Trump campaign had a “quiet confidence” that the president would build on his success in 2016, retaining the states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan and gaining states like Minnesota, Maine, New Hampshire and Nevada, which Mrs Clinton won by a small margin.
He said national polls over-represented large, Democratic-leaning states that would not change the Electoral College outcome, such as New York and California, and undercounted registered Republicans.
He also dismissed suggestions that the president could lose in states such as Texas and Arizona, which have long been Republican strongholds but are now widely seen as within striking distance for Democrats.
“We already know where the votes are. We have already identified the voters, we have already turned them out, we have already talked to them,” Mr Stepien said. “We have just got do it again, and that is a whole lot easier than doing it for the first time.”
But many in Washington remain sceptical that Mr Trump will be able to maintain his new demeanour — and say the president still faces a significant uphill battle if he is going to defeat Mr Biden in November.
Mr Trump has not completely abandoned his unorthodox approach. He told a reporter on Tuesday that he wished Ghislaine Maxwell “well”. The British socialite is currently in federal prison awaiting trial on charges that she helped Jeffrey Epstein sexually abuse underage girls. And he has doubled down on his “law and order” message by sending federal troops into Portland, Oregon, and threatening to do the same in other cities.
“We have spent four years saying that Trump can’t pivot, and in fact, it looks like he can,” said Republican strategist Mr Heye. “We’ll see for how long.”