The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The circumstances are wildly different. Trump’s response is the same.

We know how this is going to play out politically.

(Patrick Semansky/AP)

It’s true that President Trump didn’t say that the spread of the coronavirus itself was a hoax. What he said instead at a late February campaign rally in South Carolina, though, revealed his approach to the emerging pandemic in another way.

“The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They're politicizing it,” Trump said on Feb. 28. “We did one of the great jobs, you say, 'How's President Trump doing?' 'Oh, nothing, nothing. They have no clue, they don't have any clue."

After an aside on the vote-counting problems in the Democratic primary in Iowa, he continued.

“One of my people came up to me and said, ‘Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.’ That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it,” he said. “They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything, they tried it over and over … It’s all turning, they lost. It’s all turning, think of it, think of it. And this is their new hoax."

The “hoax” was criticism that the Democrats were “politicizing” the coronavirus outbreak, on which, Trump insisted, he’d done “one of the great jobs.” Two days prior, in the first of his now-regular daily briefings on the virus, he’d suggested that the outbreak was all but wrapped up.

“When you have 15 people” who are infected with the virus, he said, “and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that's a pretty good job we've done."

As he was speaking, The Washington Post was reporting the first confirmed case of community spread of the virus, meaning an infection not linked directly to overseas travel. The virus was in the wild, and over the next 39 days, the number of infected Americans would climb from 15 to at least 312,000.

This possibility of broad spread across an unprepared country was the focus of most of those criticisms of the administration that Trump waved away as a hoax. His reactions in late February, however far from the mark on accuracy, were nonetheless indicative of what was to follow: a now-familiar playbook from Trump aimed primarily at defending himself politically. His late-Friday firing of the intelligence community inspector general is a reminder of what we can expect moving forward.

President Trump doubled down April 4 on his decision to fire Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general at the center of impeachment. (Video: The Washington Post)

Deflecting blame onto his opponents. During Saturday's briefing on the virus, Trump opened his remarks by attacking the media.

“Every decision that we’re making is made to save lives. It’s really our sole consideration,” he said. “We want to save lives. We want as few lives lost as possible.”

“It’s, therefore, critical that certain media outlets stop spreading false rumors and creating fear and even panic with the public,” he continued. “It’s just incredible. I could name them, but it’s the same ones, always the same ones. And I guess they’re looking for ratings. I don’t know what they’re looking for, so bad for our country.”

It’s not clear what he was referring to, but, a few hours earlier, The Post had published a lengthy review of the administration’s response to the virus.

“It may never be known how many thousands of deaths, or millions of infections, might have been prevented with a response that was more coherent, urgent and effective,” that report said. “But even now, there are many indications that the administration’s handling of the crisis had potentially devastating consequences."

Trump’s attacks on the media over the coronavirus aren’t new, of course. Nor are his attacks on the media generally, which began in earnest as his poll numbers slipped during the 2016 election. It’s often politically important, for obvious reasons, that Trump try to undercut objective analysis of his performance, and, facing the most significant crisis of his presidency, he has continued to be focused on doing so.

The Post’s Margaret Sullivan explained March 31 how President Trump’s coronavirus task force briefings can veer away from newsworthiness. (Video: The Washington Post)

The media isn’t the only culpable party in his eyes. For about a week or two last month, Trump pointedly linked the virus to the actions of the Chinese government, referring repeatedly to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.” In part, this was meant to rebut an attempt by Chinese actors to blame the virus on the United States. In part, it was meant to leverage a cultural fight percolating on conservative media.

After a number of attacks on Asian Americans, Trump shifted away from that line of argument. For a while, he and his allies attempted to suggest that the government’s response might somehow have been hampered by the impeachment trial, which ended in early February. The timeline of events, though, didn’t support the case. At other times, Trump has blamed (Democratic) governors for their approach to the outbreak.

This is not a new tactic for Trump. During the Russia investigation — the original “hoax” in Trump’s eyes — he attacked federal investigators and the intelligence community as having been the bad actors. During the impeachment investigation, he and his allies suggested that his interactions with Ukraine had been justified and that it was the Democrats who had tried to collude with Ukraine against him. And, in both cases, that the media was treating him unfairly.

One novel aspect to the coronavirus outbreak is that there are undeniable negative outcomes, measured in American lives. That has mandated a less-common tactic from Trump in which he insists that the existing outcomes were unpredictable and unavoidable. He has repeatedly said that no one could have foreseen the pandemic, despite all of the occasions on which such an event was predicted.

The Trump administration has regularly touted the millions of available coronavirus tests, even as the number of completed tests lagged far behind. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Downplaying the negatives. In a way, that response mirrors the other undeniable disaster of his presidency, Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico. Then, Trump insisted that the storm was a Category 5, “which just literally never happens.” It didn’t happen in Puerto Rico either; it was a Category 4 when it made landfall.

Then, as with the coronavirus pandemic, any lack of preparation by the government was presented as unavoidable. For Maria, the problem was that the storm hit an island, surrounded by water. For the virus, he accused the administration of Barack Obama of depleting a reserve of protective equipment (ignoring that it wasn’t replenished early in his own presidency) and even blamed New York for not buying now-critical ventilators in 2015 (well before the current threat emerged).

The most important lesson from Puerto Rico, though, was how he handled the most damning metric to emerge. When an independent analysis established that nearly 3,000 people are likely to have died as a result of the storm — a tricky calculation, given the nature of the storm — Trump rejected the idea out of hand. He has never explained how many people actually did die from the storm, though he famously celebrated an early estimate of the death toll for being substantially lower than the number of people who died after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.

About 1,800 people were killed in that storm.

Trump’s already worked to downplay the scale of deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Early on, he compared the number of deaths from the virus favorably with the seasonal flu or to automobile fatalities. As it became increasingly apparent that the number of covid-19 deaths would soar past either of those annual tallies, he revised his arguments.

Last week, he and the coronavirus task force announced that they expected 100,000 to 240,000 people to die of covid-19, assuming that strict containment measures continued. Responding to a reporter’s question about the figure, Trump tried to contextualize the number.

“Well, you didn’t ask the other question: What would have happened” without those measures, Trump said, “because this is the question that I have been asking … The question is what would have happened if we did nothing because there was a group that said let’s just rode it out, let’s ride it out. What would have happened? And that number comes in at 1.5 to 1.6 million people up to 2.2 and even beyond. So that is 2.2 million people would have died if we did nothing.”

Compared with 2.2 million deaths, 100,000 is a fairly small number. Compared with the seasonal flu, it isn’t.

There is already an effort underway among some supporters of the president to question the current death toll from the virus. It seems almost inevitable that at some point Trump will similarly suggest that the number of deaths from covid-19 is lower than reported.

Exaggerating the positives. While tamping down on measurements that cast his administration in a negative light, Trump will exaggerate what he actually did.

This, again, is not a new tactic. His call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that sat at the center of his impeachment inquiry? Not only was it not suspect, it was “perfect.” His unusually friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin? A function of the need for improvement in U.S.-Russia relations (though he will still insist he has been tougher on Russia than anyone). In Puerto Rico, Trump repeatedly claimed that his administration had provided $92 billion in assistance to the island, which was not the case.

Pressed on his response to the coronavirus, Trump has repeatedly claimed that he took the most important step early on: banning travelers from China, where the virus emerged late last year.

Unfortunately, that’s not true. Among other things, a New York Times report published Saturday found that more than 400,000 people had flown from China to the United States since the virus emerged. Trump has claimed that passengers on incoming planes have been tested for the virus, which also isn’t generally the case.

His campaign has taken to regularly trying to prove the robustness of Trump’s responses to the pandemic by listing a lot of them, many minor or recent.

Punishing those who are critical. Late Friday, the administration announced that it was firing inspector general Michael Atkinson. Atkinson played a key role in the impeachment inquiry, following guidelines after an anonymous whistleblower drew attention to Trump’s interactions with Ukraine. Asked about the firing on Saturday, Trump claimed that Atkinson “did a terrible job. Absolutely terrible.”

Atkinson was only the most recent voice in the Ukraine question to lose his position. Trump ousted Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (and his brother) from the National Security Council after Vindman testified in the inquiry. He ousted his ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, who had similarly testified about what he’d observed. Others saw expected promotions revoked.

After the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump similarly targeted those who’d drawn attention to his actions. FBI Director James B. Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe were removed from their positions, as was FBI agent Peter Strzok.

Trump has not yet targeted any of those involved in the coronavirus response as being culpable for the worst outcomes that have emerged, a leading indicator of who might suffer consequences at his hand.

But that doesn't mean that no one has been ousted. Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, was removed from his command after publicizing his concerns about the spread of the coronavirus on his ship.

Trump was asked about the firing on Saturday.

“I guess the captain stopped in Vietnam and people got off in Vietnam,” Trump said. “Perhaps you don't do that in the middle of a pandemic or something that looked like he was going to be, you know, history would say you don't necessarily stop and let your sailors get off, number one."

“But more importantly, he wrote a letter. The letter was a five-page letter from a captain, and the letter was all over the place. That’s not appropriate. I don’t think that’s appropriate,” the president said.

Sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt gave Navy Capt. Brett Crozier a raucous farewell April 3, hours after he was dismissed over a coronavirus letter. (Video: Alexis Bias via Storyful)

After noting that the firing came at the behest of the defense secretary, Trump continued.

“I thought it was terrible what he did, to write a letter. I mean, this isn’t a class on literature. This is a captain of a massive ship that’s nuclear-powered, and he shouldn’t be talking that way in a letter. He could call and ask and suggest,” Trump said, adding, “I agree with their decision 100 percent.”

Passing the buck. That Trump pinned the Crozier decision on Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper is also not unique. This has been a hallmark of his presidency.

Asked last month whether he took responsibility for the failure of the government to implement a broad, effective testing regimen early on that could have helped contain the coronavirus, Trump said he didn’t.

“Yeah, no, I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump said, “because we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time."

Once again, it was Obama’s fault.