STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Trump has faced scant opposition in the Republican primaries, but he is campaigning all the same. As Democrats hold their contested primaries, the president often turns up.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My only problem is I'm trying to figure out who is their weakest candidate. I think they're all weak.
INSKEEP: Tonight the president holds an event in South Carolina which votes tomorrow. Tim Murtaugh is on the line. He is communications director of the President's 2020 reelection effort. Mr. Murtaugh welcome to MORNING EDITION.
TIM MURTAUGH: Thank you very much. Good morning.
INSKEEP: Should the president be campaigning when he's trying to coordinate a coronavirus response among other things?
MURTAUGH: Well, the president is a, has a lot of things that are on his plate and he can do multiple things at once, that's why he's assembled an excellent team led by the vice president that is on top of the coronavirus situation and he frequently is out on the road talking to Americans, whether it's a campaign event or not, he does - is not tied to his desk in the Oval Office so I think there's no question that he, like other presidents before him, can handle multiple tasks at once.
INSKEEP: I would agree. I mean President Obama used to say that he could walk and chew gum at the same time, but at the same time we had Dr. Dennis Carroll, former senior guy from the CDC on the program today. He was asked directly are we ready if this gets worse? - And he said the short answer is no and that we've lost the last two months of preparation.
MURTAUGH: Well, the president has placed VP Mike Pence in charge of the administration's response to the coronavirus and formed a task force and has also asked Congress for an additional $2 1/2 billion in funding to respond and I think the president has also approached this in an unprecedented manner to protect travelers including screenings, early containment strategies and prudent travel restrictions for people who have been to some of these places in the world that are trouble spots so I think the United States is ahead of the curve thanks to this.
INSKEEP: Should a scientist be in charge instead of the vice president?
MURTAUGH: I think you saw the events unfold at the president's event the other night, at the press conference the other night and he had a variety of medical and scientific experts with him there on stage and I think that the response to the coronavirus is well in hand.
INSKEEP: Although, they can't tell us anymore what they think unless it's cleared by the vice president's office as I understand it.
MURTAUGH: That's just an effort to coordinate message. When you're dealing with something like this that naturally has people tuned in and a little bit nervous about what's going on because you see the various news reports, I think it's very important that the government speak with one voice and that's the goal there.
INSKEEP: Now, the president said in that bit of tape that we heard earlier that the Democrats in his view were all weak. He maybe seems to think one Democrat is especially weak, he said he'd like to run against the current Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders, why him?
MURTAUGH: Bernie Sanders is no question the front-runner and he has been the thought leader and the intellectual leader for the Democrats for more than a year now. All of the other Democrats who are running, if you notice what goes on in their debates every time they get together, they're all debating Bernie's issues, and so you know, Bernie is the guy who's talking about the complete government takeover of health care, that means the elimination for 180 million Americans, their employer provided health insurance, and Bernie is the one who is setting the standard.
Now we, we don't know who the president's opponent is going to be and so we're prepared for, for all comers - we think the president beats whoever it is, but they're all going to be running, it doesn't matter who comes out the other side, whoever that candidate is because of the makeup of the Democrat primary electorate and the fact that Bernie Sanders has been dictating the terms of this debate, we know that whether or not Bernie Sanders name is on the ballot, Bernie Sanders issues will be in November.
INSKEEP: Although there are some differences on some of those issues among the Democratic candidates including Medicare for All which he referred to. We should note that South Carolina is an open primary which means Republicans who don't have a contested primary really to vote on, can cross-over and vote in the Democratic primary if they want. Do you want Republicans to cross-over and if so who do you want them to vote for?
MURTAUGH: We're not encouraging that sort of thing when the president has a rally tonight in South Carolina and his goal there is to fire up Republicans, but I'll tell you what, it is a common misconception that when the president has these rallies that he is preaching simply to the base to his core supporters. We see this consistently, rally after rally, about 25% of the people who register for tickets to a President Trump rally, we can identify them as independents or Democrats. The president, the president has a growing base of support and here's another interesting fact, it's very important for people to understand. On the day the president was elected in 2016 on Election Day 2016, his Real Clear Politics approval rating average was 37 1/2...
INSKEEP: Pretty bad...
MURTAUGH: ...37 1/2 and he won. Today, it's 46.4, he is nearly nine points ahead of where he was on the day he was elected and I think that scares Democrats to death.
INSKEEP: One brief question the president wants to run against socialism that's why the references to Bernie Sanders and so forth, but the problem with socialism if you're a free market person is the constant interference in the economy. This is a president who's had trade wars, imposes tariffs, has also subsidized farmers to deal with the consequences of trade wars, isn't that feeling kind of socialist?
MURTAUGH: No, certainly not, it's trying to force the other countries to play on a level playing field and let's take the tariffs for example, farmers who are a very key part of the president's base of support, they know that that battle with China was a fight worth having. Everybody whoever ran for president over the last six or seven decades, promised to get tough on China but no one ever did until Donald Trump came along and so farmers know, their long-term planners, they know that is a battle that was worth having and so absolutely, what the president has tried to do is put America first. We can't compete with these countries if they keep tilting the playing field against us. His aim was to level the playing field and that's how he set about doing it.
INSKEEP: Tim Murtaugh it's been a pleasure talking with you, thank you so much.
MURTAUGH: Thank you. Good morning.
INSKEEP: He is communications director of the president's 2020 reelection campaign.