And Trump talks about the Strategic National Stockpile of ventilators and medical equipment being shipped to hard-hit states as if it were his own storage unit, with governors saying they recognize that in turn they are expected to tread gingerly with him or risk jeopardizing their supply chain.
As Americans confront a pandemic and struggle to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, Trump has placed himself at the center as their patron. The president has sought to portray himself as singularly in charge — except for when things go wrong. In those instances, he has labored to blame others and avoid accountability.
Day after day, in his self-constructed role of wartime president, the task Trump seems to relish most is spreading cash and supplies across a beleaguered and anxious nation.
“Honestly, people should respect, because nobody has ever seen anything like what we’ve done,” Trump said this week, a point he has been making regularly.
Trump’s approach may be by design. With his reelection campaign all but paused during the country’s stay-at-home spring, Trump’s confidants and allies say he is trying to earn political points by taking credit in any way he can for his handling of the pandemic.
Trump’s efforts have personalized the humanitarian crisis mission of the federal government to a remarkable and perhaps unprecedented degree, yet another way in which this president has shattered norms about the use of executive power.
“Trump has cast himself in the role of generous monarch who is saying, ‘I have given you this, dear subjects’ — and it’s a remarkably selfish and self-referential performance,” historian Jon Meacham said. “It’s our money, for goodness sake,” he added, referring to taxpayers. “It’s not his money.”
Trump’s defenders say this characterization is unfair. They argue that he is not the first president to try to take credit for the actions of the government he was elected to lead — even if the 45th president is doing so on a scale beyond those of all of his predecessors.
“Come on. He’s the president,” said economist Arthur Laffer, a Trump ally who is close to several White House officials and previously advised President Ronald Reagan. “He’s the guy who makes the decisions. It’s not strange for him to be up there, being president. Every president in history has done what he’s doing at times like these.”
Trump makes no secret of his preoccupation with how the moment plays for him politically.
“Every poll says I’m going to win because, you know, you say he’s gotten good marks, but I’ve gotten great marks on what we’ve done with respect to this,” the president said last week on Fox News Channel, comparing himself to New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D).
Trump has claimed personal credit for the historic $2.2 trillion stimulus plan, which will result in direct payments for tens of millions of Americans, even though it was negotiated largely by leaders in Congress, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin acting as a proxy for the president.
As the president sat behind the Resolute Desk late last week to sign the stimulus bill, with lawmakers and administration officials arrayed behind him in the Oval Office, Trump lauded its size.
“I’ll sign the single-biggest economic relief package in American history and, I must say, or any other package, by the way,” Trump said. When he later picked up a pen, he quipped, “I’ve never signed anything with a ‘T’ on it. I don’t know if I can handle this one.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has since criticized the administration for not getting stimulus money to Americans more quickly. On Thursday, she told reporters, “They want their checks … without waiting for a fancy letter from the president to say, ‘Look what I just got for you.’ ”
The Cares Act, passed last month, authorized the Internal Revenue Service to make one-time payments of between $500 and $1,200 to millions of Americans to help flood the economy with money. Most people who qualify — those who earn less than $99,000 — will receive the money through a direct deposit to their bank accounts, but the government will also be mailing out checks to millions of other Americans.
Though some Democrats said they worried that Trump might try to place his signature on these checks, he is not an authorized signor of government payments, and his signature is not expected to be on the payments.
By providing daily updates on the resources his administration has doled out, Trump has tried to leave the impression that he is in control of the pandemic.
“We’ve set every record you can set,” Trump claimed on March 29. “The federal government has done something that nobody’s done anything like this, other than perhaps wartime. And that’s what we’re in: We’re in a war. My administration has mobilized our entire nation to vanquish the virus.”
Trump has also bragged about the relatively high ratings his news conferences receive on cable television, further underscoring his view of the federal pandemic response as a manifestation of himself.
In a tweet Friday, the president referred to his appearances in the White House press briefing room as “The People’s Voice!”
Laffer, to whom Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, argued that Trump’s demeanor — which critics bemoan as bragging and strewn with falsehoods and exaggerations that risk public trust at a fragile national moment — is refreshing and effective.
“Trump is Trump,” Laffer said. “He comes across as a normal person talking about these things. … That’s what throws everybody off. He doesn’t speak the language of the bureaucracy, which angers people who like the bureaucracy.”
Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser who is steering many of the coronavirus response efforts, stoked controversy last week when he referred to the Strategic National Stockpile as “our stockpile.”
“The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile,” Kushner said at the April 2 coronavirus news conference. “It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.”
Kushner’s assertion was contradicted by the Department of Health and Human Services’ description on its website of the stockpile as “the nation’s largest supply of lifesaving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out.” It continued to say that the supplies are available to states and localities that request them.
By the next morning, that language suddenly had disappeared from the site. It was replaced by language de-emphasizing the stockpile’s role in helping states, seemingly more in line with Kushner’s statement.
Personalizing the distribution of federal resources follows a familiar playbook for Trump, who in his business career prioritized marketing, even when some of his companies went bankrupt. He put his name on skyscrapers, casinos and golf courses, as well as clothing, wine, vodka, bottled water, steak, furniture, board games and even airplanes — anything to extend the Trump brand.
“Donald Trump has spent his life marketing himself and products associated with himself, so it’s not surprising that he would approach this the same way,” said David Axelrod, who served as a senior White House adviser under President Barack Obama.
Axelrod added, “Even the press briefings, the gist of his remarks every night is, here is what I am doing for you, and everybody is happy and nobody’s ever seen anything like it. He can’t help himself. He is a frenetic self-promoter.”
Timothy O’Brien, author of the biography “TrumpNation,” which chronicles Trump’s life in business, said Trump then was “a performance artist,” fixating on the cosmetics and atmospherics of a deal more than the details. O’Brien argued that this focus has carried through to the White House.
“He personalizes every moment he is in right now because that’s how he has always rolled for 73 of his 73 years, which is to say he’s the master of his domain, what’s on the playing field are his toys, and people who don’t comport with his goals are off base,” said O’Brien, a vocal Trump critic who advised former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign and is a senior columnist at Bloomberg Opinion.
Trump has received help from his lieutenants in perpetuating the narrative that he is personally responsible for whatever the federal government is doing to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus and save lives.
Vice President Pence and the array of Cabinet members and military officers who appear with Trump at daily briefings are quick to attribute government actions directly to the president’s leadership or the president’s direction. Even the pair of physicians guiding the White House coronavirus task force — Anthony S. Fauci and Deborah Birx — at times have joined the chorus.
But when things go awry, such as the drain on medical supplies in New York and other hot spots, Trump has been swift in shirking responsibility or claiming ignorance. In his telling, this and other problems are attributable to poor planning and weak leadership by state and local officials.
Asked by Sean Hannity this week on Fox News about the outcry from some states for federal help obtaining ventilators, Trump boasted about what he had already done for New York and New Jersey and pointed a finger instead at unnamed other states.
“You have some governors that are not doing a good job,” Trump told Hannity. “But, you see, this is where age and experience come in. Rather than naming them tonight on your show, I won’t bother.”