A locked-down, financially squeezed, virus-panicked nation is desperately in need of something else to think about. The Michael Jordan documentary and the NFL schedule release are substituting for real sports debates. And this week’s blessing for the politico-media-industrial complex was the stunning reversal in the case of Michael Flynn. This, at least, is familiar. Everyone can retreat into our normal corners and yell about abuse of power and Russia, Russia, Russia, rather than pretend to be epidemiologists.
To recap: Flynn was Trump’s first national security adviser. A somewhat kooky former Army general fired from an intelligence post by the Obama White House, who went on to become an influence-peddler for the likes of the Turkish government, Flynn was a valuable Trump campaign surrogate. During the presidential transition, he called up Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. The FBI was wiretapping Kislyak, so agents heard Flynn urge Russia not to retaliate against President Barack Obama’s just-announced sanctions for election interference, because the incoming Trump team would review them. It was ominous given that Russia had just helped Trump win, but nothing really prosecutable — aside from an obscure, rarely enforced law called the Logan Act — would bar such contacts. FBI agents interviewed Flynn, who lied about the calls. Then they prosecuted him for lying.
Under pressure, Flynn pleaded guilty, but later withdrew his plea. Given that he didn’t turn on Trump during the Mueller investigation, the president hinted that a pardon was forthcoming. Instead, Attorney General William Barr preempted Trump by dropping the case Thursday.
By Friday morning, Trump was ready to trigger the libs with everyone’s favorite presidential comparison, telling his pals on Fox & Friends: “I learned a lot from Richard Nixon: Don’t fire people.” This rule, like many others, does not apply to James Comey.
In the Flynn case, the selectively leaked impetus to chuck it was a handwritten note from the FBI’s then-counterintelligence director asking: “What’s our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” Flynn says he only pleaded guilty because special counsel Robert Mueller’s team vowed to prosecute Flynn’s son if he didn’t. It’s not a good look for federal law enforcement, which, given its conduct in investigating Trump and Hillary Clinton in recent years, doesn’t have many friends left. On Thursday, Trump called the agents who worked on the Russia case “human scum.”
It’s all a delightful trip back to the time before the virus, when everyone was fighting about the Deep State rather than death tolls, and a sign that Trump’s post-impeachment reckoning continues even amid a pandemic. He indicated Friday that FBI Director Christopher Wray could be dumped for being insufficiently critical of the Russia investigation. Look out for pardons for Trump henchmen Paul Manafort and Roger Stone when the time is right. An investigation by U.S. Attorney John Durham continues to loom, with possible prosecutions against FBI agents for their Russiagate conduct.
The Fox News home page on Friday morning was dominated by all the ins and outs of this story — such as the juicy nugget that Obama knew about the Flynn call at the time — and the “presidential payback” to come from Trump. You had to scroll down to find the grim new unemployment numbers: 14.7 percent, 20 million Americans out of work, numbers that will continue to grow. “It’s fully expected,” Trump said of figures that are the worst since the Great Depression, vowing a quick bounce-back once America reopens for business.
Goaded along by Trump, more than half the states are loosening lockdown restrictions — even though most do not meet the White House’s own reopening criteria of a “downward trajectory” in the number of COVID-19 cases. Not to mention that we remain hopelessly far from the mass testing needed to have a real handle on the problem, and to track cases going forward. And the news of White House staff getting infected shows that no one is truly safe.
As evidenced from his mask-less trip to Arizona last week, and hints that the coronavirus task force will wind down, Trump is as eager to move on from this hellscape as the rest of us. He’ll at least do his best to revive the controversies of his first three years, the perilous questions of government power and overseas entanglements that seem so quaint now.
If it hasn’t already, the meat in your supermarket display cases is about to become even scarcer. Meatpacking plants have been forced to shutter across the country after they became coronavirus breeding grounds for their low-paid, disproportionately immigrant workforce. Mega-grocer Kroger is now limiting customers’ purchases of beef and pork. This is not to the liking of President Donald Trump, a known beef aficionado and one who understands the political implications of a meat shortage.
Last week, Trump issued an executive order under the Defense Production Act declaring meatpacking plants to be critical infrastructure — and giving the Agriculture Department authority to keep them open. “They’re so happy,” Trump said Wednesday after a call with meat executives. “They’re all gung-ho, and we solved their problems.” There was talk of ensuring that health and safety guidelines are followed, but the real reason for all this is simple: lawsuits.
As a herky-jerky reopening of the U.S. commences, with dozens of states relaxing shutdown orders, the legal fallout will be felt for years to come. Who’s to blame if I contract coronavirus? Can I be effectively forced to work in dangerous conditions? How can our legal landscape handle this bizarre pandemic reality?
Before the executive order, meat processor Smithfield Foods already faced a lawsuit for unsafe conditions at a plant in Missouri, alleging that the company provided its employees insufficient protective equipment and didn’t allow for social distancing. But if meatpacking plants now essentially have the blessing of the feds to open, that’s quite the legal shield.
More business owners would love the same protection, as a virus lawsuit payout could kill a struggling restaurant or hair salon. Lobbying is accelerating for the feds to provide new protections. And it will be the biggest fight in the weeks to come in Congress: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with an overblown warning about a “pandemic of lawsuits,” is making legal liability protections a Republican requirement in any future relief package in Congress — as many in both parties agitate for help for state and local governments, and for pandemic-wracked businesses and employees. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, has said liability protections are a no-go, as she would rather protect workers and patients. The dispute will beget some classic partisan finger-pointing about the GOP being in the thrall of business executives, while Democrats only want to cozy up to trial lawyers — crucial sources of campaign donations for the parties.
The mudslinging will be familiar, but the larger questions are unprecedented.
Take the row over unemployment insurance. In states where businesses are opening back up, many immunocompromised employees might worry about returning to the workplace for fear of catching the virus. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, said not showing up for work due to health concerns constitutes a “voluntary quit” and would make an employee ineligible for unemployment benefits. This will likely be the case across much of the country — and the impetus for more lawsuits.
Federal law says companies have a duty to provide a safe workplace, while a patchwork of state statutes will determine what kinds of claims customers might be able to bring. A problem for any potential plaintiffs will be proving where they contracted the virus, no easy task in a global pandemic.
Trump has indicated he would like to do more on liability protections, and advisers like Larry Kudlow are touting them on TV. As a business owner, Trump’s instincts clearly lean that way. But being seen as protecting the bosses over his blue-collar base carries substantial political risk.
One thing we do know in this uncertain time: Lawyers will be busy.
Does Donald Trump want you to inject Lysol into your veins? No. But the fact that we’re even asking the question is a sign of how off the rails we’ve gone. Throughout this crisis, the spitballing president has presented an overly optimistic view, embracing untested remedies — usually with the “consult your doctor” fine print appended — in the hopes that the society-smashing virus can be curtailed. And so we come to Thursday, in which his daily news conference/rally/bull session included a presentation by Bill Bryan, a senior Department of Homeland Security official, about studies showing how bleach, disinfectant and ultraviolet rays can hinder the virus in lab settings. Then Trump stepped to the podium. His riff is worth presenting in full:
“So I asked Bill a question some of you are thinking of if you’re totally into that world, which I find to be very interesting. So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light, and I think you said, that hasn’t been checked, but you’re gonna test it. And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can either do either through the skin or in some other way, and I think you said you’re gonna test that too, sounds interesting. And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute, 1 minute, and is there a way you can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it’d be interesting to check that. So you’re going to have to use medical doctors, but it sounds interesting to me, so we’ll see. But the whole concept of the light, the way it goes in 1 minute, that’s pretty powerful.”
Medically, this is nonsense. It prompted Lysol to issue a statement telling people “under no circumstances” should its products be ingested or injected — not to mention endless posts on social media about Clorox tablets and similar mock products. On Friday the Maryland state government said it had received more than 100 calls about consuming disinfectant as a possible COVID-19 treatment.
Now that his favorite drug hydroxychloroquine looks like a dud, Trump has moved on to new hopes. But as before, there’s enough hemming, hawing and shoulder-shrugging to avoid a full endorsement. Take his exchange with coronavirus task force head Dr. Deborah Birx — whose look of muffled horror about Trump’s initial statement will be long remembered — about the effectiveness of sunlight. “I say maybe you can, maybe you can’t. I’m not a doctor. But I’m a person that has a good [points to his head] you know what. Deborah, have you ever heard of that? The heat and the light relative to certain viruses, yes, but relative to this virus?” Birx jumps in: “Not as a treatment. I mean, certainly fever is a good thing. When you have a fever, it helps your body respond. But I’ve not seen heat or light as a — ” Trump interrupts: “I think that’s a great thing to look at. OK?”
On Friday, after a predictable mass hyperventilation, Trump said he was just being sarcastic and trying to rile up the media. He often does this intentionally to stir up a controversy and distract from something more problematic. Witness last week his executive order on immigration, trumpeted as a giant shutdown, but merely a codification of an existing visa freeze, dotted with loopholes.
The disinfectant riff, though, was something else entirely: Trump seizing on a piece of possible good news and wildly inflating its value like a piece of real estate.
Improvisation and instinct have served Trump well, playing rally crowds and the media for years. But in an actual crisis it makes him look small — eclipsed by Dr. Anthony Fauci or the nation’s governors, for people looking for credible virus-related information. His treasury secretary negotiates a series of economic rescues with Congress topping $3 trillion, with limited presidential involvement. Trump remains visible and omnipresent, but in the way of a commentator more than a decider. And an inconsistent one at that: After he stoked the flames of “liberating” the states, Trump whacked Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp for allowing businesses like beauty parlors and gyms to reopen on Friday.
His ability to appear on all sides of any issue is a remarkable political talent, one Trump is putting to use as he tries to bridge a perilous divide. But even the president seems to be recognizing his limits. By the weekend, he was musing that it might be time to end his daily briefings, highly rated though they may be.
Given the maelstroms these appearances cause, it would likely please Trump’s political advisers to ditch them. Not to mention the nation’s poison control operators.
Donald Trump says a lot of things. A shoo-in for our most communicative commander-in-chief of all time, he gives two-hour pandemic news conferences, Twitter tirades at any time of day and, back when this sort of thing was allowed, rollicking 90-minute rally speeches. Parsing those words can often be a head-scratching experience. The country is alternately thrilled and outraged by at least seven things he says on a daily basis.
And now we are captivated by what he says about when the American economy can “reopen,” despite his lack of power to make that happen. Trump declared on Tuesday that he had “ultimate authority” to send people back to work, which is not how the Constitution works. Time for everyone to freak out and tsk-tsk on TV.
Then on Thursday, he put out a well-reasoned, sober description of how state governments could decide to relax social distancing gradually if their COVID-19 cases come down. It was a plan that clearly deferred to the public health professionals in his ear.
Then he flipped on Fox News to watch a segment on lockdown protests and, well…
Despite the fact that this genre of tweet would have made more sense in 1776 (Paul Revere would have been perfect as the medium), Trump’s zigzag is revealing. The governors are in control here, while the federal government dispenses checks — with Trump’s name on them, natch — and provides some measure of recommendation about what to do. When things go poorly, then, it’s the governors’ fault: Trump also spent Friday hammering them for a lack of testing, ignoring how the feds had failed to ramp up testing capacity for months. Tests, in fact, plateaued this past week, at less than a third of the 500,000 per day that experts say is needed.
Trump’s bark has long been far more powerful than his bite, going back to the Mueller report, when we parsed what he said about firing the special counsel or leaning on the Department of Justice to shut down the Russia investigation. His words never came to fruition, and the probe carried on to its conclusion. At the same time, it’s worth noting that Trump has often followed through on grave threats (the government shutdown, ditching the Paris Agreement and Iran deal). And even action-less statements have real-world impact (“shithole countries,” “very fine people”).
But his words are proving especially limp now. Early in the outbreak, Trump tried to speak coronavirus out of existence and, well, we’ve seen how that worked out. Now he’s tried to reset expectations ahead of the election, whether it’s saying that 100,000 deaths would constitute a “great job” by the U.S. or by positioning himself against the governors imposing lockdowns, as a voice for the American worker itching to get things moving again.
(U.S. deaths from COVID-19, as compared to American losses in modern wars.)
Yes, people are getting restless in places like Michigan, where several thousand turned up at the state capital to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s lockdown order. (As her star has risen as a vice presidential contender for Joe “remember him?” Biden, so too has the partisanship.)
But the remarkable thing, really, is how few people are rebelling. One recent survey found that 92 percent of Americans are practicing social distancing. Yet it’s unclear how much longer this will last, which is why Trump keeps dangling that reopening carrot.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott took the bait, announcing Friday that his state will be one of the country’s first to loosen its lockdown, but gently. Shuttered retailers will be allowed to sell at curbside, for example. While Trump doesn’t have direct power, many red-state governors take their cues from his rhetoric — such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis. He delayed shuttering his state, then allowed beaches to reopen this weekend even as cases are spiking, leading to the trending hashtag: #FloridaMorons. On the other side, many states are forming regional consortiums to act as a group to reopen when the time is right for them — paying no mind to the president.
Any “liberation” must run through state capitals. And unless you think Trump is sending Seal Team Six to East Lansing, it’s best to disregard the rants.
A Milwaukee voter in a face mask, standing in a line stretching well beyond the camera’s eye, had a message for the country this week: “This is ridiculous.”
We don’t yet know the results of Tuesday’s election in Wisconsin (tallies will be released Monday, allowing time for the crush of absentee ballots), but we know it was a fiasco. Even with the National Guard called in to help, so few poll workers agreed to show up that there were only five open in-person polling places in Milwaukee — where usually there are 180.
Why? A partisan knife fight over whether to delay or go to all vote-by-mail. The state Supreme Court (in which the majority of justices lean conservative) had the final word in favor of the status quo, the night before the vote. The headline contest was Joe Biden vs. Bernie Sanders — Sanders dropped out Wednesday — but a state Supreme Court seat was on the line, too.
Things may well look better by November. Certainly President Donald Trump hopes so. But there almost certainly won’t be a vaccine — which is what it’ll take for everyone to feel better about gathering in crowds safely. One solution? Send every voter a ballot in the mail and have them send it back in by election day, signed and witnessed.
Trump says this will mean widespread fraud. “Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters,” said the president who recently voted absentee in Florida. He clarified in a tweet later that it’s OK to vote by mail if you’re in certain demographic groups more likely to support him.
Remember that Trump claims millions of fraudulent votes were cast against him in 2016, but an election fraud commission he created had to disband having unearthed no such evidence.
There are some isolated instances of mail voting fraud, the most famous of which involved a North Carolina congressional race in 2018 that had to be run again because of an illegal ballot harvesting scheme by a GOP operative. An exhaustive review found 491 documented cases involving mail ballot fraud from 2000 to 2012 — when there were 146 million registered voters nationwide. It happens, and there are more mail than in-person fraud cases, but the rate of both is tiny.
The real concern is that Trump and the Republicans believe this will advantage Democrats. But there’s little evidence there, either. Most states that have aggressively expanded vote-by-mail are blue states, but academic studies showed Colorado Republicans benefitted slightly from the shift in 2014 while Utah Democrats saw a small bump in 2016. Overall, turnout increased. “That was a more noticeable effect among low-propensity voters,” the studies’ author, Amelia Showalter, told the New York Times.
Turnout was expected to be up this year before the pandemic and given the off-the-charts fervency of Trump’s backers, he might be calculating that lower turnout is better for him. But his fans skew older, and those people are hit harder by the virus. In these unprecedented times, we have no real clue how this will play out.
(U.S. deaths from COVID-19 — in red — compared to American losses in modern wars.)
But we do know that voting access is going to be an all-out war for the next seven months, with life-or-death stakes added to the usual fierceness. Democrats are eager to mail ballots to every registered voter, with a lot of agitation on the left to make it a precondition to any more economic rescue bills in Congress. That’ll probably get whittled down to more funding for vote-by-mail schemes, but a national mandate seems unlikely given Trump’s rhetoric. (And oh by the way, the U.S. Postal Service is seeking a pandemic related bailout too.)
Instead we’ll see this play out state by state, where innovators will figure out a way to conduct drive-through voting, voting by appointment and perhaps an expansion of mail-ins, but it all will come with partisan brawls in states with divided government. Watch Pennsylvania, a key swing state that restricts who can apply for an absentee ballot.
Hopefully the curve will have plunged decisively by the fall, we don’t see the oft-predicted resurgence, and millions of Americans aren’t terrified of waiting in line and touching a screen or picking up a communal pen to mark their choice for president.
If that doesn’t happen, there’s a good chance that come November, Wisconsin-style ridiculousness will decide the presidency.
On Feb. 29, the Surgeon General of the United States tweeted a broadside accentuated with capital letters: “STOP BUYING MASKS. They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.” His is not a political position. Jerome Adams is an anesthesiologist and former public health commissioner of Indiana. This is the kind of public health expert we should be able to trust in a crisis.
Yet in recent days, the advice has flipped: The government is now saying people should be wearing masks when they go out. Why the switcheroo? Adams tweeted: “We learn more about this disease every day … ” Perhaps he should have put a call into the Asian countries where ordinary citizens have been wearing masks for months. Were public health officials deliberately misleading us in order to make sure that the nation’s woefully limited mask supply went to hospitals and health care workers? Sure seems that way.
America is facing down a pandemic that has upended our way of life with astonishing speed, at a time when our trust in institutions has evaporated. It starts at the top, and President Donald Trump has not exactly garnered the public trust with his whipsawing, finger-pointing response. A Politico/Morning Consult poll last week showed that just 37 percent of people would trust President Trump’s recommendation on when to loosen social distancing restrictions. His lengthy daily press briefings veer from delivering somber news that hundreds of thousands of Americans will die under a good-case scenario to sniping at Democratic governors to bragging about his Facebook presence. But anyone expecting him to change his public persona now is out of their mind.
(U.S. deaths from COVID-19 — in red — compared to America’s losses in modern wars.)
The biggest problem is overpromising and underdelivering. Take his splashy announcement of sending the hospital ship USNS Comfort to New York — with a presidential sendoff from Norfolk, and stirring visuals of the ship sailing up the Hudson River. But the ship is only meant to treat patients who don’t have coronavirus, and had only treated 27 patients as of Saturday. Congress swiftly unleashed a $2 trillion economic rescue, but there are serious delays afoot already in the Trump administration getting small business loans out and cutting checks to people who don’t have direct deposit information on file with the IRS.
Small wonder that interest is soaring in astrology.
Trump has talked up getting ventilators and other medical supplies to key hospitals from the federal stockpile. But on Thursday, his son-in-law Jared Kushner (who’s helping coordinate the coronavirus response on a break from brokering Middle East peace) said that the federal stockpile was “our stockpile” and not meant for states. So naturally, the Department of Health and Human Services changed the description of the federal stockpile on its website to eliminate the part about helping states and localities and emphasize that the Feds are meant as a “short-term stopgap.”
State and local officials are generally receiving higher marks than the president, but their response has been uneven too. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who played down the threat for far too long, urged New Yorkers: “If you love your neighborhood bar, go there now,” shortly before he shut down the city’s bars and restaurants. He also went to the YMCA for his usual morning workout, hours before shutting all of the city’s gyms. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp issued a belated stay-at-home order on Wednesday, saying he’d only found out in the last 24 hours that the virus can be transmitted by people who don’t show symptoms — an issue that’s been well-discussed for weeks.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, on the other end of the spectrum, had police pulling over everyone with a New York license plate and forcibly quarantining them, until she backed off last weekend. The culture wars rage on across the country as state and local officials snipe about whether gun purchases or abortions should be considered essential in these times of crisis.
The military generally gets far higher marks than politicians for public trust, but the Pentagon didn’t act strongly on a Feb. 3 Army memo warning of 80,000-150,000 U.S. deaths from the virus. Then it fired a Navy captain who sounded the alarm about the virus spreading on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier.
Small wonder that interest is soaring in astrology. The stars could be as good a guide as these jokers.
The omnipresent Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health has been the closest thing we have to a national oracle on how to handle this, and he’s done yeoman’s work in appearing everywhere from CNN to Barstool Sports’ Pardon My Take podcast to make sure everyone stays home as much as possible. But Americans are not falling into line, given how the number of cases continues to spike. “I can tell … that not every American is following” social distancing guidelines, Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said on Thursday. “And so this is really a call to action.”
It’s worth pondering whether we’ll come out of this with a different outlook on the world. Whether health workers will (rightly) earn new respect, and if kids will grow up wanting to be epidemiologists.
But it’s hard to imagine the pandemic reversing Americans’ cynicism toward our political class and experts. Masked or not, we’re still looking at them with jaded eyes.
For a president who campaigned on a bleak image of a country under siege, and who invoked the phrase “American carnage” at his inauguration, it’s a remarkable turnabout. But Donald Trump has become the country’s optimist-in-chief amid a generational crisis, hastening to find and promote any shred of sunlight peeking through the coronavirus clouds.
Of course, a president preaching stay-the-course for a second term must make such a pivot. But Trump’s overly sunny public disposition when talking about the pandemic — often at odds with the best medical advice — carries grave risk. From the poor soul who died after ingesting fish tank cleaner (a similar compound to the chloroquine malaria drug Trump has talked up as a coronavirus treatment) to Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (who suggested older Americans like himself should risk their lives to revive the economy), we’re going a little batty as a country right now. Evidently, Trump too is getting tired of being cooped up, missing pleasant rounds of golf and rapturous crowds. May we suggest more Hulu and less cable news?
So he’s got to play cheerleader. But Trump is not doing so in a Ronald Reagan, “morning in America” kind of way but more like a late-night infomercial, hawking cures and trials for unproven drugs. “If any of this worked, this is a game-changer,” he told Fox News host Sean Hannity on Thursday during a meandering 39-minute phone interview. “There’s no risk when it’s already out there in a different form for a different purpose,” he added, which is plainly not true, even as thousands of desperate physicians and patients are trying the drugs in New York.
But what’s really got people panicked is Trump’s insistence on reopening the economy ASAP. After initially tweeting that people could start going back to work as soon as this week, he revised his deadline to April 12, Easter Sunday — with allies saying there could be an American economic resurrection to coincide with Jesus Christ’s. Despite the — it may shock you to learn — overplaying of Trump’s words on cable news, the president as usual offers plenty of wiggle room, painting Easter as an aspiration rather than a deadline and acknowledging that all of this will happen piecemeal for different regions and sectors. A series of punts with a deadline just out of reach might be a ploy to keep people — and the markets — sane. Sure enough, Trump on Sunday extended the government’s social distancing guidance through the end of April.
Twitter will paint this as a binary choice: GDP vs. your life. It’s not. A lockdown of vast chunks of America cannot last long without causing real health and societal problems in and of itself and must be weighed against the health consequences. But the hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of sick that experts say could come from a return to normal life wouldn’t be so swell for the economy either.
Trump knows, too, that he can’t get governors or local officials to end their restrictions. But if he’s the guy standing up for stir-crazy America against blue staters, all the better. And so far, it’s working: Polls show his approval rating ticking up to some of the highest marks of his presidency and Gallup finding that 60 percent of voters approve of his handling of the coronavirus situation.
But the thing about viruses is they don’t stay put for long. Trump can blame China all he wants, or Democratic governors who don’t “appreciate” him enough. But this could well decimate Red America too. The smallish city of Albany, Georgia, is seeing an overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases, as Gov. Brian Kemp has avoided the most draconian statewide measures, though he has closed schools and restaurants. For rural communities that already have worse health outcomes and have seen hospitals shutter, this pandemic is going to be brutal. Though later to the party, the most conservative states are now going into overdrive: Alabama on Friday shuttered “nonessential” businesses.
After an awful recent run, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose about 13 percent last week. Trump naturally took credit for this, telling Hannity, “They know that I am one who wants to get everybody back working.” He also lauded America’s “esprit de corps” in fighting the pandemic. Our president, perhaps reflecting the times we live in, doesn’t do the “shared sacrifice” thing particularly well. He’d rather have his steak and eat it too. For a while yet, it will have to be takeout.
One week into what’s looking like a long, dark spring, everyone’s nerves are getting frayed amid the coronavirus pandemic. For most, it’s from being confined in close quarters with their families. For President Donald Trump, it’s being locked down with the White House press corps.
There was plenty of mutual disdain on display Friday in the press briefing room, particularly when Trump and NBC News’ Peter Alexander sparred over whether the president was giving Americans “false hope” by getting excited about a barely tested treatment for COVID-19, in contrast with more measured words from Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health. This led to Alexander asking: “What do you say to Americans watching right now who are scared?” To which Trump replied, “I say that you are a terrible reporter.”
Trump’s political power has long stemmed from his ability to discredit foes. Typically Democrats loom largest in that calculation, but right now the president needs them more than ever. It starts with governors in America’s most populous states who are on the front lines of fighting the pandemic, and Trump heaped praise on Democrats Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York for their aggressive lockdowns. He also talked up his strong working relationship with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who, along with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, would need to sign off on any package designed to rescue the economy — and Trump’s presidency.
It starts with Trump checks.
In addition to bailouts for the airlines and small businesses whose revenue is vanishing in this unprecedented crisis, Trump and Republicans are surprisingly leading the charge for direct cash payments to families, with Congress weighing a rescue of some $2 trillion. This political turnabout shows the gravity of the situation, even though it may not be enough.
It also represents the contours of what will have to be a radically different reelection message from the president. “Keep America Great” — as Politico pointed out — might have to go in the trash bin, if American greatness is mass unemployment and a negative-24 percent GDP in the second quarter, as Goldman Sachs is predicting.
Instead, with Trump playing up his “wartime president” ethos, we may see a version of President George W. Bush circa 2004: Keep the commander-in-chief in charge for the sake of safety. The weapons are different, as Trump weighs forcing private companies to make ventilators and sending most Americans a check. Instead of overhyped evidence of weapons of mass destruction, we’ve got the government’s bungling of getting coronavirus tests out to the public — and Trump’s early misinformation about the virus’ severity and how “it miraculously goes away.”
So much of all this hangs on where the economy is in seven months, and all of the recent obituaries for the Trump presidency bring to mind the “now he’s doomed” coverage we’ve seen periodically since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017.
For a president who self-quarantines from all blame, that means picking fights with just about anyone else. He’s pointing the finger at China by calling it the “Chinese virus” — and thus launching a 12-round battle in the press about whether that’s racist. And he’s teeing off on any press coverage questioning the alacrity of his response, leading to another round of questions in the press briefing asking Trump and his cohorts about how improper it was for Trump to attack the press, the kind of navel gazing that Americans simply adore.
An irked president sought safety in the hostile room and pointed to a reporter in the back row. Up popped Sean Spicer, the man who once was pummeled daily in that very podium as press secretary, now hosting a show on the conservative outlet Newsmax. The biggest surprise of all? Spicer asked a solid, newsworthy question about senators such as North Carolina Republican Richard Burr dumping stock before the market plunge. At the time, senators were getting briefed in private on the calamity to come and Trump was still spinning a rosy public outlook. Their stock trades now are getting new scrutiny.
The president dodged the question. Like plenty of Americans with cabin fever these days, there is no escape.