Staging an Intervention

It was an odd week. The Washington Post team of Philip Rucker and Robert Costa and Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey had reported this:

President Trump confronted one of the most perilous days of his presidency Monday by first erupting in a barrage of commentary that failed to calm the cratering financial markets, struggling to inspire confidence that his administration could stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But by the time the sun set in Washington, Trump sounded momentarily chastened by the turbulence and previewed a raft of emergency measures to shore up the economy.

“We have a very strong economy,” the president told reporters, “but this blindsided the world.”

It was the usual whining. None of this was his fault:

Trump has accused the media of hyping coronavirus to damage his political standing. Privately, he brooded throughout the weekend about news stories that detailed the ways his administration squandered precious weeks and bungled its handling of the crisis, with much of the blame falling on the president.

“He sees the stories as everyone just being out to get him,” said one administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the president’s mind-set…

Trump has spent much of the past four days tending to campaign benefactors and preoccupied with his own political future. He has used those settings to complain about what he considers to be coronavirus hysteria in the media and overreaction by financial markets.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” Trump said at one of the events, according to people who heard the comments.

That was his position. That was Fox News’ position. This virus isn’t even the flu. It’s not much more than the common cold, if that. It’s not that big of a deal, but then the markets crashed. The Dow dropped more than two thousand points on Monday, gained back a thousand or more points on Tuesday, and then that evening the Democrats decided on Biden in their primaries and the Dow futures dropped five hundred points.

Things had spun out of control. Someone had to step in. Shannon Pettypiece is a real person in spite of that name and she reports what happened next:

As President Donald Trump jetted back to Washington on Monday after a weekend of golfing and fundraising in Florida, an intervention was awaiting him at the White House.

Administration officials increasingly concerned about the messaging on and response to the coronavirus had spent the weekend scrambling to craft a strategy to shift the president’s response, which had been focused on downplaying the threat and accusing the media of creating undue concern, according to people involved in the effort.

So, as Trump stepped off Marine One and walked straight to the West Wing just after 3 p.m. Monday, his top economic and health officials were waiting to make their case for why a more serious fiscal and public health response was urgently needed. Those at the meeting included economic adviser Larry Kudlow, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin.

Imagine the scene. They sat him down. They explained to him slowly and carefully, and in small simple words, that everyone was not out to get him. They explained to him that calling the whole epidemic thing a hoax made him look unhinged – and that was a bad look – and he really didn’t want that. He was (and is) wonderful. Don’t ruin that! And they were telling him this for his own good, because they loved him and were worried about him. He was Natasha Lyonne in the family intervention scene in that odd movie But I’m a Cheerleader – she needed conversion therapy to “take the gay away” – and he needed conversion therapy too:

Back in Washington, aides had grown frustrated with Trump’s consistent bids to downplay the severity of the outbreak. A person close to the White House said the president believed it helped him politically to keep projecting a positive picture, rather than leaving the messaging to public health officials.

But Trump’s week started with a jolt. Oil markets crashed overnight and stocks plunged so much at the start of trading Monday that it tripped a New York Stock Exchange circuit breaker aimed at preventing a broader panic by investors. Trump tried to put a positive spin on the events that morning, tweeting that tumbling oil prices would mean cheaper gas for consumers.

The next day, he traveled to Capitol Hill, where Republican senators warned him about the negative impact the crash in oil prices would have on the U.S. oil industry and the risk to the nation’s economy as a whole…

The same day, even his own campaign advisers – who had previously downplayed the need to change his schedule – pressed Trump not to announce a planned rally in Florida because of fears of the virus’ spread. The president initially pushed back on the request.

But it came amid news of a cascade in new infections, with states taking swift action, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s move to send in the National Guard to try to contain an outbreak in a New York City suburb.

Things were piling up, but the Monday afternoon “intervention” had already worked:

He made an impromptu visit to the White House briefing room that evening, just the fifth time he has appeared behind the podium, telling reporters he was considering a payroll tax cut and promising “dramatic” and “major” economic steps.

Those remarks Monday night marked the beginning of a notable, if uneven, shift in the president’s tone as the scope of the crisis he was dealing with began to sink in, culminating just over 48 hours later in an Oval Office address warning the nation of a “horrible infection.”

And the Wednesday evening address was a disaster:

By Wednesday morning, when WHO declared that the coronavirus was officially a pandemic, White House aides began discussing the possibility of an Oval Office address. Trump tweeted out that he would be speaking to the nation later that night.

In the run-up to his prime-time speech, the White House rushed to put restrictions on travel from Europe in place – without informing European leaders, who were furious over being blindsided by the move…

The hastily assembled speech was full of statements the administration had to correct and clarify soon after. Trump erroneously said trade would be affected by the travel restrictions. He also said all travel from Europe would be banned, even though the new restrictions apply only to foreign nationals who have traveled through some European countries. His claim that insurance copayments for coronavirus treatment would be waived was contradicted by health insurers themselves, who said the waiver would apply only to testing.

The stumbles, people close to the White House acknowledged, detracted from the intended effect of the address: portraying Trump as a commander in chief steering the country through a crisis.

And then there was the futile clean-up:

On Thursday, Trump’s Twitter account took on a much more serious tone, retweeting warnings from public health officials about how people could protect themselves, as both the White House and his campaign weighed allowing staffers to work from home. But as with many previous Trump tone shifts, his attempt at a more traditional presidential approach was inconsistent and impermanent.

Meanwhile, one of the nation’s top health officials was telling lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the federal response was falling short on a key front, with the nation failing to meet the necessary capacity for coronavirus testing. That didn’t keep Trump from heaping praise on his own response Thursday.

He had been wonderful:

“Because of what I did and what the administration did with China, we have 32 deaths at this point. Other countries that are smaller countries have many, many deaths,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office during a meeting with the Irish prime minister.

“Thirty-two is a lot. Thirty-two is too many,” he said. “But when you look at the kind of numbers that you’re seeing coming out of other countries, it’s pretty amazing when you think of it.”

People thought about it:

Wall Street recorded historic losses Thursday as fears intensified over the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic amid what some saw as an anemic response from the White House. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by 10 percent, with the NASDAQ and the S&P 500 both down by 9 percent. It was the worst point drop ever for the Dow and its worst performance since the market crash in 1987…

Trading was halted twice, triggering thresholds that paused market activity on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in premarket trading and immediately after the opening bell. Even an emergency injection of $500 billion from the Federal Reserve did little to calm the markets.

Nothing was working. He had changed his tune – the coronavirus pandemic was not a hoax and not everyone was out to get him. So far so good – but the Wednesday evening address to the nation was a mess, perhaps because his heart wasn’t in it, or perhaps because the whole thing seemed to be about building walls to keep foreign cooties out – when the cooties were already here. And he had offended everyone. He hadn’t thought this out.

He needed a do-over. The week ended with his do-over. This is the Washington Post account of that:

President Trump declared a national emergency to confront the spread of the coronavirus Friday as his administration reached an agreement with House Democrats on a bipartisan economic relief package for Americans affected by the global pandemic.

Trump made the emergency announcement during a news conference in the Rose Garden in which he repeatedly praised his handling of the crisis, denied responsibility for his administration’s missteps and said for the first time that he would likely undergo testing for the coronavirus after coming into contact with an infected man.

In short, he still maintained he was wonderful, but now this pandemic wasn’t a hoax and no vast conspiracy was out the get him, so this was progress, but he really was wonderful:

“The action I am taking will open up access to up to $50 billion of very important and a large amount of money for states and territories and localities,” he said, adding that he had reached a new partnership with private companies to “vastly increase and accelerate our capacity to test for the coronavirus.”

But that’s fine, let him toot his own horn when he’s done real good, but nothing is that simple:

In the hours after Trump concluded his remarks, questions began to be raised about the new programs he described and what he was looking for out of Congress.

Trump panned House Democrats’ effort to write a relief bill during the news conference, saying they were “not doing what’s right for the country.” But hours later, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced agreement on the relief package with the administration similar to what had already been outlined by House leaders. The bill would spend tens of billions of dollars on sick leave, unemployment insurance, food stamps and other measures to address the unfolding crisis.

Then after some additional uncertainty over the fate of the bill, Trump tweeted his support. It was expected to pass late Friday on an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, and the Senate is expected to clear it for the president’s signature early next week.

Did he give in? Had he folded? Things seemed ambiguous:

Trump also announced a new website during his news conference that would allow people to determine whether they need to be tested for the coronavirus.

“Google is helping to develop a website, it is going to be very quickly done unlike websites of the past, to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location,” he said.

The site will be built by Verily, the life sciences division of Google parent company Alphabet that focuses on research and development around health issues. The company quickly tamped down expectations for how quickly it will be ready, saying in a statement that the website was in “the early stages of development” and that it is “planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time.”

There were also questions about how quickly the drive-through testing sites at major retailers and drugstore chains that Trump and his aides announced Friday would be ready.

There was the faint scent of bullshit in the air:

The virus outbreak has proved to be one of the most challenging episodes of Trump’s presidency, which has been defined by controversies and his chaotic management style. But despite the criticism directed at Trump’s response to the pandemic, he struck a celebratory tone at the news conference as he praised his decision-making and portrayed the public health emergency as not that bad for the country so far while noting the death toll will likely rise.

“We are doing a great job and we have 40 people right now, 40, compare that with other countries that have many, many times that amount,” Trump said, apparently referring to deaths in the United States from the virus. As of Friday night, that number had risen to 48.

But still, all in all, he had finally changed his tune, and Wall Street was grateful for that:

Trump began speaking before the financial markets closed Friday, the end of a volatile and disastrous week that largely erased stock market gains that Trump has regularly touted as proof of his good stewardship. His remarks appeared to buoy investors as the Dow Jones industrial average rose by more than 9 percent Friday, recouping most of the steep losses from the previous day that came in response to Trump’s bungled prime-time address to the nation Wednesday.

The markets retreated back to their slow-rolling disaster after one day of utter catastrophe. The world wasn’t going to end just yet. It was just going to be an unpleasant place for a bit:

After facing heated, bipartisan criticism, the Trump administration announced a series of steps to boost the availability of tests and said it would partner with the private sector to set up drive-through testing sites.

The move was a tacit acknowledgment by Trump that his week-old assertion that tests were available to anyone who wanted them had yet to become a reality. That claim has been belied by criticism from lawmakers and frustrated Americans unable to find out whether they are infected.

That will continue to be an issue:

Trump was reluctant to take ownership of the problems that have led to a lack of available tests and confusion about who is eligible to use the limited supply at hand.

“I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump said, blaming his predecessors and saying he knew nothing about his administration’s 2018 decision to disband a team of experts who had focused on preparing for global pandemics.

He had been asked about that before, and had defended disbanding the pandemic team, but now he says he knew nothing about that and never had, and added that was a nasty question – and no one missed that he was scolding a black woman reporter. That outrages liberals. His base loves that. But there’s no point saying more about that. That’s what he does.

But this was curious:

On Friday, Trump announced that he was temporarily waiving interest on all federal student loans. He also said the government would be buying large amounts of oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

That had nothing to do with any of this, but the week did end on a high note:

The House moved toward passage of a bipartisan coronavirus relief bill Friday night, preparing to dedicate tens of billions of dollars for paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, free testing and other measures to help Americans impacted by the crisis.

The legislation was expected to pass by a wide margin after President Trump endorsed it over Twitter. That development capped two days of volatile negotiations between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that threatened to fall apart entirely for hours Friday amid GOP misgivings. But even after Trump criticized House Democrats at an afternoon news conference Pelosi and Mnuchin kept at it, speaking by phone 13 times in the course of the day and finally clinching a deal that all parties could support.

“This Bill will follow my direction for free CoronaVirus tests, and paid sick leave for our impacted American workers,” Trump wrote, adding that he was directing Cabinet secretaries to issue regulations ensuring small businesses would not be hurt by mandates in the bill.

“I encourage all Republicans and Democrats to come together and VOTE YES! I will always put the health and well-being of American families FIRST,” the president wrote. “Look forward to signing the final Bill, ASAP!”

He seems to be claiming that Nancy Pelosi did everything he wanted and gave him everything he asked, because he’s wonderful, but the faint scent of bullshit returned:

Both leaders made clear that the legislation agreed to Friday would be followed by further relief measures as the coronavirus wallops all sectors of the economy and American life. That could, potentially, include some version of the broad payroll tax cut sought by the president. Already last week Congress passed an $8.3 billion emergency spending bill to address public health aspects of the pandemic, but as the crisis spiraled lawmakers felt they needed to act quickly to provide economic relief to affected Americans.

The deal was negotiated without Pelosi and Trump ever speaking, with Pelosi telling reporters Friday: “There was no need for that.”

And there was no payroll tax cut in there at all, only this:

The agreement reached Friday is primarily aimed at expanding the safety net to cope with the potentially catastrophic economic impact of the coronavirus. In addition to ensuring free coronavirus testing, the plan would dramatically increase several benefits, particularly family medical leave and paid sick leave, while also bolstering unemployment insurance; spending on health insurance for the poor; and food programs for children and the elderly.

That’s a Democratic wish list and a Republican nightmare:

One of the biggest changes is a new paid sick leave guarantee for those impacted by the coronavirus, and reaching agreement on this issue was one of the final sticking points to a deal. Under the agreement, employers would be required to provide 14 days of paid sick leave at “not less” than two-thirds their regular rate. They would qualify for the benefit if they are sick and have to be quarantined or treated for coronavirus, or if they have to leave their jobs to take care of a family member who has coronavirus. Workers would also be eligible for paid sick leave if they have to stay home because they have a child whose school or childcare facility has closed due to the coronavirus.

The agreement also dramatically expands the existing paid family medical and leave program from its current form. Under existing law, employers are required to give “job protected” medical leave for up to 12 weeks – meaning workers cannot be fired – without additional pay. Under the Pelosi-Mnuchin plan, workers taking paid medical leave would also be paid at two-thirds of their typical rate of pay for the 12 weeks. This benefit, which applies to companies with fewer than 500 employees, would be available for a year for people affected by the coronavirus.

Republicans hate that sort of thing but they gave in:

Congressional aides raised concerns that pushing these new benefits onto employers might bankrupt many businesses already trying to contend with the financial blow from coronavirus. Instead, the legislation gives employers a tax credit equal to 100 percent of paid sick leave wage benefits they have paid out. The plan also beefs up unemployment insurance by giving states additional funding to disburse should there be a significant rise in the number of unemployed people in that state.

What about personal responsibility? What about moral hazard? The week that began with an intervention ended in capitulation.

And it also ended with what Jack Shafer notes here:

At 73 years old, President Donald Trump is a prime target for a contagious disease that falls hard on the elderly. Multiple people in the Trump orbit are infected. Trump posed for a picture alongside an aide to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who has tested positive. (Bolsonaro, who is in the same picture, denies reports that he’s positive.) The president spoke at the CPAC conference earlier this month where, as was later reported, an attendee carrying a gold-plated VIP ticket was later diagnosed as virus-positive. Other attendees of the conference, including incoming chief of staff Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), and Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) exercised medical caution with self-quarantine. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who was at Mar-a-Lago at the same time as the Brazilian visitors, is also self-quarantining. And both Attorney General William Barr and Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump recently spent time with an Australian minister who subsequently tested positive. It’s almost as if the virus has circled Trump.

At this point, it’s not morbid, just good planning, to say the administration has no excuse not to start making plans for the chance that the virus might incapacitate Trump. The White House has not exactly been transparent about whether Trump has been tested. But his age and his clinical obesity mean that his system would be fighting an infection from a trench: It can put older patients on ventilators, sometimes for four weeks, even if they do recover.

And that might call for another intervention:

The Constitution has a provision for this, of course: The 25th Amendment allows an orderly transfer of power if the president can’t execute his duties.

But don’t expect that. He’ll be fine. He’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine. But sometimes an intervention really is necessary, or an election.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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