Put President Trump in a room full of scientists, and he’s going to start to feel very insecure. Put him in a crisis he can’t boast his way out of, and things are going to go very badly.

That’s what we now face with the coronavirus. The crisis is not happening only in a foreign country, or in just one spot in America. It threatens to touch all of us. By all accounts, the president’s handling of it so far has been somewhere between awful and disastrous. Worst of all, from his perspective, it threatens the reality distortion field he works so hard to maintain.

Trump is plainly more concerned with how the virus affects his public image than how it affects Americans’ health. He blurted out that he wanted to keep a cruise ship off the coast of California “because I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship.”

He’s feeling doubly besieged right about now. And all his worst instincts are coming out.

Let me draw your attention to a revealing moment during Trump’s appearance on Friday at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Amid comments that were as filled with falsehoods and non sequiturs as you’d expect, Trump said this:

And, by the way, NIH, what they’ve done — I spent time over there — and I like this stuff.
You know, my uncle was a great person. He was at MIT. He taught at MIT for, I think, like a record number of years. He was a great super genius. Dr. John Trump.
I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, “How do you know so much about this?” Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for President.
But you know what? What they’ve done is very incredible. I understand that whole world. I love that world. I really do. I love that world.

We’ve heard this kind of thing before — Trump often boasts that he knows more about a particular subject than the experts do. But the tell is his invocation of his uncle, who was a physicist at MIT. What does that have to do with public health, or viruses, or anything else? In literal terms, absolutely nothing, which is what makes it so jarring. But when Trump feels the need to remind you that he is related to a smart person, it’s pretty obvious that he’s afraid people might not think he’s smart enough.

And while I suppose it’s theoretically possible that all the doctors at the CDC marveled at his deep knowledge about viruses and pandemics, the story seems … unlikely.

We know that Trump has a contempt for expertise, and a belief that people with advanced degrees and deep subject-area knowledge should be scorned and ridiculed. But a crisis like this one is different from some of the other policy challenges he has faced, in which he could convince himself that with his own unique gifts he could do better than the people who actually know what they’re talking about.

For instance, Trump could say to those in the government whose job it is to understand North Korea, “I don’t need you eggheads, I’m the world’s greatest negotiator. Just get me in a room with Kim Jong Un and we’ll make a deal.” It turned out he couldn’t, but to him it made sense at the time.

You can’t do that with a public health crisis. Trump can’t say, “Forget you guys, I’ll make the vaccine myself, and it’ll be the greatest vaccine ever.” Even he can see that won’t work.

That puts him in a precarious place, and from what we can tell, the people around him are even more sensitive than usual about the need to massage Trump’s ego. Whenever one of his political appointees talks to the press about the coronavirus, they’re careful to praise Trump profusely. On Sunday, Surgeon General Jerome Adams went on CNN and declared that “the president, he sleeps less than I do, and he’s healthier than what I am.”

It’s hard to imagine the force of will it takes for an actual doctor to say that about a 73-year-old man who never exercises and who wouldn’t eat a vegetable if you coated it in gold leaf.

It’s understandable that the president is concerned about how this crisis could affect his political fortunes. But according to reports, he is so consumed with his own image and reelection that the public relations aspect is about all he’s managing.

Trump’s unpredictable demands and attention to public statements — and his own susceptibility to flattery — have created an administration where top officials feel constantly at siege, worried that the next presidential tweet will decide their professional future, and panicked that they need to regularly impress him.
White House officials are growing increasingly frustrated at what they see as President Donald Trump’s consistent bids to downplay the severity of the coronavirus outbreak.

If the situation worsens, these tensions will only be exacerbated as Trump’s insecurity and political worries grow. The worse it gets, the more he’ll be criticized, and the more he’s criticized, the angrier and more erratic he becomes. But there’s only so long he can impose his view of reality on those around him.

Trump can keep saying that everything is fine, and Fox News can echo that view to convince people the coronavirus is no big deal. But if your local schools are shut down, people are walking around your supermarket in surgical masks and the rest of the media is filled wall-to-wall with anxiety-provoking stories about the crisis, it becomes impossible to believe what Trump and his allies are saying.

Our best hope is that the professionals in government are able to assemble a response that contains the virus and minimizes the damage it does to public health and the economy. But if they do that successfully, it will be despite Trump’s mismanagement.

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