But in recent days, Trump’s hopeful approach toward the outbreak has entered a new stage: Moving on as if the battle is on the verge of being won.
Trump has ceased holding daily briefings on the virus, handing the torch over to his new White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, for less-frequent briefings that aren’t billed as being specifically about the virus.
He has signaled in recent days that the White House coronavirus task force may either wind down or enter a new phase, with personnel changes more focused on reopening the economy.
....gloves, gowns etc. are now plentiful. The last four Governors teleconference calls have been conclusively strong. Because of this success, the Task Force will continue on indefinitely with its focus on SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN. We may add or subtract people ....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 6, 2020
Trump has also begun hailing the yet-to-be-determined death toll as a success, despite indications that the outbreak is still growing outside the first major U.S. hotbed in New York City.
But a few comments in recent days most betray Trump’s wishful attempt to move past the crisis — an effort that now appears is being put into practice.
One of those comments was made Tuesday to ABC News. When asked about reopening the economy, Trump acknowledged that it may lead to increased deaths — and he suggested that this was simply the cost of a necessary return to business.
“Will some people be affected? Yes,” he said. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.”
The same day in Arizona, Trump declared a victory in flattening the curve of the virus, saying that we are now “in the next stage of the battle.”
“Thanks to the profound commitment of our citizens, we’ve flattened the curve, and countless American lives have been saved,” Trump said. “Our country is now in the next stage of the battle, a very safe phased and gradual reopening. So, reopening of our country — who would have ever thought we were going to be saying that? A reopening. Reopening.”
Perhaps most telling, though, are comments about the role of his coronavirus response in the 2020 election.
In a Fox News virtual town hall Sunday night, he was asked whether the election would be a referendum on that. He offered a firm, “No,” and quickly pivoted to a defensive posture about the hand he was dealt.
BAIER: But do you think the election will come down to a referendum on how you handled this crisis?TRUMP: No.BAIER: You think it will be bigger than that?TRUMP: I think the election is going to come down to -- I hope it does, because we’ve done a great job. We had no ventilators; we had no testing. We had nothing. I had -- I inherited empty -- empty -- no ammunition; our military was bad. We’ve rebuilt our military, $1.5 trillion. We have the best military, by far, in the world. It’s rebuilt. It’s either all new or the equipment’s coming in, which is great.But you know what? Also, medically, we had empty cupboards. The cupboards -- I say, the cupboards were empty. We have an incredible testing. We have the best testing system right now in the world. We also make all the ventilators.
ABC’s David Muir took another run at the same question Tuesday and got a more nuanced answer. Asked whether he was comfortable with the race being a referendum on his coronavirus response, Trump said, “Well, I am, and I’m not.”
Then he pivoted to the issue it seems he would much rather run on: the economy.
“You know, it’s a very interesting thought,” he said. “You know, I’ve built the greatest economy, and then it was turned off for good reason. We saved millions of lives by doing it. I think people are going to remember that.”
Trump then expanded.
“I hope it’s not solely on what I’ve done here [coronavirus] because this is a very — this is like rubber. It’s very, very amorphous,” Trump said.
These are not the answers of a man who is totally comfortable having his electoral fate decided on this issue. The response of a politician who felt completely confident in how it’s being viewed by the public — at a time when the virus is still raging — would be: “Yes, I hope the election is about that, because we’ve done great.”
To be clear, Trump has said he’s doing great — over and over again. But he has also made it clear throughout the outbreak that he longs for the day when he could make the election all about the economy. From the early days of the outbreak, he seemed preoccupied with the fate of the stock market, playing up the gains when it recovered and ignoring it when it plummeted. He has regularly spoken almost longingly about the way things used to be in the economy he claims was the best in world history.
And it’s altogether understandable why he would long for an election focused on that issue: It has regularly polled as his best one, even to this day.
But wishing for that and acknowledging the reality that lies ahead are two different things. While it’s difficult to say with any certainty what the 2020 election will be decided upon, it seems apparent that we’ll be dealing with the consequences of the outbreak — if not the outbreak itself — for months to come.
Trump still seems to be clinging to the idea that this election will be about what he would prefer it to be in a way that continues to suggest he wishes this other nuisance would just go away. And his declaration of a momentary victory, talk about a new phase in the battle and acknowledgment of the potential human cost of looming decisions to reopen the economy suggest a president who has decided to move on — to steer things toward his own preferred issue and perceived strength.
As we’ve seen before, though, the virus often has far different ideas about what lies ahead than Trump does.