America is winning its war with the coronavirus, the president says — yet the death toll rises still, and in the best-case scenario more Americans will die than in the wars in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
The economy is the strongest ever and will rebound in no time, he says — yet stock markets have cratered and in the past two weeks a record 10 million people filed for unemployment insurance.
As Trump has sought to remake his public image from that of a skeptic of the pandemic’s danger to a savior forestalling catastrophe and protecting hundreds of thousands of people from a vicious contagion, he also has distorted the truth, making edits and creating illusions at many turns.
Trump’s machinations have a dogged showman’s quality, using his omnipresence at daily White House news conferences — which sometimes stretch two hours or more and are broadcast to millions — to try to erase memories from his two months of playing down the crisis. He sometimes scolds reporters who question his version of events.
The result is chaotic. Leaders from Maine to Oregon and from Dayton, Ohio, to Austin say their constituents are whipsawed by the contradictory messages emanating each day from the presidential lectern, which exacerbates efforts on the ground to enforce social distancing and mitigate the spread of the virus.
“People are confused about whether this is really serious. People are confused about how long this may last,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler (D) said in an interview. “We’re trying to get as much containment as we can by limiting the number of physical interactions taking place, but they’re hearing it’s not a big deal, it’s going to be over soon, and getting community buy-in becomes a harder thing to achieve.”
In Trump’s pinballing statements, Americans have been subjected to a parade of claims and musings about medicine, a topic about which past presidents have avoided speculating in deference to the Food and Drug Administration’s official role addressing safety and efficacy matters.
“He at times just says whatever comes to mind, or tweets, then someone on TV is saying the opposite,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said in a recent interview. “It’s critically important that the message is straightforward and fact-based for the public.”
White House spokesman Judd Deere defended Trump’s handling of the pandemic in a lengthy statement and furnished a list of 115 specific actions the president or his administration has taken, including limiting travel, expanding testing access and supporting health-care providers.
“During these difficult times, Americans are receiving comfort, hope and resources from their president, as well as their local officials, because this is an all-of-America effort,” Deere said in the statement, which stressed the federal government’s collaboration with state and local governments.
Trump has often sought to rewrite history. He now says covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is nothing like the seasonal flu because it is far more contagious and “vicious,” as if pretending his many previous flu comparisons never had been uttered. And he now says he has known since it was first detected in China that the coronavirus was horrible and would become a pandemic, as if he could halt the playback reel of his past comments minimizing the threat.
The first coronavirus case in the United States was reported on Jan. 21, and the virus was ravaging China and then Italy and other parts of Europe. But although Trump restricted travel from China in late January, a decision he says saved lives, Trump did not begin fully engaging with the crisis until late February. The president did not release guidelines for social distancing and other ways citizens could slow the spread until March 16, well after the virus already had spread across the United States.
When confronted with his earlier attempts to play down the coronavirus, Trump has either snapped at the reporters asking the questions or argued that he was merely trying to offer hope to people.
“I don’t want to be a negative person,” Trump said Tuesday. “It would be so much easier for me to come up and say we have bad news. . . . But I’m a cheerleader for our country.”
Ever mindful of his reelection prospects, Trump has looked to avoid personal accountability for shortcomings in the response. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” the president said in reference to testing failures while speaking March 13 at a news conference in the White House Rose Garden during which he declared a national emergency.
Trump alternately has blamed China for first spreading the virus; New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) for being slow to contain what would become by far the biggest U.S. outbreak; governors generally for requesting federal help procuring ventilators, masks and other equipment and for not showing appreciation for assistance; hospital workers for hoarding supplies; and the media, first for allegedly overhyping the dangers and then for allegedly not giving him adequate credit for the steps he has taken.
In a pair of tweets Thursday, Trump wrote: “Massive amounts of medical supplies, even hospitals and medical centers, are being delivered directly to states and hospitals by the Federal Government. Some have insatiable appetites & are never satisfied (politics?). Remember, we are a backup for them. The complainers should have been stocked up and ready long before this crisis hit.”
Trump spent his first three years in office systematically discrediting and attempting to dismantle parts of the federal government’s national security, intelligence and scientific apparatus. He has harbored suspicions of career experts in part because he does not consider them sufficiently loyal to him personally, at times tuning out their advice and steadily working to erode their trustworthiness in the minds of his supporters.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) attributed Trump’s difficulty controlling the coronavirus to his lack of experience in public service and his perspective that government is too big. The president, she said in an interview, “doesn’t understand that in this moment of crisis, this is exactly when we need our government to work.”
“This is that moment when the American people need their government, but if you don’t embrace and appreciate the nobility, the responsibility, the heavy, heavy responsibility and weight, then you see what happens,” Harris added. “You have a president, frankly, who has been a bit frivolous in the way he has approached this job, as it relates to this pandemic.”
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats, said that leaders need credibility and competence at moments of crisis but that Trump lacks both because of his lack of preparedness.
“People say, ‘Oh, who could have predicted this?’ Well, it was predicted, specifically, to the administration when they took office that this was a possibility,” King said.
King criticized Trump for disbanding the National Security Council’s pandemic team as well as a State Department program designed to identify outbreaks and other emerging threats around the world. “When you take those kinds of actions in light of warnings, it’s hard to say they weren’t warned,” he said.
Trump’s defenders say he is being unfairly criticized. “Everyone is winging it,” said former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory (R). “We’re facing something we’ve never faced before. The entire world was slow to react.”
Trump seeks to play the role of commander in chief navigating a crisis that has consumed his presidency, and indeed has won plaudits for some quick interventions to marshal resources, but has acted more often as a commander of confusion.
“He has communicated like he’s negotiating with everyone, which is the craziest thing,” said Ezekiel J. Emanuel, chair of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania and an adviser to former vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s likely Democratic opponent.
One vivid example of this leadership style was Trump publicly musing last week about reopening the economy by Easter, or April 12, which most public health experts warned was far too premature.
“These things have to be empirically driven, not driven by him waking up and going, ‘You know what? Easter would be a good time,’ ” Emanuel said. “That’s not how you make policy or how anyone would run an organization.”
Message inconsistency has been a feature throughout Trump’s presidency, from his zigzagging positions on foreign and domestic policies to his up-and-down personal relationships and rivalries. This is caused in part by the president’s proclivity to speak his mind at any given time, something his followers hail as a virtue. It also is attributable to his lack of ideological conviction, which makes him susceptible to being persuaded by advisers both inside and outside the government, often on the basis of self-interest.
“This is not the first time this president has looked schizophrenic, because there’s a long history of him vacillating between incompatible messaging and policy directives,” said a former senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “This is no outlier. This is a result of a more ad hoc approach to governing.”
In the midst of a pandemic that affects every American and that knows no boundaries of geography, class or race, Trump — who has personalized his office, polarized the public and smeared the media more than any president in recent memory — has struggled to assert national leadership and summon broad credibility. And his lack of clear and factual information has left governors and mayors to step in, making varying decisions for their localities that have resulted in a patchwork response.
“People here are looking to us to talk about what’s going on in Ohio,” Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said in an interview. “We tell them exactly what we’re seeing — everything we know, when we know it.”
Asked whether Trump has sent confusing signals, DeWine responded with a simple, “No.” But then the governor went on to explain that Trump’s Easter float “did not impact what we were seeing in Ohio or my conversations with people in the state. It just didn’t impact it.”
In Dayton, a working-class city of about 140,000, Mayor Nan Whaley (D) described the challenges of keeping folks informed as their lives are uprooted.
“I have people in my city texting me what the president said, and they go, ‘Well, what you’re saying isn’t true because the president says the opposite,’ ” Whaley said. “Every day is a different message from the federal government and there is no consistency, other than from Dr. Fauci,” she added, referring to Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Trump also has given confusing signals about what he prioritizes in economic stimulus packages, which has left him somewhat isolated from congressional leaders as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin takes the lead crafting policies.
When asked if she and other members of Congress look for cues from Trump, Harris was dismissive. “There are a number of us who really aren’t looking to the president for guidance on what the American people need,” she said.