When people used to go to work, when there was work, there was that obligatory Monday morning question. “So, how was your weekend?” No one really wanted to know, but one asked, because that was the polite and sociable thing to do. People do need to talk about what just happened, but this was this last weekend:
In Texas, they flocked to Galveston’s beaches. In South Florida, they formed long lines at marinas, boats in tow, ready to get out on the water. In Tennessee, they filled the streets of the resort town of Gatlinburg, and in New York City, they spread out across the grassy fields of Prospect Park.
With the weather warming across the U.S., people sought relief over the weekend after weeks of coronavirus restrictions. In some states, their governors had begun easing those rules, even as confirmed cases and deaths attributed to the virus continued to rise. In others, lockdown orders remained in place.
The particular NBC News item goes on, coast to coast, reporting how the entire medical world, and governors who trust the medical world, mostly Democratic governors but a few Republican governors too, were worried sick. This will assure a return to this horror, and ten times worse this time. But some people were angry. They wanted their old life back. They wanted their jobs back. and governors who sneer at the medical world, because they think that their constituents sneer at fancy-pants experts who think they know so much, something Donald Trump has modeled for the nation, want everything open now – safely – but now. Their political future depends on that. Many may die, but they can live with that. About eighty percent of the nation is fine with the lockdowns in place, but they were at home, not in the streets. They made no noise. That means they made no news. That means they didn’t matter.
It was that kind of weekend, and the New York Times’ Peter Baker covers the man who does matter:
President Trump had a quick reaction on Sunday after former President George W. Bush called for national unity. He attacked Mr. Bush.
National unity, Mr. Trump made clear, was not on his agenda for the day, even as the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the country passed 67,000 and tens of millions of out-of-work Americans struggled to get by.
Amid the death and devastation, the president was busy not only assailing Mr. Bush but another predecessor as well, embracing a fringe conspiracy theory to accuse former President Barack Obama of masterminding a “hoax” to take him down. Mr. Trump also attacked a prominent Democratic congressman, denigrated the news media and threatened to withhold aid to states hard hit by the virus unless they bowed to his demands on immigration policy.
As he was venting his anger about all of this the death toll rose to over sixty-seven thousand newly dead Americans in the last six weeks from this virus, but that wasn’t the issue:
Mr. Trump, who spent the weekend at Camp David in his first getaway since most of the nation began locking down in mid-March, seemed peeved at a three-minute video message posted by Mr. Bush that made no mention of the current president but warned against partisanship in a time of peril.
“Let us remember how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat,” Mr. Bush said in the professionally produced video set against music and photographs of medical workers helping victims of the virus and of ordinary Americans wearing masks. “In the final analysis, we are not partisan combatants. We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together, and we are determined to rise.”
This really angered Trump. Anyone can watch it here and decide how offensive the whole thing was. No one thought it was, except for one man:
While Mr. Bush never mentioned Mr. Trump’s name, the sitting president clearly took the message as an implicit rebuke. In a Twitter message, Mr. Trump paraphrased a Fox News personality saying, “Oh by the way, I appreciate the message from former President Bush, but where was he during Impeachment calling for putting partisanship aside.”
Mr. Trump then added in his own voice: “He was nowhere to be found in speaking up against the greatest Hoax in American history!”
People are dying. Let’s work together. Hey, they impeached me! Where’s the outrage about that?
Republicans fell silent. This was getting embarrassing. But there was more:
Hours later, Mr. Trump went after another predecessor, reposting a tweet from a pro-Trump website accusing Mr. Obama of plotting against him. “Evidence has surfaced that indicates Barack Obama was the one running the Russian hoax,” said the original message retweeted by the president.
Mr. Trump also reposted messages attacking Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the leader of the House managers who prosecuted the president at his Senate impeachment trial this year, and vowing to deny federal money to bail out states that maintain sanctuary policies protecting some illegal immigrants.
In a less feisty moment, the president did take time out to post a message praising his golf course in Scotland.
People are dying. Golf is cool. And then it was off to explain his awesomeness on Fox News:
President Donald Trump claimed on Sunday that a coronavirus vaccine would be ready by the end of 2020 and returned to touting an unproven treatment for the disease – on both fronts contradicting his own health officials as well as companies developing and testing potential vaccines.
He knows best. Experts do not:
“We think we’ll have a vaccine by the end of this year and we’re pushing very hard,” he said at a Fox News town hall at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. “We’re building supply lines, we even have the final vaccine.”
He added that several pharmaceutical companies are “close” to developing the vaccine, naming Johnson & Johnson in particular.
All vaccines currently in development are still in the early phases of clinical trials, and Johnson & Johnson has said the soonest its first batch will be available is in 2021. The company has not yet begun human trials, and doesn’t expect to do so until September of this year.
But let’s pretend that’s not so:
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently said it’s “within the realm of possibility” to have a vaccine widely available by January, but only if drug companies are willing to assume the risk of beginning to ramp up production of the vaccine before it is fully tested and approved.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, told Fox News on Sunday morning that “on paper it’s possible” to have a vaccine available in January but “whether we can execute and execute around the globe” is still in question.
They were being careful. Tell the truth but do NOT make this guy angry. And now the world knows that:
Trump on Sunday evening said he wasn’t concerned about which country develops a vaccine first. “I just want to get a vaccine that works. I really don’t care. If it’s another country, I’ll take my hat off to them,” he said.
But if another country beats the U.S. to the finish line in developing a vaccine, many are worried that Trump’s withdrawal from international cooperation efforts – including his recent move to strip funding from the World Health Organization – will limit America’s access to the cure.
And the converse is a worry too. If the United States comes up with that one great vaccine that actually works, it’s America First now. All other nations know they won’t ever see one single dose of that vaccine. They know Trump by now. And everyone also knows he’s just faking this:
Trump acknowledged Sunday that his vaccine timeline may go beyond what his own experts have advised, but insisted on his optimistic timeline.
“The doctors would say, well, you shouldn’t say that. I’ll say what I think,” he said. “I met with the heads of the big companies, these are great companies. I think we’re going to have a vaccine much sooner than later.”
He just has that feeling, and his pride, and his anger:
Further complicating the vaccine push, the Trump administration’s agency in charge of vaccine development has seen turmoil in recent weeks, with the ousted director claiming he was pushed out for raising concerns about the president’s embrace of unproven drugs.
And he does know that everyone is out to get him:
In his town hall on Sunday, Trump also returned to promoting those drugs for malaria – hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine – as a coronavirus treatment even though his own administration has warned it carries dangerous side effects. He went so far as to claim without evidence that his rivals are pushing negative findings about the medication to hurt him politically.
“The Democrats – the radical left, whatever you want – would rather see people, I’m going to be very nice. I’m not going to say ‘die.’ I’m going to say, ‘would rather see people not get well,’ because they think I’m going to get credit if, you know, hydroxychloroquine works,” he said.
The FDA has cautioned that hydroxychloroquine should not be used by patients with heart problems because it make them worse, and other studies have shown that the drug can react badly with diabetes medication.
As more reports emerged about the drug’s risks, Trump himself had stopped promoting it in recent press briefings and interviews. But at Sunday night’s town hall, he blamed the new data on his political opponents.
“They do the false reports,” he added. “People aren’t dying from it. They don’t want to see a good result. And that’s very sad.”
There is no evidence for anything he says here, which, one presumes, he seems to believe is the very best evidence that everyone really is out to get him, and there was a bit more:
President Trump on Sunday sought to reassure Americans that it is safe for states to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, offering support to protesters who have railed against the lockdowns across the country.
“I really believe that you can go to parks, you can go to beaches if you stay away a certain amount,” Trump said during a Fox News Channel town hall at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
Trump said that it’s possible to “satisfy both” anti-lockdown protesters and those who are afraid to resume public life.
That was a minor concession to reality, as was this:
He scaled up the estimate he has used for the number of expected dead – projecting that the U.S. toll may be as high as 100,000 – while emphasizing that he takes the novel coronavirus seriously and noting that three of his friends have died after contracting it.
Okay, there are dead people. There, he said it. Satisfied now?
But that’s not his fault. David Sanger reports this:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday backed President Trump’s assertion that the coronavirus originated in a research laboratory in Wuhan, China, though the nation’s intelligence agencies say they have reached no conclusion on the issue.
Speaking on the ABC program “This Week,” Mr. Pompeo, the former CIA chief and one of the senior administration officials who is most hawkish on dealing with China, said that “there’s enormous evidence” that the coronavirus came from the lab, though he agreed with the intelligence assessment that there was no indication that the virus was man-made or genetically modified.
The theories are not mutually exclusive: Some officials who have examined the intelligence reports, which remain classified, say it is possible an animal that was infected with the coronavirus in the laboratory was destroyed, and a lab worker was accidentally infected in the process. But that is just one of many theories still being examined.
In short, there’s not much here:
Senior American officials, including those who have looked at intelligence and who favor the lab theory, have said in private that evidence pointing to a lab accident is mainly circumstantial and based on public material. Intelligence officers have told senior administration officials that they probably will not find proof of a lab accident. And among scientists and especially virologists, there is largely agreement that the chances that a lab accident sparked the outbreak are slim, while the probability that the new virus made the leap from an animal to a human in a non-lab setting in southern China is much higher.
But that’s not good enough:
Mr. Pompeo repeatedly accused China’s Communist Party, led by President Xi Jinping, of covering up evidence and denying American experts access to the research lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology…
Mr. Pompeo is among the small group of senior officials believed to be pushing American spy agencies to find evidence to support the theory that the government laboratory in Wuhan was the origin of the outbreak…
Some intelligence analysts are concerned that the pressure from administration officials could distort the final assessments about the virus’s origin, and that they could be used as a political weapon in an intensifying battle with China over a disease that has infected more than three million people across the globe.
And of course that should sound familiar:
If the administration continues on the path that Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Trump have blazed in recent days, they will doubtless come under increasing pressure to make available some of the evidence that led them to their conclusions. But that could prove tricky, as it did for the Bush administration when, after the invasion of Iraq, it was under pressure to make public the assessments it received that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction. That evidence turned out to be flawed – and some of the government agencies with the most expertise on the issue wrote dissents that were ignored or overruled.
Been there, done that, should know better, but Sanger concedes this:
Mr. Pompeo was correct in his assertions that Chinese government officials went to considerable lengths to cover up evidence about the outbreak and detained scientists who warned about it. They closed a laboratory in Shanghai after one of its lead scientists shared the genomic sequence of the virus with collaborators around the world. That data has been critical to medical research, including on possible vaccines, but the Chinese authorities said the laboratory had to be closed down for “rectification.”
The Chinese authorities are not good people, but the world may not be convinced of that, as Anne Applebaum explains here:
The tone of news headlines ranges from straight-faced in Kompas, a major Indonesian news outlet – Trump Usulkan Suntik Disinfektan dan Sinar UV untuk Obati Covid-19, or “Trump Proposes Disinfectant Injection and UV Rays to Treat COVID-19” – to snide, from Le Monde in France—Les élucubrations du « docteur » Trump, or “The Rantings of ‘Doctor’ Trump.” The incredulous first paragraph of an article in Sowetan, from South Africa, declares that “US President Donald Trump has again left people stunned and confused with his bizarre suggestion that disinfectant and ultraviolet light could possibly be used to treat Covid-19.” El Comercio, a distinguished Peruvian newspaper, treated its readers to photographs of Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus-response coordinator, grimacing as the president asked her whether the injection of disinfectant might be a cure.
Quotations from the president’s astonishing April 23 press conference have appeared on every continent, via countless television channels, radio stations, magazines, and websites, in hundreds of thousands of variations and dozens of languages – often accompanied by warnings, in case someone was fooled, not to drink disinfectant or bleach.
In years past, many of these outlets presumably published articles critical of this or that aspect of U.S. foreign policy, blaming one U.S. president or another. But the kind of coverage we see now is something new. This time, people are not attacking the president of the United States. They are laughing at him.
Of course that’s a minor matter, but this isn’t:
If Trump is ridiculous, his administration is invisible. Carl Bildt – a Swedish prime minister in the 1990s, a United Nations envoy during the Bosnian wars, and a foreign minister for many years after that – told me that, looking back on his 30-year career, he cannot remember a single international crisis in which the United States had no global presence at all. “Normally, when something happens” – a war, an earthquake – “everybody waits, to see what the Americans are doing, for better or for worse, and then they calibrate their own response based on that.”
This time, Americans are doing… nothing. Or to be more specific, because plenty of American governors, mayors, doctors, scientists, and tech companies are doing things, the White House is doing nothing. There is no presidential leadership inside the United States; there is no American leadership in the world. Members of the G7 – the U.S. and its six closest allies – did meet to write a joint statement. But even that tepid project ended in ludicrous rancor when the American secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, insisted on using the expression “Wuhan virus” and the others gave up in disgust. Not only is the president talking nonsense, not only is America absent, but the nation’s top diplomat is a caricature of a tough guy -someone who throws around insults in the absence of any capacity to influence events.
This is an embarrassment, or worse:
Others are drawing even more radical conclusions, and with remarkable speed. The “disinfectant” comments – and the laughter that followed – mark not so much a turning point as an acceleration point, the moment when a transformation that began much earlier suddenly started to seem unstoppable. Although we are still only weeks into this pandemic, although the true scale of the health crisis and the economic catastrophe is still unknown, the outline of a very different, post-American, post-coronavirus world is already taking shape. It’s a world in which American opinions will count less, while the opinions of America’s rivals will count more. And that will change political dynamics in ways that Americans haven’t yet understood.
It may be time to pay attention to who’s out there taking up our slack now:
Look at China’s more serious public-relations campaign: the stunts at airports around the world, from Pakistan to Italy to Israel, designed to mark the arrival of Chinese aid – masks, surgical gowns, diagnostic tests, and sometimes doctors. These events all have a similar script: The plane lands; the receiving nation’s dignitaries go out to meet it; the Chinese experts emerge, looking competent in their hazmat gear; and everyone utters words of gratitude and relief. Of course some of this, too, is propaganda.
In reality, some of the equipment billed as aid has been purchased, not donated. Some of it, especially the diagnostic tests, has turned out to be defective. Some of those who receive these goods also know perfectly well that they are designed to silence questions about where the virus came from, why knowledge of it was initially suppressed, and why it was allowed to spread around the world.
If, in these circumstances, the propaganda “works,” that’s because those who receive it have made a calculation: Pretending to believe it is a way of acknowledging and accepting Chinese power – and, perhaps, a way of expressing interest in Chinese investment.
After all, we have walked away:
A year ago, Italy became the core European member of the Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese trade-and-infrastructure project designed to create deeper links across Eurasia and to provide an alternative to the transatlantic and Pacific trade pacts quashed by Trump. Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, until recently the leader of Italy’s anti-EU Five Star Movement, has cultivated links to China too. Chinese investment has gained importance. Already, a Chinese oligarch has bought the Inter Milan soccer club; Chinese banks already own big stakes in Italian companies like Eni and Fiat.
Thanks to the economic havoc created by the coronavirus, China’s efforts in Rome may now bear fruit. Maurizio Molinari, the editor of La Repubblica, told me that Chinese businessmen are right now building on their contacts, looking for companies and properties to buy, scouting out factories that are suddenly bankrupt and entrepreneurs who want to sell out. I asked him what the source of China’s appeal was right now: “Money,” he replied.
Trump, on the other hand, shut down flights from Europe, as he had with China, and left it at that. But wait, there’s more:
Chinese aid has also been delivered to Japan and South Korea, two U.S. allies who have sought close relationships with Trump and have received, in exchange, demands that they pay more for American bases. As close neighbors and former foes, both countries have many reasons to be wary of China. But now that Trump is a laughingstock, now that America is absent from the game, some in both Tokyo and Seoul may conclude that they should start hedging bets. China has also offered major assistance to Iran, a country that had already been given a major role as a Belt and Road hub. Iranian leaders now have extra reasons to hope they can outlast sanctions if the American president calling for them need not be treated as a serious person.
And there’s this:
China’s relationships with the Arab world have also deepened during the pandemic. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait sent aid to Wuhan during the earlier part of the crisis; later, China reciprocated. The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates has described China as the role model to follow in this crisis. On March 8, Chinese medical workers arrived in Baghdad – an advance team, perhaps, poised to take advantage of the inevitable American retreat.
We did spend eight years there. We lost five thousand troops. We spent four or five trillion dollars. Saddam Hussein is gone. And then their new government we birthed decided Iran, next door, was an ally, and now the Chinese will help them rebuild that which we destroyed, for their own good of course. China gets Iraq. We’re long gone, and Applebaum adds this:
I am not praising China’s efforts. I am simply calling attention to the fact that, in a world where people laugh at the American president, they might succeed. Inside the bubble of officials who surround Pompeo, it may well seem very brave and cutting-edge to use the expression “Wuhan virus” or to call for bigger and bolder rhetorical attacks on China. But out there in the real world – out there in the world where Pompeo’s boss is perceived as a sinister clown, and Pompeo himself as just the sinister clown’s lackey – not very many people are listening. Once again: A vacuum has opened up, and the Chinese regime is leading the race to fill it…
When Trump seeks to lead the world against China, who will follow? Italy might refuse outright. The European Union could demur. America’s close friends in Asia might feel nervous, and delay making decisions.
It seems that we’re screwed:
I wish I could say for certain that a President Joe Biden could turn this all around, but by next year it may be too late. The memories of the prime minister at the airport, welcoming Chinese doctors, will remain. The bleach jokes and memes will still cause the occasional chuckle. Whoever replaces Pompeo will have only four short years to repair the damage, and that might not be enough.
And if Trump wins a second term? Any nation can make a mistake once, elect a bad leader once. But if Americans choose Trump again, that will send a clear message: We are no longer a serious nation. We are as ignorant as our thoughtless, narcissistic, ignorant president.
Don’t be surprised if the rest of the world takes note of that, too.
Does the rest of the world matter? Does expertise matter? Do facts matter? Perhaps we should vote on that. Perhaps we will.