President Donald Trump will address a gathering of his most fervent supporters outside Washington on Saturday, as he faces extraordinary new pressure on his administration from the coronavirus outbreak that has left U.S. stock markets badly shaken.
The annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which started Wednesday at a convention center in a Maryland suburb, has featured a drumbeat of pro-Trump speakers casting the election as a referendum on socialism (Democrats) versus capitalism (Trump).
Yet the event comes at a perilous time for the president. The spread of the coronavirus sent U.S. stocks to their worst week since the financial crisis more than a decade ago. The World Health Organization raised its global risk level for the virus and White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told the conference that some schools might close.
The threat posed by the virus didn’t dampen a festive mood at the event. Red “Make a Great America” hats were ubiquitous as were T-shirts and other merchandise featuring the president’s likeness and name. One man displayed a Trump statue made of nails.
The event even included a skit titled “FBI Lovebirds” that was based on text messages critical of Trump between former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Peter Strzok and former agency lawyer Lisa Page. The messages between the pair — “lovers” as Trump calls them — came amid the 2016 campaign and have become a focal point for the president and his supporters who say the FBI unfairly investigated allegations of ties between his campaign and Russia.
The gathering has included an audience of Republican elected officials, activists and Trump supporters like Bill Secunda, a 59-year-old sculptor from Butler, Pennsylvania. Secunda spent three months building the 300-pound statue of Trump out of nails.
“Watching President Trump operate I just wanted to kind of pay tribute to him,” Secunda said. “I do think he’s America’s super hero and he’s tough as nails. When I heard that one day, someone mentioned that he was tough as nails, I thought I got to build that piece now, so here it stands.”
Ray McCartney, 50, an air traffic controller from Grafton, West Virginia, said keeping the country on the same trajectory and re-electing Trump is the most pressing issue for him as he attended the conference for the first time.
McCartney said he voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but was disappointed by his presidency. He said he grew disillusioned with politics until Trump’s first campaign.
“It’s his election to lose,” McCartney said of Trump, adding that Democrats don’t have a strong candidate. “Bernie Sanders is out of his mind,” McCartney said. “Even if he does become president, Congress isn’t going to work with him.”
Top administration officials have appeared at the event, alternatively warning about socialism and pledging to keep the U.S. safe from the coronavirus.
“I promise you we will continue to bring the full resources of the federal government to bear to protect the American people,” Vice President Mike Pence told the gathering. Earlier in the week, Trump chose Pence to lead the government’s coronavirus task force.
But others took a more concerned tone.
“Are you going to see some schools shut down? Probably,” Mulvaney said. “Maybe see impacts on public transportation? Sure, but we do this. We know how to handle this.”
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