Joe Biden has had limited success with his live-from-Wilmington, Del., coronavirus briefings. His longtime adviser, Ron Klain, is a different story.
The nation’s former Ebola czar recently cut a video for the Biden campaign making an animated case against Donald Trump’s handling of the contagion — a white board presentation that racked up 4.4 million views on Twitter alone.
Now, the president’s reelection campaign is drawing a bead on Klain.
Over the past week, the president’s allies have trained their fire on him, seeking to undermine his credibility and use Klain’s high-profile role as the face of Biden’s coronavirus response to bolster their own arguments about Biden’s own competence.
“Ron Klain is the puppeteer. To define Gepetto is to define Pinocchio,” said Michael Caputo, a former adviser to Trump, who pointed out the Biden campaign released the Klain video at the same time Biden had gone dark during the presidential campaign.
The attacks on Klain are driven by a sense of urgency. While a new poll shows a majority of Americans approve of Trump’s response to the novel coronavirus, it also reveals that Americans, by a 20-point margin, believe he initially reacted too slowly to the crisis — a central component of Klain’s public critique.
“Not one Trump supporter believes Joe Biden is capable of a coherent thought,” Caputo said. “But Ron Klain is.”
The Biden campaign dismissed the assaults on Biden and Klain as a misinformation operation to deflect from Trump’s record of making false and misleading comments about the novel coronavirus, pointing to a recent survey showing a majority of Americans don’t trust Trump to be honest on the issue.
From left, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci and former White House Ebola Response Coordinator Ron Klain participate in a discussion on Ebola at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, on December 5, 2014. | Alex Wong/Getty Images
Having successfully managed the U.S. response to the Ebola virus in 2014, Klain is viewed as Biden’s most articulate and most trusted surrogate for what has suddenly emerged as the most important issue of the campaign: coronavirus response.
“Perhaps a video with 4.7 million views got their attention,” Klain, totaling up the social media traffic across all platforms for his video, said in an email.
No one is better suited to spearhead Biden’s coronavirus pushback than Klain, who has spent years questioning Trump’s very fitness to manage a pandemic — an issue he raised as early as January 2017, just before he was sworn into office.
In the summer of 2018, Klain warned that Trump presented a “special risk” to contagion prevention efforts as the administration began eliminating the specialized White House pandemic office that Klain helped establish when he left the Obama administration in 2015. Klain has reupped the criticism of the office’s closure but also misleadingly said Trump silenced a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official.
“When the coronavirus hit our country, no one on the National Security Council staff was put in charge,” Klain said in the video. “Instead, Donald Trump sent a message to the bureaucracy — this isn’t a big deal.”
The Trump campaign responded quickly to Klain’s criticisms, dismissing it as “misinformation” while disputing Klain’s characterization of the pandemic office’s fate. The Republican National Committee and conservative media outlets spotlighted Klain’s statements about Trump’s limitations on China travel (he called them too ineffective but said limitations were ultimately good) and his past use of the term “Wuhan Virus,” a description Klain used before scientists adopted the name Covid-19, which is the name of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
When Klain on Thursday blamed rising unemployment claims on Trump’s ineffectiveness in managing the virus response, the RNC labeled it a “disgusting take.” And the Trump campaign noted that Klain has praised “wise steps” made by the president’s health secretary.
Trump himself clashed indirectly with Klain long ago, at the height of the 2014 midterm elections. Back then, Trump was a private citizen and issued a string of 100 tweets trashing the U.S. response to the Ebola virus, calling President Barack Obama a “psycho” and criticizing him for golfing.
“Obama just appointed an Ebola Czar with zero experience in the medical area and zero experience in infectious disease control. A TOTAL JOKE!” Trump tweeted at the time about Klain, who went on to win praise for his performance.
But Trump’s warnings of “mayhem” and “bedlam!” failed to materialize. He abruptly stopped tweeting about it six days after the Nov. 4 midterms, in which Democrats lost the Senate.
Klain went on to set up the pandemic office the next year before he left government in 2015. The summer before, Klain issued an apocalyptic warning that the “single most likely cause of such a nightmare scenario is not any … oft-discussed security threats but an oft-overlooked one: pandemic illness.
Over the years of Trump’s presidency, Klain continued to second-guess his leadership and was one of the early inner-circle voices preparing Biden’s campaign for president. Klain’s imprint is on the campaign’s coronavirus response plan and its messaging.
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Sam Nunberg, a Trump campaign adviser in his 2016 bid, said Republicans want to frame Klain, a former chief of staff to Biden, as Biden’s Svengali and a political opportunist, comparing him to one of Trump’s top advisers who famously coined the term “alternative facts.”
“Ron Klain will be made into Kellyanne Conway by Republicans,” Nunberg said, adding that Klain is an inviting target because of the high stakes of coronavirus.
“Obviously Joe Biden needs as many lucid and clear advisers as possible,” Nunberg said. “And I would credit Klain for being a very aggressive surrogate for Biden.”
Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said the record shows that Trump botched the response. Had he not also “disregarded Joe Biden’s public warning not to take China’s word about containment,” Bates said, “maybe the United States wouldn’t have more coronavirus cases than any country on Earth.”
On Friday night, Biden was asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper about criticism from Trump, who blamed the Obama administration for leaving inadequate guidelines and depleted medical equipment, such as air masks, that were never fully replaced after the 2009 swine flu pandemic.
Biden suggested he was “not a part of” the administration’s decision-making and obliquely mentioned the ignored 2017 pandemic warnings and the playbook the Obama administration left to the incoming Trump White House.
When asked a day before about the depleted stockpile issue, Klain also pointed out that Trump has been president since January 2017, when he and the Obama administration warned about pandemics.
“Trump has been president for three years,” Klain said. “It’s time for him to take responsibility; perhaps if he had not abolished his pandemic preparedness office in 2018, this would have been addressed then.”