Trump is lost in “magical thinking,” proclaims one health expert. Trump is “basically in denial,” insists one Democratic governor. Trump is “incapable of grasping that people are dying,” frets one advocate for educators.
But is the problem really that Trump is incapable of learning, or that he’s deceiving himself, or that he’s closed his eyes to reality?
The preponderance of the evidence points to something far worse.
Trump has been widely and repeatedly informed by his own and other experts for many months that his failure to take coronavirus more seriously could have utterly catastrophic consequences, that it could result in widespread suffering and needless deaths.
It isn’t enough to point out that Trump repeatedly ignored that advice. What’s more important is that Trump has repeatedly seen the predicted consequences of those failures come to pass, and is seeing that right now.
Yet Trump still continues not just to downplay the severity of the virus’s continuing toll, but also to actively discourage current efforts to mitigate the spread — by failing to set an example through mask-wearing, for instance — and to urge the very sort of rapid reopening that has already contributed to catastrophic outcomes.
The carnage is mounting once again. Total cases just hit 3 million. They have risen in 37 states over the last two weeks — hitting single-day records in six — and the national rolling average of 50,000 new daily cases is far outpacing June’s.
There’s no doubt that the decision to reopen rapidly in many states — which Trump urged — has played some kind of important role in the current surges. As a former Baltimore health commissioner noted: “The key is we did not have to be here right now.”
Yet Trump has shown zero signs of even trying to grapple with the cause and effect behind these new circumstances. Instead, he continues to lie about them, falsely claiming we have the lowest mortality rate in the world, falsely claiming that “99 percent” of cases are “totally harmless,” and absurdly claiming the virus will “disappear.”
Can this really be described as being in denial?
We know why Trump is doing this
Trump was privately warned in January by his Health and Human Services secretary that a pandemic was coming. He dismissed this as “alarmist,” then largely refused to act for weeks, only to see coronavirus rampage out of control here as a result.
And experts loudly warned in April that a rapid reopening could prove disastrous. Trump urged it anyway, and we’re now learning the experts were right.
We know why Trump did these things. He feared that publicly taking coronavirus too seriously would spook the markets, which he sees as crucial to his reelection. His allies frankly admitted reopenings would fuel the impression of rapid rebound, helping his reelection (or so they thought).
In those cases, Trump made an active choice to prioritize his own perceived political needs over what experts — including his own — recommended as in the best interests of the country. He has now seen them proved right twice.
We’re seeing something similar once again. Trump’s own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that localities minimize crowds at voting places by pursuing “alternative voting methods” amid coronavirus’s new spread.
It is a certainty that Trump will continue falsely claiming that vote-by-mail is subject to massive fraud, to make it politically harder for local officials to scale it up. We know why Trump does this. He has told us himself: He fears vote-by-mail makes it more likely that Republicans will lose the election — meaning that he will lose.
When Trump repeats these lies about vote-by-mail in the wake of the CDC guidance, will we claim Trump is merely “in denial” about the dangers of discouraging such alternative voting options?
Not clueless and hapless. Malevolent.
Once we dispense with the idea that Trump remains “in denial,” we’re left with a few interpretations. The most charitable is that Trump continues to have principled disagreements with experts over these matters, but there are zero indications he has any substantively grounded views on them of any kind.
A far less charitable interpretation is that he’s merely indifferent to the catastrophic consequences that are resulting from these failures — and will continue to do so — and that he’s prioritizing nakedly self-interested political calculations over any such concerns.
Trump has been steadily wrong in these political calculations, to be sure. At each stage, he has believed not acting was in his immediate interests, only to discover the consequences of inaction proved politically worse.
There may have been a species of denial at play in those faulty political calculations — a misguided faith in his magical ability to re-create his political reality through the force of will and tweet. But we can’t pretend any longer that Trump isn’t perfectly aware of what the real-world consequences of his actions — or inactions — will be.
The press critic Jay Rosen has repeatedly suggested that the effort to obscure Trump’s role in this ongoing fiasco is producing one of the biggest propaganda and disinformation campaigns in modern history. Central to getting this right is dispensing with the idea that Trump is a hapless, clueless actor rather than a deliberate and malevolent one.
Don’t be fooled by snapshot polls.
The strangest part of President Trump’s coronavirus response is that it’s almost certainly damaging his chances of re-election.
I realize that may sound surprising, given that his approval rating has been rising. But when you look beyond day-to-day events — which Trump often struggles to do — you see that he is creating the conditions for a miserable summer and fall, with extended virus outbreaks and a deeper recession. The summer and fall, of course, are the crux of the presidential campaign.
Trump’s virus strategy revolves around trying to make the present seem as good as possible, without much concern for the future. He spent almost two months denying that the virus was a serious problem and falsely claiming that the number of cases was falling. He has spent the last two weeks alternately taking aggressive measures and refusing to do so, often against the advice of public-health experts. Some Republican governors, following Trump’s lead, are also rejecting those experts’ pleas: There are beaches open in Florida, restaurants open in Georgia and Missouri and many people out and about in Oklahoma and Texas.
Altogether, the United States seems to have engaged in the least aggressive response of any affected country. Sure enough, it also now has the world’s largest number of confirmed cases. The American caseload was initially following a similar path as the Chinese and Italian caseloads. But the number of American infections is now rising uniquely fast, with 96,000 new cases in the last week — more than twice as many as in any seven-day period in any other country.
This surge doesn’t cause only more short-term deaths and overwhelmed hospitals. It also leads to more cases in later months, by creating a larger group of infected people who can spread the virus to others. As Tom Frieden, a former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told me, “The higher the peak, the longer it lasts.”
And the longer that the country is gripped by the virus, the deeper that the economic downturn will be. Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago professor, refers to this as the first rule of “virus economics”: The only way to resuscitate the economy is to stop the virus. Premature attempts to restart business activity will lead to further outbreaks, which will cause more fear and new shutdowns.
A bipartisan group of business executives, government officials and others, including former Federal Reserve chairs Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen and four former Treasury secretaries, put it this way: “Saving lives and saving the economy are not in conflict right now; we will hasten the return to robust economic activity by taking steps to stem the spread of the virus and save lives.”
This idea isn’t just theoretical. There is now evidence, from places that have enacted a temporary shutdown of almost all non-essential activity. That’s how Wuhan, where the virus began, reduced new cases to nearly zero. It’s how the New York suburb of New Rochelle seems to have contained its outbreak.
Counterintuitively, these shutdowns also help the economy. A fascinating new study, from researchers at the Fed and M.I.T., has analyzed the social-distancing policies that various American cities enacted during the 1918 flu pandemic. Some cities, like Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis and Cleveland, closed schools and banned public gatherings earlier and for longer periods. Others, like San Francisco, Philadelphia and St. Paul, Minn., were less aggressive.
The first group of cities suffered fewer deaths — and also enjoyed higher average employment and manufacturing output, as well as stronger bank balance sheets, in the following year. The title of the paper — by Sergio Correia, Stephan Luck and Emil Verner — says it all: “Pandemics Depress the Economy, Public Health Interventions Do Not.”
The economic costs are still severe. Today, the most effective response would probably be a two-month national shutdown, accompanied by a modestly larger stimulus bill than Congress just passed, both to pay many Americans’ salaries and to bolster the health care system. When the two months were over, healthy people could go back to work, and any new cases could be quickly isolated. That second phase would be similar to the strategy in Singapore and Taiwan.
Had Trump taken this approach in late February, a full month after the first American fell ill, he could have vastly reduced the human and economic toll. Even if he took it now, he could probably get the country functioning close to normally by early summer. Instead, he is talking about normalcy by April — and making it likely that things will still be abnormal in July.
What explains his response? Trump lives in the moment. He is impetuous. He is like a day trader, not a long-term investor. A shutdown sounds miserable to him. He doesn’t have much respect for scientists and their data, but he does pay close attention to his poll numbers. And they’re rising (along with, it’s worth noting, the approval rating of other world leaders). Trump’s approach seems to be working, for now.
I can’t tell you exactly what the future will bring, especially during a crisis unlike any the world has confronted in a century. It’s possible that Trump could somehow luck out and the virus will end up being less gruesome for all of us. But that’s not the likely outcome. And nobody should forget that he is choosing a path that endangers lives and jobs mostly because it feels better to him in the moment.
President Trump, who at one point called the coronavirus pandemic an “invisible enemy” and said it made him a “wartime President,” has in recent days questioned its seriousness, tweeting, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.” Trump has said repeatedly that he wants the country to reopen by Easter, April 12th, contradicting the advice of most health officials. According to the Washington Post, “Conservatives close to Trump and numerous administration officials have been circulating an article by Richard A. Epstein of the Hoover Institution, titled ‘Coronavirus Perspective,’ that plays down the extent of the spread and the threat.”
Epstein, a professor at New York University School of Law, published the article on the Web site of the Hoover Institution, on March 16th. In it, he questioned the World Health Organization’s decision to declare the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, said that “public officials have gone overboard,” and suggested that about five hundred people would die from COVID-19 in the U.S. Epstein later updated his estimate to five thousand, saying that the previous number had been an error. So far, there have been more than two thousand coronavirus-related fatalities in America; epidemiologists’ projections of the total deaths range widely, depending on the success of social distancing and the availability of medical resources, but they tend to be much higher than Epstein’s. (On Sunday, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimated that there could be between a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand deaths in the U.S.) In a follow-up article, published on March 23rd and titled “Coronavirus Overreaction,” Epstein wrote, “Progressives think they can run everyone’s lives through central planning, but the state of the economy suggests otherwise. Looking at the costs, the public commands have led to a crash in the stock market, and may only save a small fraction of the lives that are at risk.”
Epstein has long been one of the most cited legal scholars in the country, and is known for his libertarian-minded reading of the Constitution, which envisions a restrained federal government that respects private property. He has also been known to engage with controversial subjects; last fall, he published an article on the Hoover Institution Web site that argued, “The professional skeptics are right: there is today no compelling evidence of an impending climate emergency.” Last Wednesday, I spoke by phone with Epstein about his views of the coronavirus pandemic. He was initially wary of talking, and asked to record his own version of the call, which I agreed to. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Epstein made a number of comments about viruses that have been strongly disputed by medical professionals. We have included factual corrections alongside those statements.
What did you want to achieve with your pieces?
What did I want to achieve with my pieces? First of all, I am not a politician. What I did is that I looked at the standard model that was put out in the New York Times [in an Op-Ed by Nicholas Kristof and Stuart A. Thompson, published on March 13th], which was backed up by other models in other places, and it occurred to me that I just did not think that the underlying assumptions there were sound. The single most important thing to me was not to get my own estimate of what the number is. The most important thing was to look at that curve, which seemed to suggest that there would be ten million cases a day during a ten-day or so band in the middle of July, and to explain why, in relationship to all other things I know about evolutionary theory, that this just has to be wrong. The better way to have phrased the paper would have been to say that the traditional models, which were used for the last flu season, for the 2009 H1N1 situation, are much better approximations of what is likely to happen than these rather scary kinds of projections.
You wrote last week, “In the United States, if the total death toll increases at about the same rate, the current 67 deaths should translate into about 500 deaths at the end.” We are currently at eight hundred deaths—over eight hundred deaths. [This was true when we spoke; the number is now over two thousand.]
First of all, let me just say I wrote an amendment to that, the thing I regret most in that whole paper. But I was not so much interested in explaining why my number was right. I was interested in explaining why the other projections were wrong.
O.K., but your number was surpassed in about a week, and now we’re already—
I understand that, but the point about that is that, first of all, there was a simple stupid error, which is you would never want to put it in a model that total deaths in the United States relative to the world would be one per cent. So if you just inflated it to five per cent or ten per cent, then all of a sudden you’ve got a number which is either five or ten times as high.
Secondly, suppose I should have been wiser in this and said, as I referred to the flu vaccine and later on to the H1N1 situation, if those are your benchmarks, then the number goes up to say between fifteen thousand and forty thousand deaths, as opposed to the one million-plus that are projected. [The Times model projected, without interventions by governments or citizens, a million deaths in the U.S.; with such interventions, the model showed that number dramatically decreasing.] And, remember, the one million-plus is on a model which is universal and worldwide, and you should expect to see something like that somewhere else. And there’s no evidence whatsoever that any of the situations, even in Italy, is going to approach the kinds of numbers that you had there. And so I am truly sorry about that [five hundred] number. I regard it as the single worst public-relations gaffe I’ve made in my entire life. But the question to ask, Isaac, is not whether I chose the right number but whether I had the right model.
Something else you wrote, in an earlier piece, was, “Why has there been such a dramatic mismatch in the responses to ordinary flu and the coronavirus?” Is that a question you’re still unsure about?
Look, the basic problem is, I think, in effect, that the tendency on the part of many people to treat this particular thing as unique is a mistake. There’s an underlying, standard model that you want to use, and the question is how you stuff it full of parameters. That is, numbers you add into it to make what’s going on. And, so, the situation that you get is you cannot use any exponential system because essentially then everybody is going to be dead, because things just keep doubling, doubling, and doubling.
So you have to develop a model which is going to explain why there’s a fairly rapid increase at the outset, and then why the thing starts to turn flat, ultimately down, and then disappears. That’s the strategy that you have to do. And so the theory here is one that I actually worked with and I thought worked pretty well in the AIDS stuff, which I worked on back in the early nineteen-eighties. And the model goes something like this. You start off with this virus, and there’s a range, some of which are very serious and some of which are less, so it’s a theory of natural selection with a normal distribution set. And, if you’re moving into a new environment like the [Life Care Center] of Kirkland or like the cruise ship, what happens is you have people who are completely unaware of what is going on. And so you take a population like in Kirkland, which is fragile and old, you get somebody in who has a strong version of the virus, and the thing will just absolutely rip through the population and kill everybody in it within a very short period of time. [Daniel Kuritzkes, the chief of the infectious-diseases division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston, said, after being read this passage, “There’s no evidence that there are strong and weak variations of the coronavirus circulating. There may be minor variations person to person or location to location in the actual genetic sequence, but there is no evidence that they have different virulence or that a less virulent version is overtaking a more virulent version.”]
And Washington State had a very high peak early on. And, probably, most of the deaths that we have today, if you went through and chased them down, were either people who are in the facility or people who have family members who hugged and kissed people in the facility. So they got large doses of intense viruses. [Albert Ko, a professor of epidemiology and medicine and the department chair at the Yale School of Public Health, responded, “There is no evidence that you have a higher risk of dying from contact from someone in the facility than if you had contact from some other source.”] But then adaptation starts to set in. And, in my view, adaptation is a co-evolutionary process in which things change, not only in human behavior but also change in genetic viral behavior. So, on the human side, once you see that these things are really going to happen in this particular form, people take steps to avoid contact.
You write, “I fully understand the need for immediate responses to immediate threats, like fires, but not for crises that may last for three months or more.”
Yes. Well, I’m saying in effect, by this particular point—this is not the medical side—is after you start declaring emergencies you have time for reflection and adaptation and modification, which you don’t have in a fire case. So the political point is one which essentially says when you see governors of three major states putting out statements that their experts have said this, that, and the other thing is a result, and you don’t see the studies and you can’t question the assumption, I regard that as a serious breakdown in the political process. So my view on that particular point is I’d like to know which of these studies they’re relying on. If it’s the New York Times studies, then I thought that that study was mistaken for the reasons that I was trying to give you a moment ago, which is that as the virus becomes more apparent, adaptive responses long before government gets involved become clear.
You wrote, “The adaptive responses should reduce the exposures in the high-risk groups, given the tendency for the coronavirus to weaken over time.” What tendency are you talking about, and how do we know it will weaken over time?
Well, what happens is it’s an evolutionary tendency. [“There is absolutely no evidence for that,” Ko told me. According to Kuritzkes, “There is no proof that this is the case. To the extent we see that evolution taking place it is usually over a much vaster timescale.”] So the mechanism is you start with people, some of whom have a very strong version of the virus, and some of whom have a very weak version of the virus. If the strong-version-of-the-virus people are in contact with other people before they die, it will pass on. But, if it turns out that you slow the time of interaction down, either in an individual case or in the aggregate, these people are more likely to die before they could transfer the virus off to everybody else.
On the other hand, those people have the more benign version of the virus that will allow them to live longer, which means that they have the chance to make a connection with somebody else. And so what happens is, if it turns out you think something like the coronavirus is ten times as strong as another virus, what that means is that the distancing is going to be more violent, which means that the evolutionary process should be more rapid than that for the ordinary flu.
But you stated as fact that the coronavirus has a tendency to weaken over time.
Isaac, let me just explain it. This tendency takes time. It could be a week. It could be a month. It could be longer. But, in the end, you should expect something of this particular sort to take place. More importantly, on the other side, where there’s no dispute, it’s clear that people will start to evolve away from these things so that the rate of transmission will start to go down. And, as that starts to happen, whether you have just private or social responses, you’d expect the rate of transmission to go lower. So the question then is, How quickly will this thing peak? And, if you looked at the standard model, it basically postulated a very long buildup and a peak which is about three months away from now. And that just strikes me as being too high and too far relative to everything else that we have.
So, in the United States, if you start looking at yesterday’s figures, it was about two per cent higher than the day before, which is already indicating that the speed-up is slowing down. We’re going to have to see what the next days do. But we’re talking ten thousand cases a day at the current maximum, and the flu was vastly larger in terms of its number and its extent. And my sense is, given the reactions that you’re going to have, this thing will peak earlier and start to decline earlier than the common models start to say, because they don’t seem to build in anything by way of adaptative responses.
You keep talking about your “sense.” I think that’s the word you’re using. But you’re stating as a fact that the virus is going to weaken over time. It seems like we do not know that. We can turn to other viruses and how they’ve—
No, that is not what I said. I said there’s a long-term tendency in these ways. Over time, yes. And is this a hundred-per-cent tendency? No. Is there any known exception to it? No. [“We did not see SARS or Ebola weaken over time,” Kuritzkes said. “It is only appropriate public-health measures or vaccines that have helped to control those epidemics.”] It seems to me that if you do this, what you’re trying to do is to figure out what the probabilities are, and I think the answer is, if you look at all of the cases that we’ve seen, no matter what’s going on, even if you subtract out the coercion that was used in China and in Korea and so forth, you cannot come up with a credible story that those places in Korea would have had, say, a half a million cases a day. Or in China you would have had, say, thirty million cases a day. And so I do think that the tendency to weaken is there, and I’m willing to bet a great deal of money on it, in the sense that I think that this is right. And I think that the standard models that are put forward by the epidemiologists that have no built-in behavioral response to it—
And you’re not an epidemiologist, correct?
No, I’m trained in all of these things. I’ve done a lot of work in these particular areas. And one of the things that is most annoying about this debate is you see all sorts of people putting up expertise on these subjects, but they won’t let anybody question their particular judgment. One of the things you get as a lawyer is a skill of cross-examination. I spent an enormous amount of time over my career teaching medical people about some of this stuff, and their great strengths are procedures and diagnoses in the cases. Their great weakness is understanding general-equilibrium theory.
O.K., so your expertise in the subject I guess comes in part from your work with AIDS, which you just referenced, is that right?
AIDS, and I’ve worked on evolutionary theory for forty years in its relationship to law.
You write, “There are two factors to consider.
- One is the age of the exposed population, and the other is the
- rate of change in the virulence of the virus as the rate of transmission slows, which should continue apace. By way of comparison, the virulent AIDS virus that killed wantonly in the 1980s crested and declined when it gave way to a milder form of virus years later once the condition was recognized and the bath houses were closed down.” [I read this passage to Kuritzkes, who responded, “It’s completely inaccurate. It had nothing to do with the change in the virus. We were able to do it by safe-sex practices and the like, and we saw the explosive growth of H.I.V. during the nineteen-nineties in sub-Saharan Africa and more recently in Eastern Europe. There is nothing about the virus that has become less virulent.”] What milder form of the virus are you talking about?
Look, all it is is it’s a distribution. What you do is you figure out what this toxicity strength is and if it’s X at one point, then it’s going to be some fraction of X down the road. And it’s quite clear that that is what happened with AIDS. And then, when it comes along and you start getting [the antiretroviral drug] AZT and other conditions, it’s easier to treat them because all of a sudden AIDS is evolved in much the same path as syphilis. If you go through the history of syphilis, it starts off, it’s essentially a deadly disease and kills most people. And then those who survive have the milder version of it. And so after a while what happens is it becomes a tamer disease. [Syphilis is a bacterial infection, not a viral infection. “One doesn’t have anything to do with the other,” Kuritzkes said. Ko told me, “That’s not something that is based in empirical evidence, so the fallacy in his argument is the over-all lack of scientific rigor in his analysis.”]
You’re saying that there’s a milder form of the H.I.V. virus than what was around in the eighties and nineties. That’s what you’re saying?
Well, I mean, there’s always been a continuous distribution from severe to less severe. What I’m saying is the probability distribution switches so that the medium becomes a little more mild. And, if it becomes more mild, it kills fewer people. And, after a while, it becomes something that becomes a chronic disease of some sort or another instead of something that’s virulent.
O.K., but you used the phrase a “milder form” of the virus, which I could find no scientific backup for, so I wanted to clarify that point.
Well, I’m just telling you, I’m giving you this as a theory.
Oh, it’s a theory.
No, look, I’m not an empiricist, but, again, let me just be clear to you, because you’re much too skeptical. The evolutionary component has not been taken into account in these models, and so before one is so dismissive, what you really need to do is to get somebody who’s an expert on this stuff to look at the evolutionary theory and explain why a principle of natural selection doesn’t apply here.
What I’m doing here is nothing exotic. I’m taking standard Darwinian economics—standard economic-evolutionary theory out of Darwin—and applying it to this particular case. And, if that’s wrong, somebody should tell me. But what happens is I just get these letters from people saying, “You’re not an expert. The H1 virus differs from this one in the following way.” What I don’t get from anybody is a systematic refutation which looks at the points parameter by parameter.
I guess my point is that shouldn’t you be careful about offering up these theories before they’re printed?
No. It turns out in this particular world if you become quiet about this stuff it never gets heard. And what we’ve had now is very loud talk on one side. I think most of it is incorrect. I’m always willing to debate somebody on the other side who wants to say this is the way the model works. In fact, I have several of my Hoover colleagues who have done exactly that.
Richard, with all due respect, your article is apparently circulating in conservative circles in Washington and the White House.
I didn’t write it as a conservative article. Donald Trump’s name is not mentioned in it.
I grasped that.
I’m not interested in politics.
I know, but we have a responsibility when we put our name on something, no?
I absolutely do. And I told you I’m willing to debate anybody and anywhere at any time on this particular topic, and we’ll see how it comes out. What was the last sentence in that article? Would you care to read it again?
I’ve got it right here, I believe. “Perhaps my analysis is all wrong, even deeply flawed. But the stakes are too high to continue on the current course without reexamining the data and the erroneous models that are predicting doom.” Are the stakes too high to publish articles with basic errors?
This is not a mistake. It’s an open challenge. I’ve spent my entire life as a lawyer taking on established wisdom. My view about it is what you’re asking me to do is, when I think everybody is wrong, to remain silent, and the stakes are too high. So my view is there’s all these experts on the other side. Somebody come up and explain why it is that they think the results are going to be different. Looking at the data thus far, both theories tend to predict a sharp rise at the beginning, mine less sharp than the one that’s coming out.
In the next week or so, we’ll see. I will be, shall we say, much more compromised if we start to see a continuing explosion of deaths going on for two or three weeks. But, if the numbers start to level off, the curves will start to go downward.
I was just asking about—
I’m saying what I think to be the truth. I mean, I just find it incredible—
I know, but these are scientific issues here.
You know nothing about the subject but are so confident that you’re going to say that I’m a crackpot.
That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it? That’s what you’re saying?
I’m not saying anything of the sort.
Admit to it. You’re saying I’m a crackpot.
I’m not saying anything of the—
Well, what am I then? I’m an amateur? You’re the great scholar on this?
No, no. I’m not a great scholar on this.
Tell me what you think about the quality of the work!
O.K. I’m going to tell you. I think the fact that I am not a great scholar on this and I’m able to find these flaws or these holes in what you wrote is a sign that maybe you should’ve thought harder before writing it.
What it shows is that you are a complete intellectual amateur. Period.
O.K. Can I ask you one more question?
You just don’t know anything about anything. You’re a journalist. Would you like to compare your résumé to mine?
No, actually, I would not.
Then good. Then maybe what you want to do is to say, “Gee, I’m not quite sure that this is right. I’m going to check with somebody else.” But, you want to come at me hard, I am going to come back harder at you. And then if I can’t jam my fingers down your throat, then I am not worth it. But you have basically gone over the line. If you want to ask questions, ask questions. I put forward a model. But a little bit of respect.
O.K. Let me ask you this question. All my questions are asked with respect.
That’s not the way I hear it.
O.K. Let me ask you this question. This is an important point, so I want us to come to some sort of resolution on this, because I think it gets to the crux of what you’re saying. You write, “Moreover, it is unlikely that the healthcare system in the United States will be compromised in the same fashion as the Italian healthcare system in the wake of its quick viral spread. The amount of voluntary and forced separation in the United States has gotten very extensive very quickly, which should influence rates of infection sooner rather than later.” Here is what confused me. Are you saying we are overreacting, which seems to be the tone of the rest of the article, or are you saying that the measures we are taking are going to prevent an Italy-like disaster, in which case, why the complaints about the overwhelming response?
Well, I think the answer is all of the above. If what I’m saying is correct, we should not expect to see many replications of what has happened in New York, where in fact the caseload here is actually lower than it was during the height of the flu season last year. [At the time of this interview, Epstein was correct. Now, however, the number of COVID-19 cases surpasses it.] What’s happening is the amount of quarantine that we’re putting in has created strain on the system, because what we do now is we spend much more money per case than we did in the summer, because we have more respirators, more isolation, more special uniforms, more special ambulances, and so forth.
But also on the other side we’re going to see a very strong reaction. The self-quarantine that you’re seeing taking place in New York, where I live, this is hugely voluntary. I have so many friends, not only are they going into quarantine, anybody who has a house in Connecticut or New Jersey, in the suburbs, they go out and they’re spreading this thing out there. It’s like the days in England when people would leave London during the plague and head off to Oxford.
So I think all of these forces are going to take hold fairly quickly. And the Italian situation, well, what’s the problem there? This is a national health-care system, and the way in which national health-care systems ration, since they typically do not devote enough resources and they charge no prices, is they ration by queuing, which is they have people wait. And so the stories that come out of Italy, there was one in the Jerusalem Post, said that they had a consistent policy of not giving a respirator treatment to anybody who got the virus who was over sixty. Well, that’s going to clearly change the mortality rates. [Italy does not have a consistent policy on ventilators but has had to ration their use. New York City officials have warned that they, too, may run out of equipment. On Sunday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “We’re going to need at least several hundred more ventilators very quickly.”]
And, if you start looking at the mortality rates in Italy, ninety per cent or eighty-five per cent of the deaths are from people over seventy, which suggested something like this is going on. [The number appears closer to seventy-five per cent.] In the United States, we don’t have quite the skew, and we have a little bit better supply on things. I think we have a greater ability to ramp up in terms of things. So my guess is you will see real stresses in the short run in the New York area, but that given the time that’s available, I first of all did not think that the runoffs will be as great anywhere else throughout the system. All right? But, on the other hand, I think there’ll be more preparedness. My fear is that there will be overpreparedness if it turns out that the numbers that they’re preparing for are too high. Illinois declared that the state was on lockdown when they had twelve cases. By the way, Bill Gates agrees with me, I’m happy to say.
What does he agree with you on?
He thinks you have to relax the economic, lockdown restrictions. They are too severe.
Just to clarify, this is from a Vox Recode article, “Bill Gates rebuked proposals, floated over the last two days by leaders like Donald Trump, to reopen the global economy despite the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, saying that this approach would be ‘very irresponsible.’ ” Gates said, “There really is no middle ground, and it’s very tough to say to people, ‘Hey, keep going to restaurants, go buy new houses, ignore the pile of bodies over in the corner. We want you to keep spending because maybe there’s a politician who thinks GDP growth is all that counts.’ It’s very irresponsible for someone to suggest we can have the best of both worlds.”
I misread him then. Whatever Mr. Gates said, that’s fine. That strikes me as more populist than I am. The question is we managed to survive all of these things during the periods of flu vaccine. Nobody wants to trivialize death. You’re trying to minimize them. The point that I’m making is, you shut down the economy and put it on lockdown, you’re going to get medical deaths, when people don’t get adequate supervision and care for other kinds of conditions that also kill.
Right. I think the point that Bill Gates and others are making is that if we don’t shut down the economy or large parts of it, we’re going to get the economic devastation anyway down the road, because we’re not going to stop the virus.
That presupposes that the basic model is correct, that they’re relying on it. I think it is wrong. And the whole point of writing that article was to attack that model. Let’s put it this way: if in fact that model is right, it’s not at all clear that shutting down the economy will do any good, because it may well just be so devastating. And, if it’s wrong, it’s absolutely clear that the model is devastating.
The President’s mendacious nightly press briefings on the coronavirus will go down in history for their monumental flimflammery.
During the Vietnam War, the United States had the Five O’Clock Follies, nightly briefings at which American military leaders claimed, citing a variety of bogus statistics, half-truths, and misleading reports from the front, to be winning a war that they were, in fact, losing. Richard Pyle, the Associated Press’s Saigon bureau chief, called the press conferences “the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd,” which, minus the “Southeast Asia” part, is not a bad description of the scene currently playing out each evening in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, in the White House. We now have the Trump Follies, the nightly briefings at which President Trump has lied and bragged, lamented and equivocated, about the global pandemic that poses an existential threat to his Presidency. Just as the Vietnam briefings became a standard by which the erosion of government credibility could be measured then, historians of the future will consult the record of Trump’s mendacious, misleading press conferences as an example of a tragic failure of leadership at such a critical moment. There will be much material for them; the transcripts from just the first three days of this week runs to more than forty thousand words.
Since Trump began making the press conferences a daily ritual a couple of weeks ago—an eternity in the pandemic era—his more memorable lines are already featuring in political attacks against him. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump insisted, two weeks ago. When asked to assess his own performance, he said, “I’d rate it a ten.” This Wednesday, with members of his coronavirus task force joining him onstage, he added, “We’ve done one hell of a job. Nobody has done the job that we’ve done. And it’s lucky that you have this group here right now for this problem or you wouldn’t even have a country left.”
The disconnect between Trumpian reality and actual reality has never been on starker display than in the past few days, as the true face of the horror we are facing in the United States has shown itself, in New York City, with overwhelmed morgues and emergency rooms, a governor pleading for ventilators and face masks from the federal government, and heartbreaking first-person accounts reminiscent of the open letters sent from Italy a few weeks back, which warned Americans: this is what is coming for you—don’t make our mistakes. On Tuesday, the World Health Organization said that the United States was emerging as the “epicenter” of the global pandemic, which makes the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room the emerging epicenter of the failure to respond to it.
A couple of weeks ago, it seemed as if maybe that would not be the case. Although the Trump Administration had faltered and delayed and denied through the initial stages of the virus, when it raged outside our borders, it looked like it might finally get its act together and take this public-health menace seriously, now that it was hitting in force inside the U.S. Trump declared a “national emergency,” stepped up testing, and, on March 16th, agreed to his crisis committee’s plan for a fifteen-day countrywide slowdown, in order to “flatten the curve” of the disease’s trajectory. Barely a week into the fifteen days, however, Trump began signalling an abrupt change of course—at just the moment when the disease was accelerating its deadly progress through a wealthy nation that turned out to be surprisingly ill-prepared for it.
Throughout this long, strange March, Trump has often framed the fight against the pandemic in martial terms: a “battle” to be won, a victory to be achieved, a shared sacrifice against “this invisible enemy” which would go on “until we have defeated the virus.” But the Commander-in-Chief did something extraordinary this week: he rebelled against his own clichés, essentially declaring that he no longer wanted to be at war with the virus after all.
On Sunday, he prefigured this pivot, apparently after watching the Fox News host Steve Hilton complain about the treatment—a shut-down country and a cratered economy—being worse than the disease. “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” Trump tweeted, shortly before midnight. By the Monday-night edition of the Follies, which are usually scheduled for 5 p.m. but often not started until later, Trump was repeating this line over and over again. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” he said. “We’re not going to let the cure be worse than the problem.” Later, he added, “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem,” and also, “We can’t let that happen. . . . We can’t let this continue to go on.” America, he said, would be “open for business” soon.
On Tuesday, which marked a month since a now-infamous tweet in which the President claimed that “the Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” Trump was even more specific. He announced that afternoon, on a Fox News special from the White House lawn, that he wanted to get the country reopened and the church pews “packed” by Easter, on April 12th, at just the time when New York and other states were predicted to face the maximum pressure on their overstretched medical facilities. A few hours later, at the nightly press briefing, he was asked about this seemingly arbitrary timetable by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins.
“Who suggested Easter?” Collins asked. “Who suggested that day?” Trump replied, “I just thought it was a beautiful time. It would be a beautiful time, a beautiful timeline. It’s a great day.” Collins followed up: “So that wasn’t based on any of the data?” “I just think it would be a beautiful timeline,” Trump responded.
This was painfully revealing: the President, under questioning by an independent reporter, was admitting that he wanted to do something with no basis in science. In fact, within minutes, some of the nation’s leading experts on pandemics panned the suggestion as dangerous and ill conceived. By Wednesday, Trump was still talking about an Easter deadline, but only promising a new “recommendation” at that time. “I’m not going to do anything rash or hastily,” he said, which is as close to a reassuring statement from the President as he will ever offer.
On Thursday, Trump appeared before the cameras just before 5:30 p.m., minutes after the Times reported that the United States now had more than eighty-one thousand recorded cases of the coronavirus, surpassing China as the world’s No. 1 country in terms of confirmed infections. When asked about the statistic, Trump acted as though this, too, was some sort of an achievement of his to be praised, saying that the high number was “a tribute to our testing.” Despite the day’s grim news, with his Administration reporting a record-high week of unemployment claims, Trump continued his upbeat tone. The world “is going to end up better than ever,” he said, before reading out all the names of the members of the G-20 world leaders with whom he had spoken that morning, listing the provisions of the two-trillion-dollar emergency-aid package that Congress is finalizing, and even reciting the number of gloves that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent to individual states. Eventually, he got around to his main point, which is that “we’ve gotta go back to work.” Earlier on Thursday, his Administration had sent a letter to governors, saying it would soon issue new guidelines rating U.S. counties by their varied levels of risk for the disease and suggesting that those with lower risk could resume business more quickly. Trump offered no specifics, but touted it as a needed step. “I think it’s going to happen pretty quickly,” he said. He never mentioned the word “Easter.”
After all that, it was hard not to think of Trump’s whole “beautiful timeline” as yet another monumental act of Presidential flimflammery, a distracting week of misdirection to keep us all occupied while those of us who are still working do so from home. Trump’s open-by-Easter pledge may well be as quickly forgotten as his other lies during the coronavirus crisis thus far, such as when he said that the cases would go down to near zero in a few days, that the disease would simply disappear, and that it would never make it to our shores in significant numbers.
These daily Presidential briefings have understandably become controversial among the national media, which is wary of being played by an attention-seeking President. Neither the Times nor the Washington Post are sending reporters to them, citing the health risk. (A journalist who had attended several of the sessions has reportedly contracted the virus; even still, the President refuses to follow the social-distancing dictates that his government is urging others to practice.) Sources at various television networks have said that the networks were considering no longer airing them, although they have so far continued to do so. The Post columnist Margaret Sullivan has argued that the briefings should not be broadcast live anymore, citing the fact that the President was using them as a platform for “self-aggrandizement,” “media-bashing,” and “exaggeration and outright lies.”
Trump will keep doing them, however, because they work. According to the Times, ratings for Trump’s briefings rival those for “hit reality shows and prime-time football.” Trump, whose star turn on NBC’s “The Apprentice” arguably had as much to do with his election to the Presidency as anything else, is obsessed with ratings. His other metrics are good, too, including a Gallup poll showing him with the highest approval rating of his Presidency (forty-nine per cent, versus a forty-five per cent disapproval rating). Even more striking were the results of a CBS/YouGov poll, released this week, in which respondents were asked what sources of information about the coronavirus they found most credible. Democrats rated medical professionals and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention most highly. Trump came in last among this group, at fourteen per cent. But, for Republicans, Trump came in at the top, with ninety per cent saying that they trusted the President’s information about the coronavirus, making him tied for first place with medical professionals. The poll shows that, even when their own lives are literally at stake, a significant subset of the American population no longer believes in almost anything other than the President.
This, in the end, is why Trump’s nightly Follies matter. Even if he cannot reopen the country by Easter, and governors and mayors ignore him, as they surely will. Even if what he says is so contradictory and at times patently false that his own followers could not possibly heed his advice as a practical guide to action.
In the long course of the Vietnam War, which lasted a full decade, some fifty-eight thousand Americans died. With the pandemic, many scientific models publicized in recent days have projected that U.S. deaths could reach far beyond that figure by the time the coronavirus has run its course, depending at least in part on what decisions Trump and other leaders take in the coming months. But this week’s Follies have shown an irresolute leader who does not want to fight the war or even, on many days, admit that it exists. He is a cartoon caricature of a wartime President, not a real one.
A Vietnam draft-dodger, who used a phony foot problem to get out of that war, Trump this week has reminded us that he would like to be a coronavirus draft-dodger, too. But the fight is not a hoax, no matter how often he suggests it is, and the President, like it or not, is already in the fight. On Tuesday, he told the country that he would soon be reopening it, “as we near the end of our historic battle with the invisible enemy.” By the time you read this, though, the battle will not be over, or even really begun. As soon as Trump finished speaking on Thursday, CNN interrupted the briefing to broadcast the news that it had been the deadliest day yet in the pandemic for the United States, with at least two hundred and thirty-seven dead, and hours more to go.
The Coronavirus Task Force will hold its daily briefing at the White House. #FoxBusiness
The president is brazenly grabbing his only clear option to bolster his re-election hopes, portraying himself as a take-charge leader the country can’t afford to lose.
With the economy faltering and the political landscape unsettled as the coronavirus death toll climbs, a stark and unavoidable question now confronts President Trump and his advisers: Can he save his campaign for re-election when so much is suddenly going so wrong?
After three years of Republicans’ championing signs of financial prosperity that were to be Mr. Trump’s chief re-election argument, the president has never needed a new message to voters as he does now, not to mention luck. At this point, the president has one clear option for how to proceed politically, and is hoping that an array of factors will break his way.
The option, which he has brazenly pushed in recent days, is to cast himself as a “wartime president” who looks in charge of a nation under siege while his likely Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., is largely out of sight hunkered down in Delaware. This gambit, however, requires a rewriting of history — Mr. Trump’s muted approach to the virus early on — and it’s far from clear if many voters will accept the idea of him as a wartime leader.
Then there are other variables that he and his allies hope will fall in their favor: that the outbreak of the virus will slow and, in the warmer months, dissipate; that the states will get it under control; that the federal government’s steps taken so far will flatten the curve; that Mr. Biden and the Democrats will look impotent and inconsequential by comparison; and that enough voters will move past his initial efforts to play down the virus’s dangers.
The great unknown, of course — and the tremendous risk to Mr. Trump’s political fate, no matter what he says or does — is that the human cost, the economic toll, and the longevity and course of the pandemic are all X factors that will most likely play out for months and could be strongly salient if not severe by the time of the November general election.
In perhaps the best-case scenario for Mr. Trump, the patina of a “wartime president” could prove to be influential with casual voters who don’t dig into the details of his belated response to the coronavirus, which included dismissing the criticism of his handling of the threat as a Democratic “hoax” and contributing to a slow start in testing for the virus.
“He is counting on people being so traumatized on a day-to-day basis that they will forget his inaction,” said Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University. “It’s better for him to be a wartime commander in chief than someone who, when the big crisis hit, misread it completely.”
Politically, Mr. Brinkley said, the new posture made sense. “He can claim credit for the curve flattening at some point,” he said, “and hope people will be afraid to push a leader out of office if the crisis pushes into the fall.”
The president’s course correction showed some quick results that were seized on by his political advisers. An ABC News poll released last week showed that 55 percent of Americans approved of Mr. Trump’s response to the pandemic, up from 43 percent the week before.
Rarely have incumbent presidents seen their arguments for re-election evaporate so quickly. Mr. Trump and his advisers had planned to argue that the strong economy warranted a second term and that supporters and detractors alike wanted their 401(k)’s in the Trump-era stock market; that has now become an impossible sell. And as the administration negotiates an enormous bailout package with Congress for multiple industries, his strategy of caricaturing Democrats as “socialists” is not tenable either.
So Mr. Trump is trying to mount a new version of his old argument: that “I alone can fix it,” as he said at the 2016 Republican convention about the nation’s problems. He is counting on enough voters believing they have to stick by a leader in the midst of an immense global crisis.
Addressing fearful Americans, Mr. Trump said on Sunday evening: “You have a leader that will always fight for you and I will not stop until we win. This is going to be a victory.” He added at another point, “No American is alone as long as we’re united.”
But shortly after reading his new script on Sunday night, Mr. Trump mocked Senator Mitt Romney of Utah for self-quarantining. “Romney’s in isolation? Gee, that’s too bad,” he said sarcastically at the briefing room podium.
Mr. Trump is on uncertain political ground. His poll numbers in critical swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan have been wavering, with most surveys showing him behind Mr. Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Republican officials are banking on voters seeing him as take-charge in contrast to Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders, who have been following the government’s guidance about staying indoors but have not yet found memorable ways to show how they would lead in this crisis.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders have held news conferences from remote locations, and Mr. Biden has participated in “virtual” fund-raisers. While Mr. Biden has an all but insurmountable lead in the race for the Democratic nomination, he has no real ability to steer events because he is not officially the presumptive nominee, and therefore is not the head of the party either.
As a result, Mr. Biden finds himself with far fewer options than Mr. Trump or Democratic governors like Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, who have real authority and are holding news conferences often broadcast live.
In turn, Republican officials and Sanders allies are pushing out attacks on Mr. Biden’s low profile, asking “Where’s Joe?” in emails to supporters and the news media. (A spokesman, T.J. Ducklo, said Sunday that Mr. Biden had not been tested for the virus because he had shown no symptoms.)
But the “wartime” strategy also presents risks to Mr. Trump. In his new posture, he is trying to rewrite recent history, erasing his comments from as recently as a week ago when he told Americans that they needed to “just relax” because “it all will pass.” It is also undercut by his resistance to calls for additional federal action from governors in hard-hit states.
Mr. Trump’s temperament is also dissimilar to “wartime presidents” with whom he is seeking to compare himself. Over the course of his presidency, Mr. Trump has struggled to stick to any bipartisan message, or speak emotionally to the pain and fear of Americans during crisis points like natural disasters or mass shootings.
“That’s why it’s so hard to be a wartime president,” said Michael Beschloss, the historian and author of “Presidents of War.” “Not only are you coming up with a strategy and tactics, but at the same time you have to let Americans know that you know how hard this is for them.”
Mr. Trump, so far, has struggled to feel anyone’s pain, unlike past presidents, while continuing to play out the fights with the news media that enliven his base. Last week, he lashed out at a journalist who had prompted him to explain what his message was to the millions of Americans watching him from home, who felt scared.
The president has also continued to credit his own administration’s response. But Mr. Beschloss added that “part of being a wartime president is being willing to give people bad news,” a job Mr. Trump has mostly left to others.
At the same time, he has been timid of using wartime powers to fight what he has called an “invisible enemy.” Last week, for instance, he resisted invoking the Defense Production Act, a federal law that grants presidents extraordinary powers to force American industries to ensure the availability of critical equipment.
Mr. Trump’s allies are aware that his re-election now hangs almost entirely on how he handles the crisis. And the question is whether he will be seen as President George W. Bush was in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when he was widely viewed as bringing the nation together, or if he will be compared to Mr. Bush amid the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, when he tried to minimize a crisis that eventually became too big for him to ignore, and during which Mr. Bush praised cabinet officials even as the federal government bungled the response.
Aides said that how Mr. Trump ends up being perceived would also depend on Mr. Trump’s own disposition during the crisis. It is not clear to them whether he will be able to maintain his focus on the crisis for months, especially as the economic situation worsens. Over the weekend, some Trump advisers weren’t ready to accept the likelihood of jobless claims climbing into the millions by next month.
The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, defended Mr. Trump’s response as apolitical. “While it seems many in the media continue to use every opportunity to destroy this president, the fact remains that he has risen to fight this crisis by taking aggressive historic action to protect the health, wealth and well-being of the American people,” Ms. Grisham said in an email.
Some Democrats, meanwhile, said the mistakes made at the beginning of the response had already colored how Mr. Trump would be remembered both in the history books and at the ballot box in November. “At the end of the day, this will be Katrina with the waters at a much higher level, and lasting a longer time,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.
But there is an emerging split in Democratic circles about whether to attack Mr. Trump’s response to the virus in real time, or whether the gravity of the moment calls for a pause in negative political advertising and attacks.
Some of Mr. Trump’s highest-profile political adversaries leading states that have become epicenters of the virus have been striking conciliatory notes as they seek federal assistance. Mr. Cuomo said the president was “fully engaged” on the crisis. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democrat of California, described a recent phone conversation with Mr. Trump as “a privilege.”
Other antagonists have continued to criticize him. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York tapped into one of Mr. Trump’s greatest fears when he referred to him on CNN as the “Herbert Hoover of his generation,” comparing him to a president who failed to recognize or take bold actions to stave off the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression.
The debate about whether to embrace or attack Mr. Trump in a national emergency played out most succinctly on Twitter between David Axelrod and David Plouffe, the two men who led Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.
Mr. Axelrod said that voters would have plenty of time to judge Mr. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, “but now doesn’t seem the moment for negative ads.” Mr. Plouffe responded that time was of the essence, and that Democrats couldn’t afford to “disarm” and let Mr. Trump create his own reality.
Veterans of John Kerry’s 2004 campaign said Mr. Biden was in a stronger position against Mr. Trump than they were when they faced an election against Mr. Bush. Back then, Mr. Bush still basked in good will from his performance in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Some Democratic Party officials said a comparison between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump at a moment of crisis only helped Mr. Biden.
“You can see the contrast between the steady, assured, informed and strong leadership that Vice President Biden has shown and the bungling, chaotic and dishonest start-stop approach that Mr. Trump has shown us since the beginning of this crisis,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.
It has taken a good deal longer than it should have, but Americans have now seen the con man behind the curtain.
When, in January 2016, I wrote that despite being a lifelong Republican who worked in the previous three GOP administrations, I would never vote for Donald Trump, even though his administration would align much more with my policy views than a Hillary Clinton presidency would, a lot of my Republican friends were befuddled. How could I not vote for a person who checked far more of my policy boxes than his opponent?
What I explained then, and what I have said many times since, is that Trump is fundamentally unfit—intellectually, morally, temperamentally, and psychologically—for office. For me, that is the paramount consideration in electing a president, in part because at some point it’s reasonable to expect that a president will face an unexpected crisis—and at that point, the president’s judgment and discernment, his character and leadership ability, will really matter.
“Mr. Trump has no desire to acquaint himself with most issues, let alone master them” is how I put it four years ago. “No major presidential candidate has ever been quite as disdainful of knowledge, as indifferent to facts, as untroubled by his benightedness.” I added this:
Mr. Trump’s virulent combination of ignorance, emotional instability, demagogy, solipsism and vindictiveness would do more than result in a failed presidency; it could very well lead to national catastrophe. The prospect of Donald Trump as commander in chief should send a chill down the spine of every American.
It took until the second half of Trump’s first term, but the crisis has arrived in the form of the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s hard to name a president who has been as overwhelmed by a crisis as the coronavirus has overwhelmed Donald Trump.
To be sure, the president isn’t responsible for either the coronavirus or the disease it causes, COVID-19, and he couldn’t have stopped it from hitting our shores even if he had done everything right. Nor is it the case that the president hasn’t done anything right; in fact, his decision to implement a travel ban on China was prudent. And any narrative that attempts to pin all of the blame on Trump for the coronavirus is simply unfair. The temptation among the president’s critics to use the pandemic to get back at Trump for every bad thing he’s done should be resisted, and schadenfreude is never a good look. That said, the president and his administration are responsible for grave, costly errors, most especially the epic manufacturing failures in diagnostic testing, the decision to test too few people, the delay in expanding testing to labs outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and problems in the supply chain. These mistakes have left us blind and badly behind the curve, and, for a few crucial weeks, they created a false sense of security. What we now know is that the coronavirus silently spread for several weeks, without us being aware of it and while we were doing nothing to stop it. Containment and mitigation efforts could have significantly slowed its spread at an early, critical point, but we frittered away that opportunity.
“They’ve simply lost time they can’t make up. You can’t get back six weeks of blindness,” Jeremy Konyndyk, who helped oversee the international response to Ebola during the Obama administration and is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, told The Washington Post. “To the extent that there’s someone to blame here, the blame is on poor, chaotic management from the White House and failure to acknowledge the big picture.”
Earlier this week, Anthony Fauci, the widely respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases whose reputation for honesty and integrity has been only enhanced during this crisis, admitted in congressional testimony that the United States is still not providing adequate testing for the coronavirus. “It is failing. Let’s admit it.” He added, “The idea of anybody getting [testing] easily, the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that. I think it should be, but we’re not.”
We also know the World Health Organization had working tests that the United States refused, and researchers at a project in Seattle tried to conduct early tests for the coronavirus but were prevented from doing so by federal officials. (Doctors at the research project eventually decided to perform coronavirus tests without federal approval.)
But that’s not all. The president reportedly ignored early warnings of the severity of the virus and grew angry at a CDC official who in February warned that an outbreak was inevitable. The Trump administration dismantled the National Security Council’s global-health office, whose purpose was to address global pandemics; we’re now paying the price for that. “We worked very well with that office,” Fauci told Congress. “It would be nice if the office was still there.” We may face a shortage of ventilators and medical supplies, and hospitals may soon be overwhelmed, certainly if the number of coronavirus cases increases at a rate anything like that in countries such as Italy. (This would cause not only needless coronavirus-related deaths, but deaths from those suffering from other ailments who won’t have ready access to hospital care.)
Some of these mistakes are less serious and more understandable than others. One has to take into account that in government, when people are forced to make important decisions based on incomplete information in a compressed period of time, things go wrong.
Yet in some respects, the avalanche of false information from the president has been most alarming of all. It’s been one rock slide after another, the likes of which we have never seen. Day after day after day he brazenly denied reality, in an effort to blunt the economic and political harm he faced. But Trump is in the process of discovering that he can’t spin or tweet his way out of a pandemic. There is no one who can do to the coronavirus what Attorney General William Barr did to the Mueller report: lie about it and get away with it.
The president’s misinformation and mendacity about the coronavirus are head-snapping.
- He claimed that it was contained in America when it was actually spreading.
- He claimed that we had “shut it down” when we had not.
- He claimed that testing was available when it wasn’t.
- He claimed that the coronavirus will one day disappear “like a miracle”; it won’t.
- He claimed that a vaccine would be available in months; Fauci says it will not be available for a year or more.
- Trump falsely blamed the Obama administration for impeding coronavirus testing.
- He stated that the coronavirus first hit the United States later than it actually did. (He said that it was three weeks prior to the point at which he spoke; the actual figure was twice that.)
- The president claimed that the number of cases in Italy was getting “much better” when it was getting much worse. And in one of the more stunning statements an American president has ever made,
- Trump admitted that his preference was to keep a cruise ship off the California coast rather than allowing it to dock, because he wanted to keep the number of reported cases of the coronavirus artificially low.
“I like the numbers,” Trump said. “I would rather have the numbers stay where they are. But if they want to take them off, they’ll take them off. But if that happens, all of a sudden your 240 [cases] is obviously going to be a much higher number, and probably the 11 [deaths] will be a higher number too.” (Cooler heads prevailed, and over the president’s objections, the Grand Princess was allowed to dock at the Port of Oakland.)
On and on it goes.
To make matters worse, the president delivered an Oval Office address that was meant to reassure the nation and the markets but instead shook both. The president’s delivery was awkward and stilted; worse, at several points, the president, who decided to ad-lib the teleprompter speech, misstated his administration’s own policies, which the administration had to correct. Stock futures plunged even as the president was still delivering his speech. In his address, the president called for Americans to “unify together as one nation and one family,” despite having referred to Washington Governor Jay Inslee as a “snake” days before the speech and attacking Democrats the morning after it. As The Washington Post’s Dan Balz put it, “Almost everything that could have gone wrong with the speech did go wrong.”
Taken together, this is a massive failure in leadership that stems from a massive defect in character. Trump is such a habitual liar that he is incapable of being honest, even when being honest would serve his interests. He is so impulsive, shortsighted, and undisciplined that he is unable to plan or even think beyond the moment. He is such a divisive and polarizing figure that he long ago lost the ability to unite the nation under any circumstances and for any cause. And he is so narcissistic and unreflective that he is completely incapable of learning from his mistakes. The president’s disordered personality makes him as ill-equipped to deal with a crisis as any president has ever been. With few exceptions, what Trump has said is not just useless; it is downright injurious.
he nation is recognizing this, treating him as a bystander “as school superintendents, sports commissioners, college presidents, governors and business owners across the country take it upon themselves to shut down much of American life without clear guidance from the president,” in the words of Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times.
Donald Trump is shrinking before our eyes.
The coronavirus is quite likely to be the Trump presidency’s inflection point, when everything changed, when the bluster and ignorance and shallowness of America’s 45th president became undeniable, an empirical reality, as indisputable as the laws of science or a mathematical equation.
It has taken a good deal longer than it should have, but Americans have now seen the con man behind the curtain. The president, enraged for having been unmasked, will become more desperate, more embittered, more unhinged. He knows nothing will be the same. His administration may stagger on, but it will be only a hollow shell. The Trump presidency is over.