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STEVE SEBELIUS: Was Trump campaigning or trolling in Nevada?

Is Nevada in play in the 2020 presidential election?

If you judge by President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Nevada, you’d certainly think so.

Trump rallied his supporters at both ends of the state last weekend, defying Gov. Steve Sisolak’s coronavirus restrictions and accusing the Democrat of trying to spike his rallies (and also steal the November election).

It was a tour de force of free media for a president who has shown he’s the master at attracting cameras and reporters who chronicle his every utterance, even when those utterances stretch the facts. It was also a reminder that Democrats shouldn’t underestimate Trump or his team’s strategy to reach the 270 electoral votes he’ll need to win a second term.

But does Trump really think he can win Nevada in 2020 after losing here to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 2.4 percentage points?

His campaign canceled some recent Nevada advertising even as rival Joe Biden is up constantly with ads of his own. And there are certainly more vote-rich states for Trump to concentrate on, including Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

In some ways, the president’s visit to Nevada seemed more like an elaborate political prank aimed at triggering Sisolak and generating a new grievance than an earnest campaign swing.

First, Trump announced two rallies at airport hangars, one at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, one at McCarran International Airport. He and his campaign knew that presidential rallies draw crowds well in excess of the current 50-person limit on gatherings under coronavirus restrictions.

So it was little surprise when the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority told the tenants of the private hangar where the northern rally had been scheduled that the event would violate their lease agreement. (The owners of the hangar at McCarran never even contacted the airport about permission for the rally, so McCarran officials never officially said no to anything.)

Trump took advantage of the cancellation, blaming Sisolak for the denial. When the governor disclaimed all responsibility, Republicans were swift to note that Sisolak closely monitored an Evangelicals for Trump rally last month in Las Vegas, repeatedly pressuring local officials about the event, according to emails obtained by the Review-Journal under the state’s public records law.

“We just feel that Sisolak doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt,” said Keith Schipper, spokesman for Trump’s Nevada effort. “There no reason to trust (him) on this.”

And then Trump went ahead and held his rallies anyway, welcoming thousands of people to the Minden-Tahoe airport in Douglas County and thousands more to the Xtreme Manufacturing facility in Henderson.

When Sisolak denounced the president as callously indifferent to the lives of his supporters, Trump’s people replied in kind: Where was the governor’s opprobrium when Black Lives Matter protesters were swarming the Strip? Why does Sisolak denounce only Republican gatherings?

If Trump’s visit was primarily a political stunt rather than a legitimate attempt to court the Nevada vote — and there’s reason to suspect it was — then give his campaign credit for a well-played weekend.

But on substance, it’s a different story.

Inconsistent though it may be, Sisolak’s criticism of Trump (repeated by the state Democratic Party and even Joe Biden) isn’t misplaced: By holding large rallies, Trump inevitably risks exposing his supporters to the coronavirus. That’s especially true at an indoor rally, without social distancing and scant use of masks.

Asked by the Review-Journal’s Debra Saunders if he was worried about catching COVID-19, Trump replied that he was safely distanced from the crowd. Yes, but what about the crowd?

In fact, the White House’s own guidance at the time of Trump’s visit classified Clark County as a coronavirus red zone, in which social gatherings should be limited to no more than 10 people. That’s also the precise limit that Xtreme Manufacturing advertised as its own internal policy for its facility.

But yes, outdoor protests on the Strip, regardless of motive, also violate the state’s coronavirus restrictions and also court danger with respect to transmission. COVID-19 does not discriminate based on politics.

The president was also wrong in his repeated assertion that Sisolak controls ballots in Nevada and intends to cheat in the upcoming election. In reality, the governor has no role in the election whatsoever, save for declaring the emergency that triggers the provision of the recently passed election reformm measure, Assembly Bill 4. Instead, local county clerks and registrars of voters and their staffs will collect and count ballots, under rules promulgated by the secretary of state’s office.

The only ballot the governor will touch is his own, and we can say with certainty that his will not be a Trump vote.

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0253. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.

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