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How the Trump campaign is trying to dig its way out of Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis

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President Donald Trump has tested positive for the coronavirus. As has former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, former senior White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, and Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, among other officials.

This is bad — for Trump, but also for his efforts to remain in the White House past 2020. The White House’s handling of Trump’s diagnosis has been shambolic, with staffers and household staff left unaware of their own contacts with the disease. Many conservatives, including supporters of the president, have recognized this.

But what is objectively true does not always make political hay — especially with the election mere weeks away, millions of votes already cast, and Trump currently behind former Vice President Joe Biden in the polls in multiple battleground states.

Trump’s allies and supporters in conservative media are hunting desperately for a narrative that will make this clearly, objectively, obviously bad news seem less bad.

They’ve found two main lines of attack: One argues Trump’s diagnosis and what they see as an inevitable rapid recovery will prove once and for all that the COVID-19 pandemic has been massively overblown.

The other argues Trump’s diagnosis will benefit the president politically, no matter his current health status. Perhaps he’ll gain a “sympathy vote,” or maybe he’ll better understand the disease. That’s what one Trump campaign spokesperson said on Fox News on Monday, arguing that Trump now has firsthand experience with the disease (and Joe Biden does not.)

These are not, it should be said, good-faith arguments. These would not be the arguments being made by supporters and allies of President Trump if Joe Biden were diagnosed with Covid-19 (they were certainly not made in 2016 when then-candidate Hillary Clinton was diagnosed with pneumonia). And they are not the arguments of a campaign imbued with self-confidence.

This is the logic of necessity and political expediency. And the question is not whether these arguments are correct, but whether they will prove politically effective.

Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis is very bad news for him and his campaign

The diagnosis is bad for Donald Trump, whose age and general health put him at higher risk for severe Covid-19. Though his medical team at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center attempted to reassure journalists (and the nation) over the weekend that the President was “doing very well,” culminating in his planned discharge Monday night, his physician also disclosed that Trump had needed supplemental oxygen on Friday. And, as my colleague Julia Belluz noted, the drugs the president is taking might indicate the true seriousness of his case.

Trump’s diagnosis is also, very clearly, bad for his reelection campaign. A Covid-19 diagnosis most likely removes the possibility of Trump getting the proverbial band back together to hold big rallies full of throngs of cheering (and largely unmasked) fans in battleground states. In response to Trump’s absence, the campaign has reportedly launched “Operation MAGA,” sending Vice President Pence, Trump’s children, and other surrogates out on the trail. But while Mike Pence is many things, he is not Donald Trump.

More than scrambling Trump’s campaign schedule, though, the Covid-19 diagnosis also upended the president’s entire campaign theory: one in which the pandemic that is still infecting and killing thousands of Americans every day “affects virtually nobody” besides the very elderly, and besides, it’ll be gone soon.

The Trump administration has invested heavily in creating the appearance of normalcy. Rather than increase spending to help out-of-work Americans and struggling businesses (as some populist conservatives have urged), the administration has chosen to push states to reopen. The Republican National Convention barely referenced coronavirus, except to declare the pandemic over.

And again and again, members of the Trump administration and allies of the president have eschewed basic protections — from masks to distancing — including at the very ceremony announcing Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court that may have resulted in multiple infections. (On the issue of handling coronavirus, Joe Biden currently leads, perhaps in part because Joe Biden seems willing to acknowledge the disease in the first place.)

Trump may tweet about how he feels “better than I did 20 years ago!” despite reportedly being on supplemental oxygen mere days earlier. But he — and a host of his closest allies — still contracted Covid-19, and that is still, well, bad.

Unless Covid-19 just isn’t that bad?

Trump and his allies have downplayed every aspect of the epidemic for months. Now they are forced to square that with the fact that the 74-year-old president was hospitalized with a disease he has suggested impacts the weak.

So some supporters of the president and others are arguing that Trump’s diagnosis may be indicative, not of the risks the disease presents to everyday Americans and a reminder to continue following the very health protocols this White House has largely flouted, but of the idea that the Covid-19 pandemic is wholly overblown.

The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway argued on Twitter on Monday that Trump was demonstrating the “fake” narratives of “Big Media” with his purported recovery from Covid-19 — a recovery that, it should be noted, is far from certain.

On Friday, after Trump tweeted about his diagnosis but before his hospitalization, Trump’s coronavirus pandemic adviser Dr. Scott Atlas told Fox News, “It is no surprise that people get the infection, even with precautions. I anticipate a complete and full and rapid recovery back to normal after his necessary confinement period. I anticipate he’ll be back on the road and in full swing.” He added, “He is a very, very healthy guy. And the overwhelming majority of people, even at his age, do fine with this.”

Atlas does not have a background in immunology, and he hasn’t been alone in arguing that perhaps the disease just isn’t that bad — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) made similar arguments.

Much of the response from some of Trump’s biggest political allies has been performative sycophancy, a public show of support for the president intended for an audience of Trump and Trump alone. For example, Rep. Matt Gaetz and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (the latter of whom is in a tough reelection battle against another Republican) both tweeted allusion to Trump’s alleged superhuman strength.

Or maybe Trump getting Covid-19 is good!

But let’s say Covid-19 is indeed bad. What if Trump getting Covid-19 is then, in some way, good, a sign of his bravery and willingness to “walk out there on that battlefield”, or at the very least, politically advantageous? Perhaps he’ll gain valuable sympathy from the public as he grows in understanding of the pandemic that has wracked the country. (Or perhaps not.)

That’s the argument being put forth by at least one Trump campaign spokesperson, Erin Perrine, who told Fox News that Trump now had “first hand experiences” of fighting a disease that Biden took preventative measures against (which Trump and his allies have repeatedly mocked him for).

The Federalist’s Joy Pullmann wrote Monday:

President Trump knew the risks of staying in public, and he chose to face those risks along with the American people he leads, rather than hiding masked in the White House basement. There is something to be said for a leader getting in the trenches with his troops during a war despite the risks to his safety. It could even be called courage.

In a video recorded on Sunday, Trump himself said that through his fight with the disease, “I learned a lot about Covid. I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school.” But on Monday he tweeted a video of himself saying not to be afraid of coronavirus, as “we have the best medical equipment,” (though perhaps the president has access to equipment that might not be available to others), adding:

“I knew there’s danger to it, but I had to do it. I stood out front. I led. Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did. And I know there’s a risk. There’s a danger, but that’s okay. And now I’m better. And maybe I’m immune, I don’t know.”

He later vowed to return to the campaign trail.

But these efforts to shape the narrative on Trump’s brush with Covid-19 are just that. They are not indicative of a deeper truth on the matter, but a fight to find a path forward after the president of the United States contracted a disease he has dismissed for months while thousands of people have died and millions of others have lost their jobs because of his administration’s unwillingness to do more.

Polling indicates that most Americans think that Trump has handled the White House outbreak of Covid-19 poorly, just as they view his handling of the nation’s struggle with the pandemic poorly.

It is hard to make objectively bad news less bad, or perhaps even good. And in the case of Trump and Covid-19, it might be impossible.


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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.


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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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