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Amid virus fears, President Trump moves away from rallies — for now

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 12: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to journalists while hosting Prime Minister of Ireland Leo Varadkar in the Oval Office at the White House March 12, 2020 in Washington, DC. Taoiseach Varadkar is in Washington for the annual celebration of St. Patrick's Day and to participate in the traditional Shamrock Bowl presentation. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — President Donald Trump said Thursday that he is temporarily halting his trademark rallies — as his campaign bows to the coronavirus outbreak that is rapidly reshaping the nation’s political landscape.

The rallies have long been President Trump’s most potent political weapon: They energize the candidate, give him a powerful platform from which to attack his adversaries and allow his team to collect a treasure trove of voter data.

But the spread of the virus, which has closed schools and shuttered professional sports leagues, has also touched the 2020 presidential campaign. The two leading Democratic contenders, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, canceled their scheduled rallies earlier this week.

The president’s reelection team reluctantly followed suit, with President Trump saying Thursday that multiple events that were in the works are being postponed.

“We had about three of them in Nevada, actually. And we had four or five of them of them that we were thinking about,” President Trump said at the White House.

The president’s campaign has suspended all rallies, events and fundraisers for at least the next week, according to officials. President Trump was slated to fly west on Thursday night for events in Nevada and Colorado, a trip that was canceled after his Oval Office address to the nation on Wednesday night about the severity of the coronavirus outbreak.

Campaign officials conferred Thursday to work out a plan for how to proceed while the virus makes traditional campaigning ill-advised, especially considering the higher risk it presents to older voters, many of whom support the president. Options under consideration include virtual town halls and conference calls for supporters.

The tentative Western itinerary included a rally and fundraisers in each state — including one in Colorado benefiting Republican Sen. Cory Gardner — as well as a previously announced stop at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual conference in Las Vegas, hosted by GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson.

President Trump said in the Oval Office on Thursday that he would hold the Gardner event “here,” which would have been a violation of the Hatch Act preventing political activity at the White House. A White House spokesman said later the president was not referring to a fundraiser but rather a roundtable on the Land and Water Conservation Fund, an official government event that had not previously been announced.

President Trump refused to rule out a rapid return to rallies, even though the government’s own health experts have advised against large gatherings of people. Events with comparable-sized crowds, like NBA and NHL games, have been postponed indefinitely.

The campaign had previously been eyeing, but had not yet announced, a rally in Tampa, Florida, on March 25. President Trump said he would be “making a decision at the appropriate time” on whether to hold that one, adding that he would “probably not do it because people would say that it’s better not to do. You know, we need a little separation until such time as this goes away. It’s going to go away.”

“I’m not going to do it if I think it’s going to be negative at all,” the president said. “I don’t want people dying.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

President Trump claimed that more than 100,000 people had requested tickets for the Tampa rally, an impossibility since the campaign had not yet announced the event or made tickets available. A campaign spokesman declined to comment.

The campaign also canceled a “Catholics for Trump” coalition event, which President Trump planned to attend, that had been scheduled for Milwaukee next week. Vice President Mike Pence also planned to stop all campaign activity for two weeks, a White House official said. The campaign’s social media and text accounts sent out notes to supporters praising the president’s “aggressive and comprehensive” effort to stop the virus spread.

Increasingly focused on his campaign, President Trump had pushed aides up until this week to continue scheduling huge rallies. He had hoped to use them to blunt the momentum of his likely general election foe, Biden, who offers himself as someone better positioned to respond to the coronavirus.

Standing in front of a backdrop meant to look presidential, Biden delivered a speech about the virus on Thursday and announced a virtual town hall with Illinois voters the following day.

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