Trump Is on a Collision Course

Lindsey Graham is among the president’s allies who don’t want him to quickly reopen the country. He says the president should “err on the side of human life.”

Senator Lindsey Graham called President Donald Trump this morning to confer about the massive stimulus bill nearing passage on Capitol Hill. But when Trump said that Democrats had “overplayed their hand,” Graham offered some advice.

“Don’t you do the same thing,” he told his occasional golfing buddy.

Graham worries that the president will move too hastily to try to reboot the virus-stricken economy—loosening social-isolation measures and thereby triggering more disease and death. “He has a predisposition that the cure is worse than the disease,” Graham told me. Should Trump repudiate public-health experts’ advice and take steps that cause infections to spike, he would “own” the fallout, he said. “Any increase in the mortality rate would be a huge problem for him. The biggest political risk any president takes is deviating from sound advice. The economy can recover. Once a person is dead, that’s it.”

Trump’s reflex is to salvage economic gains that, until a month ago, were the basis of his reelection argument. “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” on April 12, the president said at a Fox News town hall today. But on this front, Graham told me, he needs to show restraint—to make a “data-driven decision, but err on the side of human life.”

In the coming days, Trump is heading toward a collision—and not just with the medical community and state and local officials worried that aggressive moves to limit the virus’s spread might all be undone.

He could also antagonize some of his strongest Republican allies, such as Graham, who are already sending him warnings. “There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what’s necessary to stop the virus,” Representative Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, tweeted today. She was responding to public comments made by Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s former head of the Food and Drug Administration, who had warned that the economy can’t function amid “uncontrolled” spread of COVID-19 in large cities. Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who is also close to Trump, cited Gottlieb’s comments too, adding that the United States has to stop the coronavirus’s spread in order “to get the economy back on its feet.”

Advice is flooding into the White House from all directions—economists and medical professionals, struggling businesspeople and governors. A debate over how the federal government should proceed is still unfolding, but Trump’s predilection seems clear: He wants people back to work. “We all realize we have to get moving again,” said a senior White House official who, like others I talked with for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Just days ago at the White House, the voice of public-health experts seemed ascendant. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has advised six different presidents, told me that Trump has never overruled a recommendation he’s made. But there’s no guarantee that Fauci’s influence endures. One person close to Trump told me the president was never entirely comfortable with the broad-based stay-at-home recommendations that touched off the economic tailspin. Trump has always solicited advice widely, and economic conservatives have delivered a contrarian message to what the president is hearing from the medical community.

Stephen Moore, a former Trump-campaign adviser whom the president last year considered for a seat on the Federal Reserve Board, told me he has spoken with White House officials about what he called the “cascading” economic costs of keeping much of the nation sequestered at home. “The public-health people, their view is that any cost is worth bearing. But even from a public-health standpoint, what about putting 35 million people out of their jobs?” Moore said. “It will cause death, more suicides, more drug overdoses, and depression and heart attacks.”

Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic adviser, was asked about the trade-off between an economic rebound and public health in a gaggle with reporters today. “I think that public health includes economic health,” Kudlow said. “That’s the key point: It’s not either/or.”

When I asked Graham about the advice coming from economic conservatives, he said, “They don’t have to stand for elections.” His hope is that the approximately $2 trillion economic-stimulus package Congress is weighing could lessen the urgency of reopening the economy in ways that risk more illness. Emergency aid that keeps businesses afloat and stems layoffs could buy time, keeping people home and preventing the disease from spreading.

Graham, who represents South Carolina, has played a role in getting the bill passed. He told me he got a phone call this morning from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who told him that a tweet from Trump signaling that the negotiations need to end would be helpful in prodding lawmakers to pass the package. So Graham said he phoned Trump and told him a tweet would “go a long way.” At 8:45 a.m. ET, Trump’s tweet appeared. “Congress must approve the deal, without all the nonsense, today,” he wrote.

Reports this morning that lawmakers are poised to strike a deal gave the markets a jolt. By the time the markets closed, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had climbed by 11 percent. Still, virtually all the gains under Trump have been erased during the month-long sell-off. And unemployment claims have soared; some analysts predict that the country could sink into a depression.

For the past three years, the strong economy was a core reason Trump said voters should reelect him. Should illness spread because he was too eager to reopen the economy, a spike in the Dow may only remind Americans of the human toll.

“If his judgment is seen as having extended the disease—and taking the foot off the throat of the disease—at a time when we’re making progress, then, yeah, it would put him in great jeopardy,” Graham told me. He suggested an alternative message for the campaign: “I’m the guy who got [the economy] humming. I’m the guy who rebuilt it out of the ashes. My goal is to defeat the virus, and I will rebuild this economy. I’ve done it once. I’ll do it again.”