Charting the stages of Trump’s response to crisis at home
He started in denial, volunteered crank remedies, battled with scientists and foes at home and abroad. And then he just gave up, stopped talking about it and moved on.
Why this story?
The United States is increasingly isolated in the world, and President Trump’s America First agenda has rapidly become even more narrowly focused on himself.
Here, we wanted to examine how his approach to gathering crises – health, economy and race – has left him making calculations which are entirely about his election prospects in November. David Taylor, editor
Donald Trump’s approach to Covid-19 has been singular in almost every sense of the word: peculiar, to say the least; and entirely focused on the survival of a single individual – himself.
This week we have looked at how the coronavirus pandemic confirmed what we probably already understood, that America has now abdicated from its global leadership role. And as Trump seeks re-election on 3 November, the isolationist America First doctrine that opened his presidency has been replaced by something even narrower: forget America, now it is only Trump First.
Trump wants to push past Covid-19, even as the number of US cases tops two million and new cases are up in 21 states and surging to their highest-ever levels in 14 states, including California.
Unfortunately for him, his response to another crisis – the clamour for racial justice sparked by the police killing of George Floyd – has also served to spotlight how binding the nation’s wounds is a much lower priority for him than his own re-election.
Here, analysing his own words, we can chart his response to the pandemic in five distinct phases.
Election year started with the Democratic party split between the safety-first centrist Joe Biden and the radical, progressive-left platform of Bernie Sanders. Trump was presiding over a strong economy, usually enough to guarantee four more years in the White House for a first-term president (even a historically unpopular one).
And then came the coronavirus. From the outset he was concerned mostly with the economy rather than public health, blaming the media (and mispelling coronavirus):
“Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible. Likewise their incompetent Do Nothing Democrat comrades are all talk, no action. USA in great shape!” @realdonaldtrump 26 February.
At first, Trump fell back on magical thinking.
‘It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle – it will disappear,’ he said on 28 February.
On that date, there were 15 people diagnosed with coronavirus on US soil.
“The 15 will soon be down to three, four,” he said.
Now, 15 weeks’ later, there have been more than two million cases and close to 113,000 deaths in the United States.
It became obvious early on that Trump’s primary concern was the economy.
“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” he tweeted close to midnight on 23 March.
The following day, all of the stock market gains of his time as president had been wiped out. Since then, they have returned to the levels of early March, but swooned again on Thursday 11 June, after the Federal Reserve offered a grim outlook for 2020: nearly 20 million jobs lost since February, a slow path back to growth, and the risk of a second wave of the virus.
Trump the showman began to stage daily press conferences at the White House, often lasting for two hours, hogging the cable news channels and sounding more like an election rally than a health bulletin. Dr Anthony Fauci, the US top infectious diseases expert, became a household name and a reassuring presence, sometimes unable to disguise his disbelief at Trump’s assertions. His “facepalm” became a meme.
Scientists and health experts were routinely challenged, silenced, sidelined or put on the spot by Trump.
After Fox News first touted it, Trump started promoting the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a potential coronavirus wonder drug. It had not been tested and there is no data to prove that it prevents Covid-19.
“A couple of weeks ago, I started taking it. Because I think it’s good. I’ve heard a lot of good stories,” he said on 18 May.
The head of a US government agency charged with investing in treatments and responses for pandemics was pushed out of his job after resisting the administration’s “misguided directives” promoting “broad use” of the drug, which he said “clearly lack scientific merit”.
The most extraordinary sideshow, however, came when Trump made scientists visibly squirm as he demanded research into both the use of sunlight and injections of disinfectant as potential cures.
“Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light,” Mr Trump said on 23 April. “And I think you said that hasn’t been checked, but we’re going to test it?
“And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, either through the skin or some other way…
“And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute — one minute — and is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning?”
This prompted frantic messaging from health officials to caution people against injecting bleach.
As the death toll began to rise and the US began to lead the world with the largest number of cases, Trump began to see risks to his re-election prospects. Joe Biden had emerged as the centrist Democratic choice to run against him and serious questions about US readiness grew. At a Rose Garden press conference, Trump sought to blame the Obama administration.
“No I don’t take responsibility at all,” he said on 23 March when he was put on the spot about failings in the Covid-19 testing regime
He began to fuel conspiracy theories about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, pushing the theory that the virus was manufactured there. And, on 30 April, he sowed further uncertainty, suggesting he had a “high degree of confidence” that the virus originated at the lab.
Asked if he seen evidence, he said:
“Yes, yes I have,” declining to give specifics. “I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that.”
On 8 May, the US also vetoed the United Nations’ moves to try to increase international co-operation and get medical equipment to combat zones – the US withdrew support because they objected to mention of the World Health Organisation.
Trump had accused the WHO of being too “China-centric”. Diplomats understand that the WHO was deliberately not too critical of China’s handling of the early stages of the coronavirus because it hoped to encourage an open and transparent investigation of the origin of the pandemic. Trump initially praised both China and the WHO, but it has come to suit him to deflect blame for the US death toll away from the White House.
“It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organisation in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world. The only way forward for the World Health Organisation is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China,” Trump wrote in a letter dated 18 May
Then he announced, on 29 May, that the US would withdraw from the WHO. After demonising immigrants and vowing to build a border wall during the 2016 campaign, he has found a new external enemy for November.
“Because they have failed to make the requested and greatly needed reforms, we will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organisation and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving, urgent global public health needs,” he said.
At an early stage, Trump’s desperation to reopen the economy led him to support rallies which broke lockdown conditions, encouraged armed protests, and targeted Democratic state governors who were trying to hold the line on restrictions.
“LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” he tweeted on 17 April.
Communicating with the mostly conservative, pro-economic protestors who want to end the lockdown, he threw into the mix the idea that their constitutional right to bear arms was at risk. Clear signalling to his freedom-loving, gun-owning base.
At the time when he was pushing to reopen, there were 663,000 cases and 33,000 deaths in the US from Covid-19. Just 11 days later, the number of US cases had exceeded one million. Six weeks later, the caseload is over two million. Even though the testing regime has been heavily criticised in the US, Trump attributes the rise to efficiency.
“By the way, when you do more testing, you have more cases. We have more cases than anybody because we do more testing than anybody. It’s pretty simple,” he said on 7 June
He also just wants to move off the subject.
Trump has his wish. Covid-19 has been pushed out of the headlines by the wave of revulsion and the dramatic protests that have followed the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
But the president’s handling of another unexpected crisis has left him open to huge criticism, most notably for the spectacularly ill-judged photocall at a church near the White House.
The stunt on 1 June came after he was stung by criticism that he had been hustled to a bunker underneath the White House by secret service agents, during protests about police violence. Reportedly concerned that he had looked weak, he walked outside of the White House perimeter and staged a posed photograph.
“It’s a bible,” Trump said, as he used the book as a prop and was asked if it was his personal bible.
Earlier that afternoon, a leaked recording of a call with state governors revealed Trump had called for a crackdown on protests
“If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run all over you, you’ll look like a bunch of jerks,” he said. “Total domination, you have to dominate.”
And moments before he made his walk to the church, at a hastily-arranged press statement in the Rose Garden, Trump made a tough guy pitch to voters.
“I am your law and order president,” he said.
It soon became obvious that a peaceful demonstration was simultaneously being targeted – officers wearing military equipment and often with no identifying markers cleared the way for Trump by shooting pepper balls and smoke canisters into the crowd. Trump had hoped to send a signal to his crucial evangelical voters, but influential figures within the church denounced the episode as “tone-deaf” and a “charade”.
As the impact of the killing of George Floyd has continued to ripple, Trump has now found himself at odds with the NFL, which now admits it was wrong to stop players taking a knee during the national anthem in protest at police brutality against black Americans.
And as NASCAR, the stock-car racing sport, announced it was banning Confederate flags, Trump was again caught seemingly defending the indefensible. He refused to consider renaming US military bases that are named after Confederate military leaders in honour of figures from the slave-owning south in the US civil war.
Trump is digging in and turning more and more to his base, making no effort to unify the United States.
“It has been suggested that we should rename as many as 10 of our Legendary Military Bases, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia, etc. These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a…
…history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom. The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars. Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations…
…Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!”
As many have noted, Trump has failed to grasp that the Confederate generals fought against the United States.
An economic crisis, a health crisis which is still increasing in many states, and a crisis over racial justice where the moral pressure is all pushing against an entrenched president.
With four months to go, and the polls showing Biden with a significant lead, Trump is gambling on projecting toughness. Expect many more ALL CAPS tweets like this one: