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Was the stock market the object of Trump’s ‘don’t create a panic’ coronavirus approach?

Traders work on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange in March. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)
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President Trump’s explanations — both to author Bob Woodward earlier this year and in response to new audio recordings released ahead of Woodward’s book — for his conscious efforts to downplay the coronavirus pandemic have at least been consistent: He said then and now that he didn’t want to cause panic.

“This is deadly stuff,” he told Woodward in February. Then in March: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down. Because I don’t want to create a panic.”

Trump defended that response to reporters Wednesday as Woodward’s revelations were published: “I don’t want to create panic, as you say. And certainly I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy.”

There are plenty of reasons to believe that this avowed desire to prevent panic is intertwined with or even stems from his desire not to cause panic in one place in particular: Wall Street. Three things we know about Trump boost that theory.

1. Trump talks about the stock market a lot

He has always held it up as an indicator of his success as a president. The stock market is just one measure of economic health, of course, but Trump has fixated on it. For most of his presidency, it has performed remarkably well. The stock market has also had a strong summer despite the pandemic — until this week. Predictably, it has become a major feature of his reelection campaign.

Polls in the spring and the summer showed that the economy gave Republican Trump a considerable advantage over Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, even as voters gave Trump poor marks on his handling of the pandemic and race relations. But that edge, too, has narrowed this fall. A new CBS-YouGov poll finds voters split evenly on which of the two presidential candidates would do a better job on the economy.

2. He tied the stock market to broader American panic

As the novel coronavirus spread in China and other countries in February, the White House — led by Trump — was essentially assuring Americans that there was not much to worry about. But in late February, a top government health official said the virus could be coming for their communities: “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

This was the first dire public warning from a government official about the virus sickening Americans, helping reshape it from an abstract threat to an imminent one. The stock market subsequently had its worst day in years.

It was the reaction of the markets rather than the substance of the warning this health official gave that upset Trump, according to the New York Times:

On the 18-hour plane ride home [from India], Mr. Trump fumed as he watched the stock market crash after Dr. Messonnier’s comments. Furious, he called [Health and Human Services Secretary] Azar when he landed at around 6 a.m. on Feb. 26, raging that Dr. Messonnier had scared people unnecessarily. … The push to convince Mr. Trump of the need for more assertive action stalled.

3. His reelection campaign drives his decisions, say some people close to him

His former national security adviser John Bolton writes in his recent book about Trump: “I am hard pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations.”

Woodward writes in his book that Trump was warned by aides that the coronavirus pandemic would be the biggest national security challenge of his presidency. It also had to be clear that could have a major effect on his election.

Things got bad quickly after that, with the virus spreading through the country rapidly. But as the stock market ticked up alongside the pandemic death toll, Trump used it both as a talking point for his reelection and as a defense for his response to the coronavirus.

And that could help explain why he was so hesitant to publicly reveal the truth about the virus when he knew it. To him, Americans’ lives seemed more abstract than a tanking stock market that could ruin his reelection chances.

The irony of this is that it is his handling of the virus more so than the economy that has dragged his poll numbers down and made him an underdog for reelection.