Trump is utterly unsuited to deal with this crisis, either intellectually or temperamentally.
For his entire adult life, and for his entire presidency, Donald Trump has created his own alternate reality, complete with his own alternate set of facts. He has shown himself to be erratic, impulsive, narcissistic, vindictive, cruel, mendacious, and devoid of empathy. None of that is new.
But we’re now entering the most dangerous phase of the Trump presidency. The pain and hardship that the United States is only beginning to experience stem from a crisis that the president is utterly unsuited to deal with, either intellectually or temperamentally. When things were going relatively well, the nation could more easily absorb the costs of Trump’s psychological and moral distortions and disfigurements. But those days are behind us. The coronavirus pandemic has created the conditions that can catalyze a destructive set of responses from an individual with Trump’s characterological defects and disordered personality.
We are now in the early phase of a medical and economic tempest unmatched in most of our lifetimes. There’s too much information we don’t have. We don’t know the full severity of the pandemic, or whether a state like New York is a harbinger or an outlier. But we have enough information to know this virus is rapidly transmissible and lethal.
The qualities we most need in a president during this crisis are calmness, wisdom, and reassurance; a command of the facts and the ability to communicate them well; and the capacity to think about the medium and long term while carefully weighing competing options and conflicting needs. We need a leader who can persuade the public to act in ways that are difficult but necessary, who can focus like a laser beam on a problem for a sustained period of time, and who will listen to—and, when necessary, defer to—experts who know far more than he does. We need a president who can draw the nation together rather than drive it apart, who excels at the intricate work of governing, and who works well with elected officials at every level. We need a chief executive whose judgment is not just sound, but exceptional.
There are some 325 million people in America, and it’s hard to think of more than a handful who are more lacking in these qualities than Donald Trump.
But we need to consider something else, which is that the coronavirus pandemic may lead to a rapid and even more worrisome psychological and emotional deterioration in the commander in chief. This is not a certainty, but it’s a possibility we need to be prepared for.
Here’s how this might play out; to some extent, it already has.
Let’s start with what we know. Someone with Trump’s psychological makeup, when faced with facts and events that are unpleasant, that he perceives as a threat to his self-image and public standing, simply denies them. We saw that repeatedly during the early part of the pandemic, when the president was giving false reassurance and spreading false information one day after another.
After a few days in which he was willing to acknowledge the scope and scale of this crisis—he declared himself a “wartime president”—he has now regressed to type, once again becoming a fountain of misinformation. At a press conference yesterday, he declared that he “would love to have the country opened up, and just raring to go, by Easter,” which is less than three weeks away, a goal that top epidemiologists and health professionals believe would be catastrophic.
“I think it’s possible. Why not?” he said with a shrug during a town hall hosted by Fox News later in the day. (Why Easter? He explained, “I just thought it was a beautiful time, a beautiful timeline.”) He said this as New York City’s case count is doubling every three days and the U.S. case count is now setting the pace for the world.
As one person who consults with the Trump White House on the coronavirus response put it to me, “He has chosen to imagine the worst is behind us when the worst is clearly ahead of us.”
After listening to the president’s nearly-two-hour briefing on Monday—in which, among other things, Trump declared, “If it were up to the doctors, they may say … ‘Let’s shut down the entire world.’ … This could create a much bigger problem than the problem that you start off with”—a former White House adviser who has worked on past pandemics told me, “This fool will bring the death of thousands needlessly. We have mobilized as a country to shut things down for a time, despite the difficulty. We can work our way back to a semblance of normality if we hold out and let the health system make it through the worst of it.” He added, “But now our own president is undoing all that work and preaching recklessness. Rather than lead us in taking on a difficult challenge, he is dragging us toward failure and suffering. Beyond belief.”
Yes and no. The thing to understand about Donald Trump is that putting others before self is not something he can do, even temporarily. His attempts to convey facts that don’t serve his perceived self-interest or to express empathy are forced, scripted, and always short-lived, since such reactions are alien to him.
This president does not have the capacity to listen to, synthesize, and internalize information that does not immediately serve his greatest needs: praise, fealty, adoration. “He finds it intolerable when those things are missing,” a clinical psychologist told me. “Praise, applause, and accolades seem to calm him and boost his confidence. There’s no room for that now, and so he’s growing irritable and needing to create some way to get some positive attention.”
She added that the pandemic and its economic fallout “overwhelm Trump’s capacity to understand, are outside of his ability to internalize and process, and [are] beyond his frustration tolerance. He is neither curious nor interested; facts are tossed aside when inconvenient or [when they] contradict his parallel reality, and people are disposable unless they serve him in some way.”
It’s useful here to recall that Trump’s success as a politician has been built on his ability to impose his will and narrative on others, to use his experience on a reality-television show and his skill as a con man to shape public impressions in his favor, even—or perhaps, especially—if those impressions are at odds with reality. He convinced a good chunk of the country that he is a wildly successful businessman and knows more about campaign finance, the Islamic State, the courts, the visa system, trade, taxes, the debt, renewable energy, infrastructure, borders, and drones than anyone else.
But in this instance, Trump isn’t facing a political problem he can easily spin his way out of. He’s facing a lethal virus. It doesn’t give a damn what Donald Trump thinks of it or tweets about it. Spin and lies about COVID-19, including that it will soon magically disappear, as Trump claimed it would, don’t work. In fact, they have the opposite effect. Misinformation will cause the virus to increase its deadly spread.
So as the crisis deepens—as the body count increases, hospitals are overwhelmed, and the economy contracts, perhaps dramatically—it’s reasonable to assume that the president will reach for the tools he has used throughout his life: duplicity and denial. He will not allow facts that are at odds with his narrative to pierce his magnetic field of deception.
But what happens to Trump psychologically and emotionally when things don’t turn around in the time period he wants? What happens if the tricks that have allowed him to walk away from scandal after scandal don’t work quite so well, if the doors of escape are bolted shut, and if it dawns on even some of his supporters—people who will watch family members, friends, and neighbors contract the disease, some number of whom will die—that no matter what Trump says, he can’t alter this epidemiological reality?
All of this would likely enrage him, and feed his paranoia.
As the health-care and economic crises worsen, Trump’s hallmarks will be even more fully on display. The president
- will create new scapegoats. He’ll
- blame governors for whatever bad news befalls their states. He’ll
- berate reporters who ask questions that portray him in a less-than-favorable light. He’ll
- demand even more cultlike coverage from outlets such as Fox News.
- Because he doesn’t tolerate relationships that are characterized by disagreement or absence of obeisance, before long we’ll see
- key people removed or silenced when they try to counter a Trump-centered narrative. He’ll
- try to find shiny objects to divert our attention from his failures.
All of these things are from a playbook the president has used a thousand times. Perhaps they’ll succeed again. But there’s something distinct about this moment, compared with every other moment in the Trump presidency, that could prove to be utterly disorienting and unsettling for the president. Hush-money payments won’t make COVID-19 go away. He cannot distract people from the global pandemic. He can’t wait it out until the next news cycle, because the next news cycle will also be about the pandemic. He can’t easily create another narrative, because he is often sharing the stage with scientists who will not lie on his behalf.
The president will try to blame someone else—but in this case the “someone else” is a virus, not a Mexican immigrant or a reporter with a disability, not a Muslim or a Clinton, not a dead war hero or a family of a fallen soldier, not a special counsel or an NFL player who kneels for the national anthem. He will try to use this crisis to pit one party against the other—but the virus will kill both Republicans and Democrats. He will try to create an alternate story to distract people from an inconvenient truth—but in this case, the public is too afraid, the story is too big, and the carnage will be too great to be distracted from it.
America will make it to the other side of this crisis, as it has after every other crisis. But the struggle will be a good deal harder, and the human cost a good deal higher, because we elected as president a man who is so damaged and so broken in so many ways.
The ways he dealt with crises in his business, real estate and even his personal life prove jarring as he leads the government’s response to a pandemic.
WASHINGTON — During his campaign for the White House in 2016, President Trump’s advisers briefly tried to run through with him how he would address a large-scale disaster if he won. What, for instance, would he have done during Hurricane Katrina?
“I would have fixed that,” Mr. Trump replied with certitude, referring to the government’s bungled rescue and recovery efforts, according to a campaign official who was present for the exchange. “I would have come up with a much better response.” How? He did not say. He just asserted it would have been better and advisers did not press him to elaborate.
Mr. Trump is no stranger to crisis. He has spent a lifetime grappling with bankruptcy, fending off creditors, evading tax collectors, defending lawsuits, deflecting regulators, spinning reporters and dueling with estranged wives, usually coming out ahead, at least as he defines it. But these were crises of his own creation involving human adversaries he knew how to confront. Nothing in his background in business, entertainment or multiple marriages prepared him for the coronavirus pandemic now threatening America’s health and wealth.
Mr. Trump’s performance on the national stage in recent weeks has put on display the traits that Democrats and some Republicans consider so jarring — the profound
- need for personal praise, the
- propensity to blame others, the
- lack of human empathy, the
- penchant for rewriting history, the
- disregard for expertise, the
- distortion of facts, the
- impatience with scrutiny or criticism.
For years, skeptics expressed concern about how he would handle a genuine crisis threatening the nation, and now they know.
“When he’s faced a problem, he has sought to somehow cheat or fix the outcome ahead of time so that he could construct a narrative that showed him to be the winner,” said Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer. “And when it was all about feuds with other celebrities or contests over ratings or hotel branding, he could do that and no one cared enough to really check. And the bluster and bragging worked.”
“But in this case,” Mr. D’Antonio added, “he tried that in the beginning and you can’t brag or bluster your way out of people dying. And I think more than the suffering, the human suffering, it’s been the inexorable quality of the data that’s forced him to change.”
Only after viral projections grew more dire and markets began to tank did Mr. Trump shift tone and appear to take the threat more seriously, finally adopting a more aggressive set of policies to compel Americans to stay away from one another while trying to mitigate the economic damage.
Some in the public seem to have responded. Fifty-five percent of Americans approved of his handling of the crisis in a poll by ABC News and Ipsos released on Friday, up from 43 percent the previous week. A Reuters poll, also conducted with Ipsos, put approval of his handling of the pandemic at 48 percent, up from 38 percent a couple weeks earlier, while surveys by The Economist and YouGov showed a smaller rise, from 41 percent to 45 percent.
But even as he has seemed to take the crisis more seriously, Mr. Trump has continued to make statements that conflicted with the government’s own public health experts and focused energy on blaming China, quarreling with reporters, claiming he knew that the coronavirus would be a pandemic even when he was minimizing its threat only a few weeks ago and congratulating himself for how he has managed a crisis he only recently acknowledged.
“We’ve done a fantastic job from just about every standpoint,” he said Tuesday. “We’ve done a great job,” he said Wednesday. “We’ve done a phenomenal job on this,” he said Thursday.
The next day he grew irritated when Peter Alexander of NBC News asked if he was giving Americans a “false sense of hope” by promising immediate delivery of a drug that experts said is not proven. Mr. Trump said he disagreed with them. “Just a feeling,” he said. “You know, I’m a smart guy. I feel good about it.”
Mr. Alexander moved onto his next question, a “softball” by his own reckoning, asking what Mr. Trump would say to Americans who were at home watching and scared. Most presidents would use the opportunity to offer reassuring words. But Mr. Trump was still steamed and snapped, “I say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say.”
Later in the same briefing, Yamiche Alcindor of PBS’s “NewsHour” asked when everyone who needed a coronavirus test would be able to get one, as he asserted two weeks ago that every person already could. “Nobody is even talking about it except for you, which doesn’t surprise me,” he said dismissively. How about people with symptoms who could not get a test, he was asked. “I’m not hearing it,” he replied.
The White House rejects any criticism of the president as illegitimate. “This great country has been faced with an unprecedented crisis, and while the Democrats and the media shamelessly try and destroy this president with a coordinated, relentless, biased political assault, President Trump has risen to fight this crisis head-on by taking aggressive historic action to protect the health, wealth and well-being of the American people,” Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, said in a statement.
Mr. Trump acted at the end of January to restrict travel from China, where the outbreak was first detected, and repeatedly points back to that decision, arguing that he saved lives as a result. But he resisted stronger action for weeks. Even as governors, mayors and businesses decided on their own to curb large gatherings and eventually close down schools, restaurants and workplaces, the president at first offered no guidance about whether to take such action.
He has repeatedly misrepresented the state of the response — promising a vaccine “soon” that will actually take at least a year to develop, insisting that tests were available while patients struggled to find any, boasting about the availability of millions of masks while health care workers took to stitching together homemade versions. And dismissing the threat for weeks may have led to complacency among some Americans who could have acted much sooner to take precautions.
Mr. Trump’s defensiveness over the pandemic has become a central dynamic inside the White House as officials wrestle with difficult policy choices. Aides have long understood that Mr. Trump needs to hear support for his decisions, preferably described in superlatives. He often second-guesses himself, prompting advisers to ask allies to tell him he made the right call or go on Fox News to make that point in case he might be watching.
Over the last week, as Mr. Trump has faced ever more draconian and expensive options, Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, sought to coax him into action by using bits of praise in news coverage or from other officials as a motivator, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Officials have learned that the president craves a constant diet of flattery, which they serve up during daily televised briefings. Vice President Mike Pence makes a point of repeating it day after day, sometimes repeatedly in the course of a single briefing. “Mr. President, from early on, you took decisive action,” he said during one.
Other advisers have followed suit. “Thank you, Mr. President, for gathering your public health experts here today and for your strong leadership in keeping America safe,” Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, told him at one point. “I want to thank you for your leadership during this coronavirus outbreak,” Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told him at another.
Even Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the veteran infectious diseases expert known for his just-the-facts style, has sometimes joined in praise of the president, at one point referring to Mr. Trump’s “proactive, leaning-forward, aggressive, trying to stay ahead of the curve” approach. While Dr. Fauci does not hesitate to correct the president’s facts, as he did on Friday over the unproven drug, he does so politely, careful to maintain his viability within a political team. Still, many noticed that he put his hand to his face in seeming disbelief when Mr. Trump referred to his diplomats as the “Deep State Department.”
Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, said Mr. Trump had been unfairly criticized for his handling of the virus. “The media virtually ignore the president’s massive effort mobilizing the federal government, our industrial base and the scientific and medical community to combat this pandemic, rivaling F.D.R.’s arsenal of democracy,” he said.
Mr. King said that Mr. Trump was working with Democrats but the news media “prefer to dwell on initial failure of C.D.C. test kits and low inventory of masks and ventilators going back two administrations.” Still, he said of Mr. Trump, “He too often takes the bait.”
None of which comes as a surprise to those who dealt with Mr. Trump or studied his life before he became president. In real estate, he found he could overcome crises by bluffing his way past regulators, bullying the bankers and bamboozling the tabloids.
When banks came after him for overdue loans, he pushed back, arguing that it was in their interest that his brand not be harmed by calling him out. When contractors demanded to be paid, he found complaints about their work and refused, leading in part to more than 3,500 lawsuits. When his first two marriages fell apart, he took a scorched-earth approach against his wives, leaking to New York’s gossip columnists even if it meant his children watched ugly divorces play out in public.
“The typical modus operandi from him is to bluff, is to fake, is to deny,” said Jack O’Donnell, the former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City.
When Mr. Trump prepared to open the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in 1990 and ran into trouble with the authorities, he summoned Mr. O’Donnell. “He told them I was an expert in operations and I could fix this,” Mr. O’Donnell recalled. “And they believed him. I was dumbfounded. He was completely bluffing them.”
To Mr. Trump, most of his crises were about paper and money, not people. The self-described “king of debt” treated loan repayments almost as if they were optional and made it a mantra never to back down. “I figured it was the bank’s problem, not mine,” he wrote in one of his books. “What the hell did I care? I actually told one bank, ‘I told you, you shouldn’t have loaned me that money.’”
Perhaps the only time before his presidency that the human toll of a crisis really struck Mr. Trump in a personal way came when three of his executives died in a helicopter crash heading to Atlantic City. He seemed genuinely shaken, visiting the widows to share in their grief.
“I actually think he handled that situation about as well as you could expect from him,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “It was such a shock to him. It was the first time I heard fear in his voice. It was the first time I saw empathy, that I saw emotion from him, because he realized the human loss there.”
Even then, Mr. Trump could not help inserting himself into the story, suggesting falsely that he almost boarded the helicopter himself. And within months, with his Taj project flailing, Mr. Trump began publicly attributing problems to the dead executives. In a crisis, “he always was more focused on who he could blame versus fixing the problem,” said Mr. O’Donnell, who quit in disgust.
Nor did Mr. Trump exhibit much empathy for the workers who lost their jobs when his casinos went bust. Instead, when asked about his failed Atlantic City ventures, he emphasizes his own ability to escape unharmed. “The money I took out of there was incredible,” he once told The New York Times.
The closest analogue to the current situation may be the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, another national trauma. Mr. Trump tried to thrust himself into the news coverage, telling an interviewer by phone that day that with the destruction of the World Trade Center he now had the tallest building in New York City, a claim that was not even true. He also has said he spent extensive time around the site trying to help the cleanup, a claim that has never been verified.
With the airports closed at the time, Mr. Trump was asked to provide his private plane to fly Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Gov. George E. Pataki to Washington for President George W. Bush’s address to Congress. Mr. Trump agreed — but in return asked for help getting permission to travel from Washington to another destination when others were grounded.
By his own account, Mr. Trump never imagined that he would be facing a pandemic, an invisible killer immune to bluster. “In every previous occasion, he was facing a human being or groups of human beings,” said Gwenda Blair, the author of a biography of the Trump family. “And obviously the coronavirus, it’s not a person, can’t be bullied.”
So Mr. Trump, with his recent descriptions of a war to be won over a “foreign enemy,” is seeking a dynamic that he is familiar with, personifying the virus as an opponent to be beaten, framing it as the kind of crisis he knows how to tackle. “He’s trying to make it into a win-lose situation,” she said. “That’s how he sees the world — winners, him, losers everybody else. He’s trying to make the coronavirus into a loser and himself the winner.”