More a Realist

“The British nation is unique in this respect: they are the only people who like to be told how bad things are, who like to be told the worst.” ~ Winston Churchill

Americans are not British. Americans hate being told how bad things are, if things really are bad, and they might not be bad at all:

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said Tuesday he considered himself “more a realist than an alarmist” after President Donald Trump on Sunday labeled him “a little bit of an alarmist” even as the coronavirus pandemic worsens…

Fauci’s comments follow a tense stretch with the President that saw the White House make a concerted effort to discredit him as he became increasingly vocal about his concerns over reopening the country amid a national surge in coronavirus cases…

Trump later said that he has “a very good” relationship with Fauci.

Despite Trump’s characterization of their relationship, he did not invite Fauci to attend the White House news conference on the pandemic that was scheduled for Tuesday evening.

Trump didn’t want an alarmist screwing up his news conference, but “reopening the country amid a national surge in coronavirus cases” has been a spectacularly bad idea. Things are worse than ever, and Trump would have to admit that. He’d have to admit that Fauci had been right, without saying Fauci’s name. That would be too much to bear. And he’d have to admit that he himself had screwed up, and he had had no plan to fix this and has no plan now. He had to deliver bad news. He had never done that before. He hates that sort of thing. He’s not weak. There is no bad news.

But there was. The Washington Post’s Toluse Olorunnipa reports on how Trump did:

President Trump walked to the lectern in the White House briefing room alone Tuesday, attempting to single-handedly hit the reset button on the public blame he is facing for failing to control the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Three months after he abandoned the daily virus briefings and attempted to turn the country’s attention to what he described as the “great American comeback,” Trump’s low-key reappearance before reporters seemed to be a tacit admission that his previous strategy had not worked.

Six months after the first coronavirus case was confirmed in the United States – and with almost 4 million confirmed infections – Trump’s attempt to re-engage with the crisis and embrace public health guidelines marked a notable departure from his recent approach to the pandemic.

“We are in the process of developing a strategy that’s going to be very, very powerful,” Trump said Tuesday, reading from prepared remarks that did not include details of what the strategy would entail.

There had been no strategy, and there’s no strategy now, but there’s going to be a wonderful strategy, a powerful strategy, the best strategy that ever was and ever could be. Just wait. You’ll see. This was just like his wonderful and amazing replacement for Obamacare. No one has seen that yet. No one will ever see that. His wonderful and amazing replacement for Obamacare was wholly hypothetical. This seems to be hypothetical too, but the press shrugged. That’s Trump. He says all sorts of things.

But he had been humbled:

While Trump continued to showcase his trademark boosterism with repeated praise of his administration, he also appeared to acknowledge that the virus he once said would soon disappear continues to pose a serious threat to the country, as well as to his reelection chances.

“It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better,” he said during the 30-minute briefing in which he spoke in subdued tones. “Something I don’t like saying about things, but that’s the way it is.”

Fauci, the alarmist, had been right. He couldn’t say that, but he said that, and more:

Trump used part of his time in the briefing room to push a public health message that many lawmakers and medical experts have been requesting for months. He praised healthcare workers for saving lives, largely avoided attacks on Democrats, and urged Americans to wear masks and stay away from crowded bars.

Yes, he actually said that. His base wept. But then, suddenly, he was his old self again:

While he avoided some of the gaffes from his previous briefings and spent less time airing personal grievances, Trump still used the televised platform to break away from White House talking points and stir controversy. He contradicted press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s claims that he gets tested multiple times a day for the virus, and he sent well wishes to a woman who has been accused of grooming Jeffrey Epstein’s underage victims and recruiting them to be sexually abused over several years.

“I just wish her well,” Trump said when asked about Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s longtime companion who prosecutors say was an accomplice in his predation.

No one knew what to make of that, or that business with masks:

The president appeared to reverse course on his mask skepticism on Monday, tweeting a picture of himself wearing a mask and writing that “many people say that it is Patriotic” to use a face covering when social distancing is not possible.

Given Trump’s history of criticizing mask use – he told the Wall Street Journal in June that some Americans wore masks as a protest of him personally – some medical experts said they wished the president would model good public health by walking into the briefing room with his face covered.

“I genuinely hope the President wears a mask to the press briefing as a signal to the several million people watching on TV that wearing a mask is simple and important,” tweeted Rob Davidson, an emergency physician and executive director of the Committee to Protect Medicare, a national network of doctors that has lobbied against Trump. “At a minimum I hope he encourages all Americans to #maskup. A national mandate would be better.”

Trump did not wear a mask to the briefing, but he pulled one out of his pocket and – in a rare departure – did not equivocate as he called on Americans to use them.

“We’re asking everybody that when you are not able to socially distance, wear a mask, get a mask,” Trump said. “Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact.”

The man has changed, or he hasn’t:

Ahead of the briefing, several previous White House press secretaries offered advice about how Trump should approach the briefing room.

The president “should come out and present the update on what the government is doing in terms of fighting #COVID19 and getting economy open then walk off and allow other officials to provide additional updates and answer questions,” Sean Spicer, the first press secretary in the Trump White House, wrote Tuesday on Twitter.

He quoted a post from Ari Fleischer, press secretary in the George W. Bush White House, which called the briefings a “mistake” before going on to offer guidance.

“Be specific about what the Fed government is doing” and “Get out of the room within 30 minutes,” he wrote.

Sarah Sanders, who succeeded Spicer, told Fox News on Monday that Trump should remind people that he is doing everything he can to protect them from the virus.

“Do it in a way that’s compassionate – talk about how he cares about the people and remind them of that being the core of who he is,” she said.

Trump did take a moment during his prepared remarks to acknowledge the more than 139,000 Americans who have died – though he stopped short of taking any responsibility for lost lives.

“We mourn every precious life that’s been lost,” Trump said. “I pledge in their honor that we will develop a vaccine.”

You want sympathy? You want empathy? Here’s a vaccine. Now shut up.

Dana Milbank has a more interesting take on this. This was a reality show:

The instructions for President Trump could not have been clearer: Stick to the script. Talk about the virus. Be serious and sober. Don’t go off on tangents.

And for a few minutes, Trump did as he was supposed to do at Tuesday’s coronavirus briefing, his first in nearly three months. He admitted, “It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better – something I don’t like saying about things, but that’s the way it is.” He encouraged people to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

If only he hadn’t taken the bait when Steven Nelson of the New York Post asked him about Ghislaine Maxwell, the woman accused of aiding Jeffrey Epstein in the sexual abuse of minors.

“I just wish her well,” Trump said.

You could almost hear palms being smacked against foreheads in unison throughout the West Wing.

He blew it:

Using a nationally televised briefing from the White House to offer good wishes to the accused procurer for a convicted sex criminal? The new season of Trump’s reality show is off to a shaky start.

In the new season, the villainous virus is back, this time attacking the South and Southwest. After weeks of denial and false assurances, Trump gave his season opener on the very day that deaths again crossed the 1,000-per-day threshold. His five o’clock follies returned at their original hour – “a good slot,” Trump explained. But the show had lost its spark.

The supporting cast was gone, and Trump stood alone on the podium. The star read woodenly from a script he obviously did not want to read.

“Get a mask whether you like the mask or not – they have an impact,” he read, with enthusiasm more commonly seen in hostage videos.

The whole thing was a bit sad:

He put a happy spin on things – he’s building a “very, very powerful” strategy, has made “tremendous moves,” “did a lot of things that were very good” and has “great people, logistic military people” ready to get vaccines to those “high-risk, wonderful people” – but for once didn’t entirely deny reality. He allowed that there are “I guess you could say also things that we can do better on.”

Yes, he might work on his grammar there, but he was soon back to being that guy everyone knows:

Trump was asked about the contradiction between his new claim that “it will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better” and his previous claim that the virus would “disappear.”

“The virus will disappear – it will disappear,” Trump reprised.

Does he want Americans to judge him on the ballot in November by how he has handled the pandemic?

Trump replied that “next year’s going to be a record year and I think they’re going to judge me on that.” He then went into a long, unbidden boast about taxes, regulations and “Veterans Choice.” (“It’s called ‘choice,’ ” he explained.)

That would be his plan to get rid of the Veterans Administration and all the VA hospitals and just hand out money to these people, to buy whatever medical and retirement care they might like from the private sector and be done with it. No one knows why he decided to talk about that, but Kevin Drum has a theory about that woman:

Ghislaine Maxwell is the alleged accomplice of Jeffrey Epstein, the alleged billionaire sex trafficker who allegedly died by suicide in jail last year. Maxwell herself is now in jail charged with conspiracy to entice minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts, transportation and conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, and two counts of perjury. In other words, being the “madam” for Epstein’s sex ring.

Why would Trump “wish her well” on national TV?

Answer: because he can’t help himself. One of Trump’s iron personal laws is that if you are nice to him, he is nice to you. If you attack him, he attacks you. It’s the transactional deal he makes with everyone in the world. In Maxwell’s case, she has been nice to Trump and has never attacked him, so Trump has no choice but to be nice in return. It’s practically built into his DNA. It’s really as simple as that. Political considerations just don’t enter into it.

That may be so, but shouldn’t there be a strategy to all this? Shouldn’t there be a plan? That’s not how Trump rolls, as they say. And now that’s not how Republicans roll. And that may cause the next disaster:

A major intraparty rift widened between the White House and Senate Republicans on Tuesday as they stumbled to formulate a unified coronavirus budget plan, lacking agreement on policy goals, spending parameters and even deadlines.

The Republican and White House positions changed multiple times as the day went on, with some GOP lawmakers refusing to rally behind President Trump’s demand for a payroll tax cut while others worked to convince White House emissaries that more money was needed for testing and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Complicating matters, other Republican lawmakers appeared mortified about the growing size of the spending bill, leading to bickering over which policies to remove and warning that miscalculations could allow Democrats to seize control of the White House and the Senate in November.

“What in the hell are we doing?” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who according to multiple officials was incensed at the push to boost spending levels, asked his colleagues at the lunch with the administration negotiators, according to several people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the exchange.

What were they doing? They were mirroring Trump and thus creating a disaster:

The whole process now appears likely to spill into August, something the White House and congressional Democrats had hoped to avoid, because it would mean more than 20 million Americans would lose emergency unemployment benefits when they expire at the end of this month. They have not mapped out a plan for what would happen to these people as the pandemic’s turmoil continues to weigh on the U.S. economy.

Part of the problem stemmed from the White House’s failure to go into the talks with a preset strategy or a list of proposals that they knew GOP lawmakers would rally behind. This miscalculation created immediate problems. Numerous demands the White House had tried to formulate over the weekend were erased within hours.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Monday that the goal was to keep the spending bill around $1 trillion, but by Tuesday he had abandoned that. White House officials also indicated they would no longer push for cuts to testing and the CDC. And after a barrage of criticism of Trump’s tax cut demand, White House officials stopped trying to press the matter.

“I think we’re going to spend what we need to spend, and we’re going to make sure we don’t spend more than that,” Mnuchin said.

That’s not a strategy, much less a plan. All they can do is block things:

Democrats pointed fingers at the Republican infighting and said the White House and GOP leaders were unprepared to handle the country’s mounting economic and health care challenges. House Democrats passed a $3 trillion spending bill in May that would send another round of stimulus checks, provide more money to states and help hospitals, among other things, but the White House has vowed to block it.

But inside the White House it’s a cat fight:

Underlying the confusion surrounding the GOP stimulus package are tensions among Trump administration officials about their priorities.

Trump is being represented on Capitol Hill by Mnuchin and Meadows, a tandem that hasn’t brokered a deal jointly with Congress before. Trump has for months privately worried that Mnuchin, his chief negotiator with Democrats, was giving away too much to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), leading conservative lawmakers to push for Meadows to have a more active role in this round of talks. Before joining the White House, Meadows was a congressman and leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Mnuchin, meanwhile, has a background as a banker and a Hollywood producer with few ties to the conservative movement.

On Tuesday, Meadows sat toward the back of the room and deferred to Mnuchin as he led the conversation with the GOP senators, according to two people aware of the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. Mnuchin discussed the importance of sending another round of stimulus checks and providing more money for the Paycheck Protection Program.

But no conservatives trust this former Hollywood producer, and the White House is split in two, with Trump in the back room watching Fox and Friends and Tucker Carlson and tweeting the day away. There is no strategy. Republican senators were left to shout at each other:

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) urged other GOP senators to be attentive to what Republicans in competitive reelection bids are hearing on the ground from voters, and he made the case that if the GOP loses the majority, Democrats in control will implement policies that are much more costly to the national debt. So spending a bit more money now in a rescue bill that would aid Republicans in their races would be cheaper in the long run, he argued. Cotton is also up for reelection in November but is not considered to be in a competitive race.

Cotton’s viewpoint appeared to clash with that of Cruz, who vigorously warned against spending too much money in the package and said it could lead to a revolt among conservative voters in November.

Cruz said the GOP should be focused on a safe restart of the economy. He said if the economy remains shuttered in November, Democrats will win both the White House and the Senate and that Republican senators, who usually meet in the ornate Mansfield Room in the Capitol, will “be meeting in a much smaller lunchroom” next year.

Trump is the leader of the Republican Party now. He should decide this. He won’t. Maybe he can’t.

This is almost comic. Does it really matter? Of course it does. As the New York Times’ Ben Casselman explains, the situation is dire:

When millions of Americans began losing their jobs in March, the federal government stepped in with a life preserver: $600 a week in extra unemployment benefits to allow workers to pay rent and buy groceries, and to cushion the economy.

With economic conditions again deteriorating, that life preserver will disappear within days if Congress doesn’t act to extend it. That could prompt a wave of evictions and inflict more financial harm on millions of Americans while further damaging the economy.

Even the threat of a lapse in benefits could prove harmful, economists warn, by forcing households to make precautionary spending cuts.

And there’s no time left to sit around and argue the fine points here:

The benefits program, Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, expires at the end of July. But because of a quirk in the calendar, workers in most states won’t qualify for the payments after this week. Most will be left with regular unemployment benefits, which total only a few hundred dollars a week in many states.

That means that more than 20 million Americans could soon see their weekly income fall by half or more at a time when the unemployment rate remains higher than in any period since World War II.

That’s a real disaster, with a secondary disaster attached:

Economists warn that it isn’t just individual recipients who will suffer if the benefits are cut. The federal payments are injecting billions of dollars into the economy each week, money that flows to landlords, grocery stores, retailers and countless other businesses. Ernie Tedeschi, a former Treasury Department official and an economist at Evercore ISI Research, has estimated that if the payments ceased, the U.S. gross domestic product would be 2 percent smaller at the end of 2020 and there would be 1.7 million fewer jobs nationwide.

And that is what is on the way:

Congress returned from recess this week to consider a new relief package, which could include at least a partial extension of the extra unemployment benefits. Senate Republicans and the White House are considering a roughly $1 trillion package that would retain the program but scale it back. Democrats are pressing to continue paying the full $600 a week.

But Congress seems unlikely to act before benefits lapse. And because of the antiquated computer systems in many state unemployment offices, which do the processing, it could take weeks to restart payments. That means that millions are likely to see their income drop at least temporarily.

And given this White House and this Senate, millions are likely to see their income drop permanently:

“There are people who are on the precipice of financial disaster here,” said David Wilcox, a former Federal Reserve official who is an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “We may think that the odds are that Congress will come to a reasonable conclusion. But for a person who is on the precipice of financial disaster, it’s very low comfort to be told, ‘You know, I think there’s a 70 percent chance that this is going to work out fine.'”

That may be too optimistic:

When Congress created the various programs, it still seemed possible that the pandemic would have begun to ebb by summer and that the economy would no longer need as much federal help.

Instead, after falling steadily in May and early June, virus cases are rising in much of the country, and states are reimposing business restrictions. Real-time measures suggest that the economic recovery that began in May has begun to lose momentum, and some economists expect the unemployment rate to start climbing again.

The threat of an economic stall has led some Republicans in Washington to embrace more aggressive federal action than they were considering a few weeks ago. Larry Kudlow, a top economic adviser to President Trump and a critic of the $600 payments, said this week that there was “no way” Republicans would allow the benefits to expire entirely.

But the congressional outcome remains unclear.

And now add another secondary effect, the nation’s leader having no strategy that might help craft a plan to fix this:

Cutting off benefits could also increase the spread of the virus by forcing people to take jobs in which they might be exposed to it or expose others.

“When that $600 goes away, people who live week to week, paycheck to paycheck, they’re suddenly going to be unable to pay basic expenses and will be desperate for work,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project.

Yes, expect things to get much worse. Trump dismissed Fauci as no more than an alarmist. Fauci said no, he’s more a realist, and for thirty minutes on a Tuesday afternoon in Washington, Donald Trump was more a realist than a delusional fabulist – but maybe he should consider becoming an alarmist. That actually might be useful now.

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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