White House spinner Kellyanne Conway has offered a new defense of Trump that telegraphs the coming strategy. It doesn’t rest simply on the idea that Trump’s handling of coronavirus has been a decisive success, but also on the crucial idea that this crisis could not have been anticipated.
This new defense of Trump comes amid a truly seismic event: a massive capitulation to reality, in which Trump acknowledged that coronavirus deaths could be far higher than anyone can bear, leading him to extend strict social-distancing guidelines until at least the end of April.
The extraordinary emerging accounts of this abrupt reversal all tell a similar story. Horrifying TV imagery (mounting corpses in Queens) and attention-grabbing statistics (advisers told him a best-case scenario involves 100,000 to 200,000 U.S. deaths) finally penetrated for Trump.
This combined with hard-nosed politics to force Trump to abandon his reelection-driven desire to reopen the economy quickly. His political team is mindful of polls showing broad public support for keeping the economy on hold until the coronavirus is tackled, and it fears that a resurgent spike in deaths this fall could be worse for him than an immediate economic collapse.
It is in this deeply fraught context that Conway put forth her defense of Trump, as reported by The Post:
Trump “is presiding over the country’s response to an unanticipated, unprecedented pandemic of global proportions, and he is getting credit for his handling of the pandemic … In due time, he will preside over the great American comeback, which is more likely to be in the summer or fall, depending on the effectiveness of mitigation and relief efforts and the uncertain path of the virus itself.”
All the ingredients of the coming Big Lie campaign are there. The pandemic was not just an unprecedented challenge; it was one that no one could have anticipated. Trump has risen to the occasion in spite of the fact that everyone was caught off guard.
And any hard times to come, far from having been created in no small part by Trump himself, will be the occasion for him to rally the country back to (resumed) glory.
What all this suggests is that Trump’s political team appears to have decided that on the coronavirus, it cannot concede error of any kind on his part. This explains a great deal about this moment, but it also suggests the potential for extreme peril ahead.
Trump’s acceptance of reality is selective
On a conference call with governors on Monday, Trump was pressed by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock about his state’s dire need for more testing equipment.
“I haven’t heard about testing in weeks,” Trump claimed, as a leaked audiotape of the call revealed. “I haven’t heard about testing being a problem.”
This is a ludicrous lie: Governors have been frantically demanding new testing equipment for some time. Investigative reporting has documented an extraordinary string of failures on the Trump administration’s part leading to current shortages. Those in turn spawned a “lost month” that helped allow the coronavirus to rampage out of control, with untold horrors ahead.
But what this shows, again, is that Trump’s acceptance of reality (when it comes to mounting deaths) only goes so far: He will continue to employ his magical reality-bending powers to mask his own previous failures to whatever degree he can.
That project rests heavily on the idea, as Conway put it, that this crisis was “unanticipated.” But that’s verifiable nonsense.
“It was only unexpected to people who chose not to pay attention — meaning Trump and a White House that has consistently downplayed and marginalized preparedness and readiness for exactly this scenario,” Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, told me.
Trump vastly minimized the crisis in real time for weeks and weeks, at a time when his own health-care officials, as well as members of Congress and outside experts, were frantically doing the opposite, badly hampering the federal response.
Indeed, the Obama administration handed off a series of projected dire pandemic scenarios to the Trump administration as part of the transition, and it’s now overwhelmingly evident that none of those were taken to heart.
Trump’s pathologies threaten future damage
All of that failure is well documented. But importantly, the emerging posture — in which no error can be acknowledged in Trump’s response — threatens the country going forward.
“It’s not merely misleading — it’s actively damaging to the response," Konyndyk told me. “One of the core principles of good disaster management is you have to be able to recognize and correct mistakes.”
“If the president’s perfect decision-making is the first principle from which everything else originates, that dynamic is a huge handicap,” Konyndyk continued. “It makes it really hard to rapidly acknowledge and correct errors.”
We’re seeing this on multiple fronts. The aforementioned failure to ramp up testing, and the ongoing failure to get needed testing equipment to desperate governors, is compounded by Trump’s insistence on claiming that no such testing failure exists — or ever has.
Meanwhile, Trump’s running failure to coordinate industry to produce lifesaving equipment on the needed scale flows directly from his long-running refusal to deploy the Defense Production Act to the degree required. After all, doing so would also require an admission of previous catastrophic error.
We simply don’t know how bad the consequences of all this will get. But we do know that Trump will never take responsibility for any of those consequences — and that his team will employ the Big Lie to create the impression that his only agency consists in his glorious success in rallying us back to greatness.