The president has a history of continuing to bash those who take key votes against him — like former Arizona senator John McCain — but one would be forgiven for assuming that Romney’s decision to follow government recommendations to isolate to avoid spreading the dangerous virus would not be a jumping-off point for a presidential attack.
But this is Trump. So, after a beat, he asked a question.
“Romney’s in isolation?” Trump said, interrupting the reporter. Then, with apparent sarcasm, he continued: “Gee, that’s too bad. Go ahead.”
“Do I detect sarcasm there, sir?” the reporter asked.
“No, none whatsoever,” Trump replied.
By now, we’ve learned how this works: Trump says something that accurately captures his feeling but couches it in enough murkiness to stymie efforts at categorizing it. His base adores it and understands he was saying what he meant, but objective observers are kept at bay with insistences that they are overreacting or misinterpreting what happened. I say he used “apparent sarcasm,” but no Trump supporter who shares Trump’s view of Romney was under any misapprehension about how the president actually feels about the Utah senator’s potential exposure to the virus.
This was the most obvious way in which Trump on Sunday used the coronavirus pandemic to reflect his politics, but it wasn’t the only one. At another point in the news briefing, Trump was asked about comments by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio warning that the city would soon run out of basic hospital supplies.
“How do you prevent New York City from becoming the next Italy?” Trump was asked, a reference to the severe shortages in that country which have caused the death toll to spike.
“Well, he should have —” Trump began, then changing direction. “You know, the hospital systems in various places, some have been stocked and ready to go for—” another redirection— “Nothing for this, nothing. This is beyond anything that anybody ever thought possible. … This is a very unique and hopefully it will be unique for, you know, many, many centuries. You know, for a long time. Hopefully we don’t see this again.”
“But again,” Trump continued, “the systems are supposed to be ready, willing and able. They’re supposed to be ready to go. We are helping them a lot.”
The systems at the state level should be ready for an unprecedented pandemic, Trump said, and it was their own fault, in essence, that they weren't. He then repeated his promise to send a naval hospital ship to the city, something that is still weeks away.
Earlier on Sunday, Trump had taken issue with another Democratic-elected official who had been critical of his handling of the pandemic.
.@JBPritzker, Governor of Illinois, and a very small group of certain other Governors, together with Fake News @CNN & Concast (MSDNC), shouldn’t be blaming the Federal Government for their own shortcomings. We are there to back you up should you fail, and always will be!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2020
Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois joined other governors — no doubt including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York — in unfairly criticizing Trump’s administration. Like de Blasio’s New York City, those states had allowed themselves to be in a position to fail through their own ineptitude, Trump claimed, and the federal government was now having to clean up their mess.
This is a thoroughly cynical argument to make. Trump spent most of January and February downplaying the threat posed by the coronavirus, dismissing concerns about the possibility of a broad spread that might overwhelm health-care facilities. He suggested criticism of his own response was simply partisan politics, a charge amplified by Fox News which led to a big divide in how seriously Americans took the need to prepare for the virus. As the months passed, the federal government failed to take simple precautionary steps to increase supplies of the medical equipment now in critical demand in New York — and, soon, elsewhere.
Trump's effort to blame New York and Illinois for their current situations was cynical — but it's not new. We've seen this play out before in much the same way.
Trump had been on the job for about seven months when Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico. It had been a tense summer, with a white nationalist protest in Virginia at which a counterprotester was killed. Trump’s equivocations on the event met with broad condemnation. The three hurricanes that hit in rapid succession shortly afterward gave Trump a chance to reset, to adopt the trappings of the White House in visiting the areas damaged by the storms. It was a chance to use the presidency as a way to offset a moment of difficult politics, and Trump seized it in embracing aid to the Gulf Coast after hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
When Maria his Puerto Rico, his attitude was noticeably different. His expressions of concern for the island were heavily dampened by vocal concern for how it had been managed and the money it owed to big banks. He fought off criticism that he wasn’t as focused on helping the island recover as he had been on aiding Texas and Florida — two states that helped him win the White House in 2016 — and picked fights with Puerto Rican political leaders.
During a belated visit in early October, he asked the island’s governor how many people had died, learning that, at that moment, the total was 16. He celebrated how much lower that was than the toll following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — but the toll was so low because the storm had just hit. A later estimate of the number of deaths that resulted from the storm reached nearly 3,000 — 1,000 more than died following Katrina. Trump dismissed that figure as inaccurate out of hand.
While in the moment, the tension in Charlottesville seemed like the most significant test of Trump’s ability to handle his position, it’s probably the case that the subsequent natural disasters offered a better sense of his limitations. Storms in friendly territory with tragic but bounded damage were a chance to be a president. A storm in unfriendly territory that upended normal life in significant ways for months on end, a storm that immediately demanded a robust response and which therefore prompted immediate criticism? Something for Trump to keep at a distance and to rationalize as fault of those afflicted.
Trump did, however, send a hospital ship to Puerto Rico.
Since shortly after the 2016 election, Trump has demanded that his political opponents unify with him in support of his agenda. His presidency has been primarily focused on repeatedly bolstering his standing with Republicans and other groups who already broadly support him; he’s rarely made any sustained effort to focus on bipartisan proposals. The polarized country which split its popular and electoral votes in 2016 has gotten only more divided during his presidency, with Trump doing nothing to narrow the divide beyond demanding Democrats cross to his side.
When Maria hit Puerto Rico, Trump’s response seemed to be some mix of indifference and buck-passing, particularly when contrasted with his fervent support for Texas and Florida weeks prior. Puerto Rico, a territory filled with people who weren’t going to give him any electoral votes, seemed like it was simply not something Trump was concerned about. Now, Americans in states like California and New York are left to wonder whether their politics might similarly be limiting the extent and urgency of the federal government’s assistance during the pandemic. Particularly since people in those states are a lot more likely to be skeptical of Trump’s word anyway.
On Feb. 13, there were about a dozen known coronavirus cases in the United States, but it was already spreading in the wild in the Pacific Northwest. Frustrated with New York immigration laws, Trump had locked state residents out of a federal program meant to speed international travel. Cuomo was scheduled to visit the White House to discuss the freeze, but Trump offered some apparent preconditions on Twitter. One was that the state should stop investigating Trump and seeking his tax returns.
Again, the situation was that the state passed laws which the administration didn't like. It struck back by withholding a federal service, prompting the state's governor to seek assistance. Trump's response was to say publicly that the state should back off putting political pressure on him personally.
Oh, your trusted traveler program was canceled Andrew Cuomo? Gee, that’s too bad. Oh, your hospitals are strained, Illinois and New York? Gee, that’s a tough one. When it comes to his opponents and critics, empathy is in short supply.
Trump couldn’t help himself in offering that seeming sarcasm at Mitt Romney’s expense. But it was not the first time he’d expressed such a sentiment about someone with whom he disagreed politically — and not the first time that settling a score was mixed into his approach to addressing a crisis.