The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump likes to dismiss critics as crying wolf. The wolf may have arrived.

President Trump on March 2. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A consistent undercurrent to stories about President Trump’s feeling empowered is his awareness that his critics have so often been proven wrong or that predictions of doom have been overstated.

His election was supposed to have spurred an economic downturn, Trump and his allies claim — but the markets surged. The investigation into Russian interference was going to show that his campaign was intertwined with Russia's effort, but no such links were proven. There was broad concern that his decision to assassinate Iranian general Qasem Soleimani would trigger all-out conflict with Iran, which it didn't. Some thought that acquiescing to Turkey's request for a freer hand in northern Syria would lead to a genocide, something which hasn't happened. The impeachment posed an existential threat to Trump's presidency, but it passed without significantly altering the playing field in Washington.

Except, of course, that it added to some sense of imperviousness for the president.

There are myriad reasons that the worst case scenarios above didn't come to fruition. Some were a function of the stability of the American economy or political polarization. Others were a function of decisions made by the leaders of other governments. Trump has often pushed boundaries and tested how far relationships or institutions would stretch and he's often learned that they will stretch to accommodate what it is that he wants to do.

Put another way, he and his supporters have come to view the response to a lot of his actions as examples of Democrats or the media crying wolf. It's certainly true that some of his political opponents have predicted dire consequences to Trump's actions that haven't been manifested, but it's also often the case that Trump's allies seize upon the extreme predictions in order to bolster this sense that the president's decisions have consistently bucked expectations. Many Trump allies, probably including the president, believe the hype, seemingly convinced that any prediction of a dire outcome is just the media or the opposition trying to make Trump look bad.

The novel coronavirus may mark the emergence of the actual wolf.

Trump is actively insisting that concerns about the spread of the virus are just another example of his purported opponents, ourselves included, overhyping the threat.

By contrast, he's spent several weeks downplaying the threat, even as the number of infections and deaths has increased. On Jan. 30, he said in a speech that “we think we have [the virus] very well under control,” emphasizing that only five people in the country had been confirmed to have contracted it. On Thursday morning, when he again tried to downplay the spread of the virus, he emphasized that the number of confirmed cases was only 129.

By the end of that day, the total had increased by more than 25 percent. Four days later, the total is over 560, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. More than 20 people have died.

It’s that increase that’s the concern. On Sunday, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, a Trump appointee, appeared on CBS’s “Face the Nation” to discuss the outbreak.

“The next two weeks are really going to change the complexion in this country,” Gottlieb said. “We'll get through this, but it's going to be a hard period. We're looking at two months probably of difficulty."

He compared the recent surge in reported cases to other hard-hit countries.

“We're entering that period right now of rapid acceleration,” he said. “And the sooner we can implement tough mitigation steps in places we have outbreaks like Seattle, the lower the scope of the epidemic here."

The wolf's arrival is imminent, if you will. And that's not coming from the media or a Democrat, it's coming from someone that Trump himself chose to put in charge of a health-focused government bureau.

What’s needed, Gottlieb argued, was for the federal government to quickly step in to ensure that the economic damage from shutting down local economies would be minimized, spurring areas with the most cases — like Washington or Santa Clara County, Calif. — to take steps that would slow their local economies but also slow the spread of the disease.

“We're going to end up with a very big federal bailout package here for stricken businesses, individuals, cities and states,” Gottlieb said. “We're better off doing it upfront and giving assistance to get them to do the right things than do it on the back end after we've had a very big epidemic."

Trump has shown no inclination to offer that kind of spur to address the growing crisis. In fact, Trump has shown little inclination to recognize that any crisis is growing. He spent the weekend at his private resort in Mar-a-Lago, playing golf both days. On Monday, he left Mar-a-Lago for D.C. — with his schedule showing a stop near Orlando for a pair of fundraising events. As he left Mar-a-Lago, he tweeted a vague criticism of the media, but obviously one centered on stories about his handling of the virus.

Perhaps Trump is simply trying to calm the public or the markets. Or perhaps, now in the fourth year of his presidency, Trump actually thinks that things are well in-hand and that the media is — once again, in his view — overhyping the threat posed by the virus. Perhaps he actually believes that line about how his critics have consistently been proven wrong.

That sentiment itself is a function of cherry-picking. The media predicted that the Republican Party would fare badly in the midterm elections as a function of Trump's unpopularity, and it did. Trump's critics warned of a larger death toll from Hurricane Maria when Trump visited Puerto Rico in 2017 and hyped that fewer than two dozen people had died; the toll was eventually estimated as being near 3,000. Even Trump's recent statement that the markets were “starting to look very good” to him is hard to reconcile with the trading halt on Monday that stemmed both from concerns about the spread of coronavirus and an international struggle over oil prices.

It is the job of government experts like Gottlieb to ensure that America is ready for worst-case scenarios. Often, those scenarios don't actually arrive. For Trump, that's been a source of political power so far in his administration, allowing him to claim that he either avoided or prevented the long-tail possibility.

But it’s his job more than anyone else’s to ensure that the country is ready if that possibility emerges. So far, his response has largely been to downplay what’s likely to happen and to focus on holding down the number of reported cases. The government’s response has been hampered in significant ways, including faulty tests aimed at tracking the spread of the virus and a slow roll-out of effective ones. The coronavirus won’t be tamed by partisanship or by de-escalation from a foreign leader. It is here, ready or not. How negative the repercussions will be remains to be seen.

As we’ve noted before, the point of the “boy who cried wolf” story is that, eventually, the wolf actually arrives.