The novel coronavirus has decimated the economy, turned hospitals into battlefields and upended the daily lives of every American. But in Trump’s White House, certain symptoms remain: a president who governs as if producing and starring in a reality television show, with each day a new episode and each news cycle his own creation, a successive installment to be conquered.
Facing a global pandemic, Trump still seems to lurch from moment to moment, with his methods and messages each day disconnected from — and in some cases contradictory to — the ones just prior. The pattern reveals a commander in chief unsure of how to defeat the “silent enemy,” as he has labeled it.
Instead, Trump has focused on his self-image — claiming credit wherever he believes it is owed, attempting to project strength and decisiveness, settling scores with critics, boasting about the ratings of his televised news conferences and striving to win the cable news and social media wars.
“You have the president of the United States emceeing these reality TV shows,” said David Lapan, a former Trump administration official now working at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Lapan added that it is important for the president to address the public about a topic as serious as the pandemic but said Trump should quickly “turn it over to the experts and leave, and not turn it into this stream of consciousness of every topic he wants to talk about and the adoration that seems to be required from everybody else who participates.”
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley in an email statement accused Democrats and the media of trying to “destroy” Trump, who he said “has risen to fight this crisis head-on by taking aggressive historic action to protect the health, wealth and well-being of the American people.”
Still, confusion has emanated from the presidential bullhorn, with one of the few consistent themes simply Trump himself, starring as villain or savior, depending on one’s political persuasion.
“Trump is a sales guy, and it’s all about point of sale,” said Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican operative and frequent Trump critic. “It’s not about repeat customers and follow-ups. He wants to get the sale — that’s it — he wants to sell you the undercoating for your car, and it’s not his problem if the car breaks driving off of the lot.”
Saturday, March 28
For Trump, a morning call March 28 with Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) complaining about New Yorkers traveling to Florida and spreading the coronavirus planted a controversial idea: order a quarantine of the New York region. The president was intrigued.
Departing the White House around lunchtime, Trump told reporters, “There’s a possibility that sometime today we’ll do a quarantine — short-term, two weeks, on New York.”
He followed up on Twitter, promising a decision “shortly” on a “QUARANTINE” of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
The president was merely floating an idea, but a news cycle was born. Trump’s public musings sowed panic and confusion in a region already besieged, and prompted a swift backlash from state and local officials.
By nightfall, Trump was eager to move past the day’s controversial headlines and retreated.
“A quarantine will not be necessary,” he tweeted, adding, “Thank you!”
Sunday, March 29
When Trump said he intended to reopen the economy soon — arbitrarily picking April 12 because he thought it would be “beautiful” to see church pews filled for Easter Sunday — he expected to be lauded. Instead, his proposal was widely panned — especially from public health and medical professionals, who warned that ending social distancing so soon would be dangerous and reckless.
So on March 29, Trump pivoted.
Appearing in the Rose Garden for an evening news conference, Trump abruptly abandoned his Easter timeline, claiming it had always been merely “aspirational,” and instead announced an extension of stringent federal mitigation guidelines through at least the end of April.
Joe Lockhart, who served as White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton, said Trump’s sudden shift caused whiplash.
“On Sunday, the news cycle he seemed to want to drive was, ‘We’re putting health ahead of the economy,’ whereas three days before it was the opposite,” Lockhart said.
But even when weighing such serious matters, Trump’s mind at times was elsewhere. A few hours before his news conference, he took to Twitter to brag about the high television ratings of his coronavirus updates, noting that they were on par with the season finale of “The Bachelor,” an ABC reality hit.
President Trump awoke determined to own the day. He called into his favorite morning show, “Fox & Friends,” at 8 a.m. sharp to banter and boast in an interview that had the feel of a campaign rally.
He pooh-poohed the high approval ratings of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D); smeared House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as “a sick puppy”; griped about Germany for taking advantage of the NATO alliance; and ranted about his policies with Russia.
At day’s end, when Trump strode into the White House press briefing room to deliver a coronavirus update, he turned over the presidential lectern to an array of business executives, who alternately praised him and pitched their products.
The potpourri quality of Trump’s message to a nation in crisis that day was a stark contrast to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who as president during the Great Depression and World War II offered his reassurances with fireside chats broadcast nationally — and he limited them to have maximum impact.
“He only delivered these fireside chats every couple of months, when there was an essential moment for the president to speak,” said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has written biographies of Roosevelt and other presidents. “Someone said to him, ‘Why don’t you go on the radio every night? Your speeches are so effective.’ He said, ‘If my speeches become routine they will lose their effectiveness.’ And he said, ‘It takes me three or four days to work on a fireside chat — and I have to run the country, too.’ ”
By Tuesday, Trump had finally come to acknowledge the sheer magnitude of the crisis.
In a news conference that stretched for two hours and 11 minutes — at that point, the longest single appearance of his presidency, according to an analysis by Factba.se — the president and his medical experts offered a somber and grim projection: In a best-case scenario, and with strict adherence to social distancing, between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans will likely die of the coronavirus.
The worst-case scenario was even more horrifying: Without community mitigation measures, the models presented by the White House predict 1.5 million to 2.2 million Americans could die.
To avert that catastrophe, Trump extended federal social distancing guidelines by 30 days.
“I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead,” he said, adding, “This is going to be a very painful — very, very painful two weeks.”
Lockhart said that Tuesday’s news conference was a concerted effort by the administration to “rewrite history,” after two months of Trump playing down the threat of the virus. He added that there appeared to be a political calculation as well: By revealing specific projected fatalities, Trump laid the groundwork to be able to claim victory ahead of November’s election if the death toll is substantially less than predicted.
“Now he’s trying to position this as, ‘If you didn’t have such a strong leader like me, millions of people would have died,’” Lockhart said. “It’s very cynical, but from a political point of view, it might be very effective.”
Trump’s daily briefing viewers had grown accustomed to seeing him surrounded by a coterie of public health officials and medical experts. But on Wednesday, he appeared alongside a phalanx of military brass and other wartime leaders.
They formed the backdrop for Trump’s creation of yet another news cycle. He announced a counternarcotics operation in the Western Hemisphere, eager to leave the impression that he was in command and control on two fronts at once — battling a pandemic as well as the illegal drug trade.
“We must not let the drug cartels exploit the pandemic to threaten American lives,” the president said.
Trump’s commentary crossed from drugs into an array of other topics. Of course, he discussed the latest efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus but also touted the sturdiness of the border wall and the reach of his social media platforms.
Asked if tweeting threats at Iran was helpful to relations between the two countries, Trump turned the query into one about the power of his online following.
“Did you know I was number one on Facebook?” the president asked. “I mean, I just found out I’m number one on Facebook. I thought that was very nice, for whatever it means.”
Trump is not, in fact, anywhere close to “number one” on Facebook, whether in likes or other common measures. His predecessor Barack Obama, for example, has 54 million followers, compared to 29 million for Trump.
An enduring story line through the pandemic has been Trump’s hot-and-cold relationships with the governors of hard-hit states.
At his Thursday evening news conference, Trump went on an extended riff about how he would see governors “quoted in a paper or see them on a show” being far less laudatory in public than he claims they were in private.
“To my face, they’re very nice, but then sometimes, I guess, they assume I don’t watch them or something,” Trump said. “But I watch very closely.”
In fact, he had been watching MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” when Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) demanded far swifter action from the White House in helping distribute medical supplies.
Trump promptly lambasted “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer” on Twitter and faulted New York for getting off “to a late start.”
The two men feuded all day, culminating in a scathing letter Trump penned to Schumer, to which the senator responded on MSNBC later that night, saying he was “appalled” by the president’s leadership.
Even amid the global catastrophe, he couldn’t help but marvel at just how much attention the disease itself was receiving.
“C-O-V-I-D-19,” Trump said, spelling out, letter by letter, the name of the disease ravaging the nation. “You know what that is, right? Become a very famous term — C-O-V-I-D. Covid.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had developed new guidance to mitigate the coronavirus, recommending all Americans wear face masks, and as with many announcements by the federal government, Trump chose to unveil it himself.
But he risked diluting the effectiveness of the measure — designed to prevent asymptomatic carriers of the virus from spreading to others — by stressing it was voluntary and musing at Friday’s news conference that he wouldn’t be seen wearing a mask himself.
Trump pays particular attention to his physical appearance — in the Rose Garden on Monday, as a gust of wind lifted his straw-colored mane, he quipped proudly that “it’s mine” — and his vanity, it seemed, could not abide wearing a mask.
Asked why he opposed covering his nose and mouth as the CDC recommends, Trump struggled to articulate his hesitation.
“Somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk — the great Resolute Desk — I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know. Somehow, I don’t see it for myself.”
So ultimately, after seizing another news cycle for himself, the president undercut the news by refusing to lead by example.
“I won’t be doing it personally,” Trump concluded. “It’s a recommendation. Okay?”