Politicians and public figures have widely called for unity during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the United States as the virus spreads and puts growing strains on the economy and healthcare system. The 2020 presidential race has been brought virtually to a standstill as primary elections have been delayed, campaigns scale back advertising, and candidates are unable to hold rallies and other large events.
For some groups however, the old political adage, “never let a crisis go to waste,” is as true as ever. Toward the end of March, as the virus was spreading exponentially and sparking widespread stay-at-home orders across the United States, the Democratic-aligned Super PAC Priorities USA launched a $6 million dollar ad campaign attacking President Donald Trump over his early handling of the outbreak.
The ad juxtaposes quotes from Trump — namely, “I don’t take responsibility at all” — against a graph showing the number of positive COVID-19 tests in the U.S. approaching 30,000 from January to March. It began airing in four battleground states, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida, during the last week of March. Priorities USA has since updated the ad to show the graph rising beyond 130,000 cases while Trump boasts that “We’ve done one hell of a job. Nobody’s done the job that we’ve done.”
The same on-screen message concludes both versions of the ad: “America needs a leader we can trust.” While no candidate is named, Priorities USA has declared that it views former Vice President Joe Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee.
The ad buy is just one portion of a $150 million commitment made by Priorities USA to run ads through July in Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona criticizing the president on health care.
In response, Trump’s reelection campaign sent a cease-and-desist letter threatening legal action against broadcasters for running the Priorities USA ad, calling it “patently false, misleading and deceptive.” The campaign cited the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, which found that the clip in question is an example of manipulated media.
Regardless of the veracity of the ad, the Trump campaign is on thin ice in its legal argument, as a defamation suit likely wouldn’t stand on First Amendment grounds. It may still accomplish its goal, however, by scaring smaller broadcasters and media outlets with limited resources into avoiding any risk.
At least two other Democratic Super PACs are taking a similar line of attack criticizing Trump’s coronavirus response. The progressive super PAC Pacronym is in the middle of a $2.5 million digital ad campaign that began in March and will run through the end of April. The ads are running in the same states Priorities is targeting and are appearing on a variety of digital platforms including Facebook, YouTube, and Hulu. Pacronym says it intends to spend more than $5 million on various digital ads by July.
The Democratic super PAC American Bridge started airing an $850,000 digital ad package last month highlighting Trump’s previous comments about the outbreak. The ads, which are running in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, claim Trump has “put American lives at risk.”
On the right, America First, the sanctioned super PAC backing Trump’s reelection, announced last week that it would be spending $10 million over six weeks on an ad campaign targeting Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden in key battleground states. The group did not share any details about the content of the ads other than that they would be “focused” on the former vice president.
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