Of course the nation is confused. Those on the right now must think that the “deep state” coopted Donald Trump, turning his mind to mush and making him a puppet of the international cabal of Jewish bankers who have always really run the world. Those on the left side of things must think that someone slapped Donald Trump upside the head and finally slapped some sense into him. The three Americans in the political middle, somewhere in Iowa, didn’t know what to think. They never do.
But the man changed his mind:
Days after President Trump said he hoped the country would be “opened up and raring to go” by Easter, he instead announced on Sunday an extension of federal guidance on social distancing through April, in a continued effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
It was an abrupt reversal for the president, who last week tweeted that “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” amid a volatile stock market and record applications for unemployment benefits. He made comparisons to car crashes and “a very bad flu season,” downplaying the virus’s potential death toll.
But public health experts widely scoffed at Trump’s idea of packed churches and bustling businesses by Easter on April 12. The nation has reached more than 136,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and more than 2,400 related deaths – with numbers continuing to climb across the country. New York continues to be hit particularly bad, eclipsing 1,000 confirmed deaths related to the coronavirus on Sunday.
So, he gave in, but he didn’t give up:
Calling his previous statements targeting Easter “just an aspiration,” Trump said he now expects the COVID-19 death rate to peak in two weeks, around the same time as the holiday.
“Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won,” Trump said at an evening news conference in the White House Rose Garden. “That would be the greatest loss of all.”
Trump said that by June 1, he expects the country “will be well on our way to recovery.”
He was laying out what now seem to be the rules: Don’t take me seriously, because I’m just thinking out loud, but great things might happen, you never know!
That’s an odd sort of leadership given the facts at hand:
The president’s comments came after a top medical adviser to the White House and state governors said in television interviews Sunday that they could not envision an easing soon of measures designed to slow the virus’s spread, warning that the outbreak will continue taxing hospitals and could kill thousands more people.
Anthony S. Fauci, the White House adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that models suggest the virus could cause between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths and that millions of people could be infected. But he stressed that the 200,000 figure was a worst-case estimate that is unlikely to come to pass.
In the Rose Garden on Sunday, Trump compared those numbers favorably with the more than two million deaths forecast as a worst-case scenario had the nation not taken strict measures to respond to the virus. If coronavirus-related deaths remained under 200,000, he said, “We all together have done a very good job.”
He did mutter something about how he changed his mind because a study that no one had known about previously had just come up – do nothing and more than two million Americans would die. That’s why he suddenly changed his mind. He didn’t mention that all of them in the administration had known about that study for more than two weeks – but no matter. He changed his mind.
But he resented that:
He said the economic impacts of the crisis as businesses are forced to close down would be felt in rising suicides and drug abuse.
“You’re going to have mental depression for people,” he said. “You’re going to have large numbers of suicides. Take a look at what happens in a really horrible recession or worse. So you’re going to have tremendous suicides.”
He added that “you will see drugs being used like nobody’s ever used them before, and people are going to be dying all over the place from drug addiction.”
That was his attack. Those doctors and epidemiologists think they know so much, but he knows more. But there is the reality of the thing:
While New York has seen by far the worst of the virus so far, the governors of Maryland, Louisiana and Michigan said in television interviews that their states’ health systems were at risk of becoming overburdened. The three states could become the next hot spots as cases climb in the Washington suburbs, Detroit and New Orleans.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said the president’s comments about reopening the government and business were unhelpful, conflicting with governors who are urging people to hunker down.
“The virus is going to dictate the time frame, and we’re going to follow the advice of the scientists and doctors,” Hogan said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We don’t see any way we’re going to be opening up in a couple of weeks.”
“In two weeks, around Easter, we’re going to be looking a lot more like New York,” Hogan said.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that officials were seeing numbers “climbing exponentially.”
“We see this astronomical rise,” said Whitmer, who has attracted Trump’s ire in recent days by criticizing the lack of federal assistance. “We’ve got hospitals that are already at capacity, we’re already running out of [supplies] as well.”
Whitmer added: “We’re going to be in dire straits again in a matter of days.”
They already knew what Donald Trump had suddenly discovered on Sunday:
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) warned that his state had only a few days’ runway before becoming overwhelmed. By the end of the week, he said on ABC News’s “This Week,” New Orleans will be at capacity on ventilators. Next, he warned, area hospitals will be out of beds.
“We remain on a trajectory, really, to overwhelm our capacity to deliver health care,” he said.
Edwards said the state has ordered 12,000 ventilators from both the national stockpile and private options but has received only 192.
And CNN had a particular problem with this sudden conversion:
On two occasions during Sunday’s coronavirus briefing, President Donald Trump falsely denied he had said words he had said publicly last week. When PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor noted that the President had said he did not believe that governors actually need all the equipment they claimed they did, Trump said, “I didn’t say that” – even though he said precisely that on Fox News on Thursday.
Later, when CNN White House Correspondent Jeremy Diamond noted that Trump had said he wanted governors to be “appreciative” of him, and that “if they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” Trump said, “But I didn’t say that” – even though he said precisely that at the Friday briefing.
Well, the man does say things:
Trump falsely denied that he claimed governors from certain states are asking for equipment they don’t need. At Sunday’s briefing, PBS Newshour’s White House Correspondent Yamiche Alcindor asked the President whether he felt his comments and belief “that some of the equipment that governors are requesting they don’t actually need” would have an impact on the federal distribution of ventilators and other medical resources. As Alcindor attempted to finish her question, the President interjected, “I didn’t say that,” before going on to say it wouldn’t have an impact.
He did say that. On March 26 during a Fox News interview with Sean Hannity, Trump said, “a lot of equipment’s being asked for that I don’t think they’ll need” specifically in reference to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and following a tirade against Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Trump later said he felt Cuomo was requesting an unnecessary number of ventilators. “I have a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they are going to be,” Trump said. “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators.”
When Alcindor noted that she was quoting from the President’s interview with Hannity, Trump said: “Take a look at my interview. What I want to do is if there is something wrong, we have to get to the bottom of it.”
Nope, that’s not what he said, and there’s this:
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond began a question to Trump as follows: “I’d also like to ask you about some comments you made on Friday. You were talking about governors of different states and you said, ‘I want them to be appreciative.’ You also said, ‘if they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.'” After Diamond said the words “if they don’t treat you right,” Trump said, “But I didn’t say that.” When Diamond finished the sentence, Trump said “I didn’t say that” once more.
Trump did say what he claimed he didn’t. As Diamond told Trump, Diamond was reading direct quotes from Trump’s Friday briefing. Trump went on to argue Sunday that he was being taken out of context, noting that on Friday he had also said of his “I want them to be appreciative” comment that he was talking about people other than himself.
This went on and on, and went nowhere, because he will deny everything, even if it’s on tape, but his Sunday morning tweet might have caused this problem:
“President Trump is a ratings hit. Since reviving the daily White House briefing Mr. Trump and his coronavirus updates have attracted an average audience of 8.5 million on cable news, roughly the viewership of the season finale of ‘The Bachelor.’ Numbers are continuing to rise…”
He was quoting a New York Times article about him. He was proud that he was so awesome, and Kevin Drum had this reaction:
More than 2,000 people have already died and Anthony Fauci estimated this morning that the final death toll would be 100-200,000. In the midst of this, Trump is busy insulting the CEO of GM; fighting with governors he doesn’t like; dithering about the Defense Production Act; declining to bother with a plan to tell manufacturers of medical goods where to ship their stuff; explicitly warning that people have to treat him nicely or they won’t get any federal assistance; claiming that he’s going to quarantine New York and then backing off; lying endlessly about the state of testing; and now bragging about the ratings of his press briefings.
From any other human being on the planet this would be considered deranged behavior. Can you imagine what we’d be saying if it were Saddam Hussein bragging about his TV ratings in the middle of a pandemic? But from Trump it’s just normal.
But something can be done about this:
This is yet another reason why the cable nets need to stop carrying Trump’s briefings live. We already know that they’re full of misinformation, but now we even know why: Trump cares only about high ratings, and he knows he has to amp up the eccentricity every day to get it. That’s what motivates him, not a desire to provide information to the public.
And he does do that:
President Donald Trump alleged that a New York hospital lost protective masks or even allowed them to be stolen, questioning how demand for the product could have spiked so rapidly during the coronavirus outbreak.
Trump cited no evidence and didn’t identify the hospital. At a news conference Sunday in the White House Rose Garden, after the chief executive officer of medical distributor Owens & Minor Inc. said that one of its customers had gone from using 10,000 to 20,000 masks a week to 200,000 to 300,000, the president suggested a criminal reason.
“How do you go from 10 to 20, to 300,000 – 10 to 20,000 masks to 300,000 – even though this is different? Something’s going on, and you ought to look into it, as reporters,” Trump said.
“Where are the masks going – are they going out the back door?” he added. “Somebody should probably look into that, because I just don’t see from a practical standpoint how that’s possible to go from that to that, and we have that happening in numerous places.”
Why do these people need more masks than they needed last year at this time? He has no idea, but the press needs to find out! Maybe all “you” useless reporters can finally do something useful!
He really stuck it to all the reporters there, but this might have been a bad idea:
Personal protective equipment is all that separates medical personnel from becoming patients themselves, Kenneth Raske, president of the Greater New York Hospital Association, said in a statement.
“New York’s health care workers are treating exploding numbers of COVID-19 patients around the clock – willingly and without complaint. My daughter, an ICU nurse at a New York City hospital, is one of them,” Raske said. “They deserve better than their president suggesting that PPE is ‘going out the back door’ of New York hospitals.”
His daughter is not a thief! None of the doctors are! Trump just shrugged. He didn’t know. He was just saying’ – as he does.
This leads to some odd decisions, as Charlie Sykes notes here:
Jerry Falwell Jr. is nothing if not loyal to President Donald Trump.
This past week, a few thousand students and professors returned to Liberty University’s main campus in Virginia despite the widening coronavirus pandemic. Even though many of the classes will be held online, students have been invited to come back to their residential halls and the faculty has been told to report to work on campus.
Falwell, who is the president of the conservative Christian school, defended his decision by insisting that “99 percent of students are not at the age to be at risk and they don’t have conditions that put them at risk.”
That, of course, is factually untrue: young people are not immune. Indeed, last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said more than a third of U.S. patients ill enough to be hospitalized were ages 20 to 54. And of course, even young people who do not become seriously sick can pass the disease to others.
But the science isn’t the point. The public show of loyalty is, and there are few supporters who are more fervently and reflexively loyal to Trump than Falwell. It is a revealing and dangerous moment: What could have been an opportunity for national unity has instead become an occasion to open new political schisms and deepen old ones. Decisions that would normally be made on the basis on apolitical scientific fact are increasingly driven by tribal loyalties.
That’s rather obvious:
As long as possible, much of the Trump-friendly media will continue to downplay the severity of the pandemic, but when that is no longer possible, they will easily pivot to blaming others, especially the Chinese. Trump, after all, became president by blaming the nation’s woes on “others” – immigrants and foreigners. He can also rely on the fierce loyalty of followers for whom protecting Trump no-matter-what is the prime directive.
Perhaps the most extraordinary shift, however, has been the change in conservatives’ attitude toward human life. As he had backed away from the shutdown, Trump warned that “cure” of the shutdown may be worse than the “disease.” In the worst case scenarios, though, the disease could kill 2.2 million Americans.
This poses an obvious challenge for a party that has long prided itself on being pro-life. As they have scurried to keep up with Trump, many Republicans now seem ready to embrace the idea that hundreds of thousands of lives may have to be sacrificed to revive the gross domestic product.
There was this:
The conservative Catholic magazine, First Things, lashed out at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for saying that “if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.”
In an article headlined, “Say No to Death’s Dominion,” R. R. Reno, the magazine’s publisher, derides what he calls Cuomo’s “disastrous sentimentalism.”
“There are many things more precious than life,” he writes.
“Is it right for the nation to require our children’s futures be destroyed to keep alive less than one percent of our population until the next flu season?” asked writer Joy Pullman in The Federalist. “My point here is not that I like people dying,” Pullman wrote. “It’s that very often our society chooses to allow deaths because the alternative is worse.” (The Federalist also published a story that suggested holding “chickenpox parties” to deliberately spread the disease to boost immunity to the disease. The advice was so medically unsound it resulted in the site’s Twitter account being temporarily suspended.)
Radio host Dennis Prager (who also runs Prager University), argued that idea that “the only value is saving a life leads to appeasement… No one can die? Then it’s not a war.”
The New York Times’ Charles Blow has a few things to say about that:
In general, a national crisis benefits the incumbent, if the nation is perceived to be at war against an outside actor. In such cases, there is a predictable nationalistic rallying. Fear becomes an adhesive; heroism becomes an antidepressant. And the president’s bully pulpit is amplified, as networks carry his news conferences and announcements live and the American public tunes in.
People need reassurance, stability and leadership, and changing the person in command in the middle of the process might not appeal to many.
As such, Donald Trump has tried in every way to make fighting the pandemic feel like fighting a war. As he tried to frame it: “We’re at war, in a true sense we’re at war, and we are fighting an invisible enemy.” But an invisible enemy doesn’t work as well as a visible one, so Trump now regularly refers to the virus as the “Chinese virus.”
A nice try but useless:
The problem for Trump is that this actually isn’t a war. It’s a health crisis. The government may attempt to mobilize in some of the same ways it would if the country were actually at war, but a health crisis carries a different psychological freight than a combat war.
A virus is invisible, as Trump originally phrased it, so there isn’t a person or a people to vilify. An invisible army of submicroscopic infectious agents with no mind and no capacity for malice isn’t an enemy that calls up patriotic defensive cohesion.
Calling the virus “the Chinese virus” is the closest Trump can get to a target, to racist, cultural scapegoating.
And that goes nowhere:
The theater of battle is out of sight, due to patient privacy concerns and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations. This war is being waged in hospitals, and the closest most of us will truly get to understanding the gravity and human cost of the situation is from personal testimonials from health care providers.
Here again, the battle differs. In a traditional war, or even a terrorist attack, the front line combatants are public servants, extensions of the government: soldiers, police officers, firefighters.
In the case of a health care emergency, many of those on the front lines are private citizens in a for-profit industry. They may rise, and they have in this case, to true honor, nobility and service, but it is hard for a politician to take credit for their effort and sacrifice.
The idea here is that you cannot lead an army that’s not your army at all and thus be the big hero:
That is a thing that leaders like to do: Find a moment when they can declare a victory, even if the war still rages – George W. Bush on an aircraft carrier standing in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner, or Barack Obama announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden. There is not likely to be such a dramatic moment with this virus unless a vaccine or treatment is quickly developed.
Still, Trump forecasts a victory moment, saying earlier this month, “Americans from every walk of life are coming together and thanks to the spirit of our people, we will win this war and we are, we’re winning and we’re going to win this war.”
Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to grasp the scope of the lethality of the crisis. We see numbers climb, but we rarely see the human representation of those numbers.
There is no battlefield to visit. There is no pile of rubble to climb. There is no communal gathering place. Even if there was a place to gather, gatherings are strictly discouraged during this crisis. There is no collective action, and therefore collective conscience, because we are isolated from one another.
And that leaves Trump with nothing:
Trump needs America to view the fight against the virus as a war against an army unleashed by a foreign power – one over which we will emerge victorious. Only in that light can he emerge as a valiant leader.
Seen the other way, the way it truly is – as a national health emergency during which he has failed by downplaying its significance and lying about his response – it would be a disaster.
And this looks like a disaster for him. Philip Rucker notes this:
David Axelrod, a former senior adviser in the Obama White House, wrote on Twitter that Trump is discovering, “You can’t spin a pandemic. People are sick. People are dying. The media is covering the grim reality of the pandemic and the government’s response, which was laggard. This enrages him.”
But then Rucker also notes this:
The prospect of 2 million deaths seemed to stick with Trump because he repeated the statistic 16 times at Sunday’s news conference. But something else haunted Trump, who in the past has been moved to act by imagery, such as when he ordered strikes in Syria in 2017 after seeing pictures of children gassed by their own government.
This time, it was images of New York’s Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, where the president grew up – a facility he said he knows so well that he can picture the color of its exterior walls and the size of its windows.
“I’ve been watching that for the last week on television body bags all over in hallways,” Trump said. “I have been watching them bring in trailer trucks, freezer trucks – they are freezer trucks because they can’t handle the bodies, there are so many of them. This is essentially in my community in Queens – Queens, New York. I have seen things I’ve never seen before. I mean, I’ve seen them, but I’ve seen them on television in faraway lands.”
He added, “These are trucks that are as long as the Rose Garden and they are pulling up to take out bodies, and you look inside and you see the black body bags. You say, ‘What’s in there? It’s Elmhurst Hospital, must be supplies.’ It’s not supplies; it’s people.”
Oh, so NOW he knows. But there’s also this:
Trump also may have shifted his approach to the pandemic because it is starting to touch close to home. Last week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Trump’s closest ally on the world stage, announced he had tested positive for the coronavirus. And Trump on Sunday said for the first time that a friend, whom he did not name, is struggling to fight the disease.
“He’s a little older and he’s heavy, but he’s a tough person, and he went to the hospital and a day later he’s in a coma,” Trump said. “I go, ‘How’s he doing?’ ‘Sir, he’s in a coma. He’s unconscious. He’s not doing well.’ The speed and the viciousness, especially if it gets the right person, it’s horrible. It’s really horrible.”
This was a departure from the flippant way that Trump talked about the impact of the coronavirus just last week. The president drew parallels to the seasonal flu or car crashes, arguing that both are responsible for far more tragedy than the coronavirus.
“You look at automobile accidents, which are far greater than any numbers we’re talking about,” Trump said March 23. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to tell everybody no more driving of cars.”
But something had slapped him upside the head:
“A lot of people were saying, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do anything, just ride it.’ They say, ‘Ride it like a cowboy. Just ride it. Ride that sucker right through,'” Trump said.
“That’s where the 2.2 million people come in – would have died, maybe – and that’s not acceptable.”
A lot of people were saying don’t do anything? Be a cowboy and ride it out? Just ride it? Who was saying that? That might have been no more than those voices in his head.
That’s okay. He’s not listening anymore.