The whole west coast is on fire. The smoke is thick here in Los Angeles. No one is going anywhere. Breathing is too difficult. Everyone is hiding. And this is spreading. The haze from the fires has reached Washington – the skies high above the White House turned orange – which somehow seemed symbolic. Some say we do have a big orange Cheeto in office there. But it’s the haze that’s the problem. Nothing is clear. Everything is a bit fuzzy around the edges.
Oh well. That’s America now, and it was a slow news day too. No one made any sudden sharp moves. It was a day to move cautiously, a day to figure out what’s what, so the Washington Post asked their semi-retired legend to drop by and clarify a few things in his new book:
Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward said Tuesday that there was “denial across the board” among White House staffers about the severity of the coronavirus, and blamed President Trump for being a “bulldozer” who rejects opposing views.
Woodward, whose new book, “Rage,” is based in part on 18 on-the-record interviews with Trump, made the comments in a Washington Post Live interview.
“I think there was denial across the board,” Woodward told The Post’s Philip Rucker when asked whether White House staffers who also knew about the lethality of the virus denied its severity. He added that Trump is “a one-man band” who is “going to do what he wants to do on impulse or on information he has.”
“He’s a bulldozer to the staff and, quite frankly, to the country,” Woodward said. “And he just says what he wants, and so there’s no control. And this is one of the problems of the Trump presidency, that he doesn’t build a team. He doesn’t plan.”
Maybe that sums up the whole book. There’s nothing new there. Trump does seem to wing it, but he always has. That seems to be his management style. He reacts. He trusts his instincts. He doesn’t think. He does. So get out of the way of the bulldozer. The metaphor works, and “just doing” has served him well, or well enough until this damned virus came along. Now all he can do is pretend that what he said was wonderful:
Trump has criticized the book, calling it “just another political hit job” and told “Fox & Friends” on Tuesday morning: “I read it very quickly. And it was very boring.”
But he has also acknowledged that he knowingly minimized the danger posed to Americans by the virus, although he insists that his actions did not amount to lying.
He had said the virus was nothing much and he had known that wasn’t true, but he wasn’t lying at all. The smoke was thick in the air. But maybe he hadn’t said what everyone had heard him say. The haze was thick in the air:
Jared Kushner, a White House senior adviser and Trump’s son-in-law, defended the administration’s response to the coronavirus in an interview Tuesday morning on NBC News’s “Today” show.
“The president was very forthcoming with the American people about what he knew and when he knew it,” Kushner said.
Wait. Even the president had not said that. The president explicitly told Woodward that he had not been forthcoming with the American people, and let Woodward record that on tape, and never disputed that he said that. He even boasted, later, that this was a good thing. He was Churchill. He was FDR. He kept the nation from panicking. And that was heroic.
But he does seem to lie about his heroism:
One of the steps that Trump has frequently touted amid the pandemic is his decision earlier this year to impose restrictions on travel from China to the United States. But Woodward said Tuesday that the action was actually suggested by others in the administration and did not originate with Trump.
“My reporting shows that it was the doctors and the national security team that told the president that he needed to do this, and he okayed it,” Woodward said. “And if this was such a big deal, he would have gone out and announced it. Instead, he sent the secretary of health and human services, [Alex] Azar, to announce it.”
He did not bravely reject their cowardly advice to allow travel from China to continue. His whole team told him to do this, now. He said okay. But perhaps that was heroic.
It doesn’t matter. Everything was hazy. Politico’s Matthew Choi reported this:
President Donald Trump claimed on Tuesday to have “up-played” the threat of coronavirus early in the pandemic, contradicting his own remarks to the journalist Bob Woodward that he wanted to minimize the disease to avoid panic.
Speaking at an ABC News town hall moderated by George Stephanopoulos, Trump rebutted a student who asked why he had downplayed “a pandemic that is known to disproportionately harm low-income families and minority communities.” Trump defended his response to the health crisis by citing an early travel ban on foreign nationals from China from entering the U.S. in order to curb the spread of the virus.
“Well, I didn’t downplay it,” the president responded. “I actually, in many ways, I up-played in terms of action. My action was very strong.”
The student interjected: “Did you not admit to it yourself?”
“With China, I put a ban on. With Europe, I put a ban on. We would have lost thousands of more people had I not put the ban on,” Trump said. “We did a very, very good job when we put that ban on – whether you call it talent or luck, it was very important.”
Perhaps so, but that doesn’t minimize what Choi and everyone else remembers quite clearly:
Since February, Trump has publicly cast doubt on recommendations from his own health experts, comparing the disease to the seasonal flu. For months, he declined to wear a mask in public events and has recently restarted campaign rallies in enclosed spaces – much to health experts’ chagrin.
Trump has also called for reopening vast swaths of the country, contending that keeping people in lockdown was a greater risk than the virus that has claimed the lives of almost 200,000 people in the U.S. The pandemic has disproportionately affected Black and Latino Americans.
But he has his security blanket:
Trump’s pivot to his early travel ban from China and parts of Europe has become his default defense when faced with criticism of his coronavirus response. When pressed by Stephanopoulos on whether he regretted any part of his handling of the pandemic, Trump said: “No. I think we did a great job.”
That’s what he says, along with this:
Another town hall participant confronted Trump on his “Make America Great Again” motto, pointing out that for many African Americans who have historically faced injustices because of racism, “we cannot identify with such greatness.” He confronted the president for declining to acknowledge that there is a “race problem in America,” a remark that caused the president to pause.
“Well, I hope there’s not a race problem,” Trump said. “I can tell you there’s none with me, because I have great respect for all races.”
Then he said what he always says about this. He’s done more for African-Americans than Martin Luther King or John Lewis ever did, and maybe more than Abraham Lincoln ever did. No one argues with him. What would be the point? A dull orange haze has settled down on America.
And there was this:
The president also responded to questions on police reform, particularly in light of anti-racism protests that have sprung up in cities across the nation following numerous high-profile episodes of police brutality this year. Trump squarely repeated his platform of support for the police, excoriating what he called “Democrat cities” for not standing by their law enforcement agencies.
Trump has often dismissed violent clashes between protesters and police in several large cities as the fault of local leadership, deriding officials in Chicago, New York and Portland, Ore. After a string of attacks against the large cities during his town hall, Stephanopoulos reminded Trump that he was president of the entire country – including its blue urban centers.
“Why do you keep talking about Democrat states, Democrat states?” Stephanopoulos said. “They’re American states, American states.”
“They have things that the Republicans don’t have,” Trump responded. “So they are – I mean, I don’t want to say – look, I’m the president of everybody, but – I don’t want to say it, but they’re Democrat-run cities. It is what it is.”
So, he’s the president of everybody, but not everybody. Is that clear?
The haze is thick, but not everywhere. Adam Taylor, the Brit who writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post, sees clear air in the rest of the world:
President Trump defended his handling of the coronavirus pandemic during an interview with Fox News over the weekend, arguing that he took “tremendous steps” early in the outbreak, which “saved probably two or two and a half million lives.”
But much of the world appears to think otherwise. In a new poll of 13 nations released Tuesday, a median of 15 percent of respondents said the United States had handled the pandemic well, while 85 percent said the country had responded poorly.
The data, released by Pew Research Center, suggests that the international reputation of the United States has dropped to a new low in the face of a disorganized response to the novel coronavirus. The country leads the world in virus-related deaths.
The air is clearer elsewhere, and America may be over:
International affairs analysts say it may be difficult to repair the damage to the United States’ standing overseas. Among some traditional allies like Germany, views of the United States have declined to the lowest levels since Pew began tracking them nearly two decades ago.
“I still think there is admiration for the United States, but it may be waning very quickly – especially if Trump gets reelected,” said Sudha David-Wilp, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.
And things are bad enough already:
Pew surveyed 13 foreign nations, all wealthy democracies, along with the United States this summer.
After Trump entered office in 2017, Pew found much of the world to hold a negative view of the U.S. leader, with views of the United States overall dipping in many nations.
But Pew’s latest polling suggests that the pandemic, an unprecedented global crisis, has caused views of the United States among its closest peers to slide even further.
In contrast, many respondents had positive perspectives on their own countries: Nearly three-quarters of people polled said their own governments had done a good job handling the crisis.
They’re fine, we’re not, and then there’s this:
Internationally, the U.S. rating was significantly lower than the ratings for the World Health Organization, which the Trump administration has dubbed “corrupt,” and China, the epicenter of the initial outbreak, which Trump said “sent us the plague.”
No one, elsewhere, is buying what Trump is selling:
In at least seven nations, including key allies like Britain and Japan, approval ratings for the United States plunged to record lows. In Germany, just 26 percent of the respondents held a positive view of the United States – the lowest rating since 2003, the year of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Among the countries surveyed, Belgians had the lowest estimation of the United States: Just 24 percent of Belgians said they had a positive view.
That’s odd, but the surprise here is that no one is surprised:
This spring, even before the pandemic surged in the United States, David-Wilp said, German experts and commentators with whom she spoke expressed doubts that the United States would be able to handle the pandemic and feared that serious social unrest would develop.
“And lo and behold, you did actually see that,” she said, referring to the high number of deaths in the United States and the protests against racial injustice that have swept the country.
They know us better than we know us, and there’s this:
Trump has proved consistently unpopular in global polls, but the pandemic appears to have worsened his international reputation. Positive ratings of Trump in Japan dropped from 36 percent in spring 2019 to 25 percent this year – still the highest of any nation surveyed.
The decline was even more pronounced in South Korea, where 46 percent of respondents gave Trump a positive rating in spring 2019, compared with 17 percent this year. South Koreans gave the U.S. handling of the pandemic the worst rating of any nation, with 6 percent saying the United States did a good job.
What happened? This happened:
South Korea, a key U.S. ally, tends to see the country in a positive light, said Kang Won-taek, a professor at Seoul National University. Trump’s outreach to North Korea and interest in the peninsula may have given his popularity a boost among some South Koreans in recent years.
“The euphoria is gone,” Kang said in an email, pointing to a lack of progress in peace talks with Pyongyang and Trump’s heavy-handed approach to relations with Seoul.
They see a jerk, and then there are the head-to-heads:
Other world leaders fared better than Trump on the world stage. Though China is widely criticized for aggressive foreign policy moves and its secrecy during the early days of the pandemic, President Xi Jinping has a marginally more positive international reputation than Trump, Pew found.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, widely suspected of backing attempts at electoral interference and the assassination of dissidents, also fared better, as did British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron.
And then there’s that woman Trump says is just plain stupid:
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, frequently criticized by Trump in recent years, was by far the most popular leader among those surveyed, with a median of 76 percent expressing confidence that she will do the right thing in global affairs.
The contrast between Merkel’s cautious handling of Germany’s federal system during the pandemic and Trump’s less disciplined approach, David-Wilp said, heightened many Germans’ awareness of her reputation.
“Germans, I think, have been surprised and maybe secretly proud of Chancellor Merkel,” David-Wilp said. “I think she really touched a nerve with the German people in the sense that she was very open and direct and called [the pandemic] what it was: The biggest crisis Germany is facing in the post-war era.”
Trump preferred haze, but Philip Bump can explain Trump’s thinking here:
One advantage to being broadly unmoored from factual accuracy is that certain assertions become essentially unfalsifiable.
President Trump, for example, has consistently claimed that the United States has become respected again during his presidency.
“We’re respected again as a country,” he said at an event/de facto rally in Ohio last month. “You know, we’re respected again. You may not feel it, although I think you do. You may not see it. You don’t read about it from the fake news, but this country is respected again. We don’t let people take advantage of us, including our allies, who took tremendous advantage of us. Tremendous.”
This is true, if your use of the word “respect” is a bit hazy;
Presented with evidence that America’s standing in the world has eroded, the response is simple: Other countries are finally being held to account, so of course they’re frustrated with the United States.
“Respect” then becomes unmeasurable, dependent on how Trump reads the numbers. If countries view us positively, it’s because Trump engenders respect. If they view us negatively, it’s because they offer a new, grudging form of respect.
Just follow along:
The spin Trump can apply here is obvious. Pew was asking about doing the right thing on “world affairs”; his focus is on putting “America First” and undercutting what he calls “globalism.” Again, this becomes unfalsifiable. If he’s disliked on the international stage, it’s because he’s fighting for America – but if he’s liked internationally, it’s because he’s liked.
Got it? No? You’re not alone. Dan Drezner, that professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, tries to capture the current American haze:
In 2016, I never, ever, ever considered voting for Donald Trump. I am a college-educated foreign affairs expert – I know my demographic destiny – but in 2020, I may be forced to vote for the man. I may have no choice.
Sure, as someone who prefers foreign policies grounded in the pursuit of American interests and American values, the Orange Man seems bad. Outside of the Middle East, he has excelled at weakening long-standing U.S. alliances and partnerships. Trump has repeatedly cozied up to dictators and autocrats across the world. He has decided to pursue an all-front economic war with China, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, India, the World Trade Organization, and a bunch of small countries I can’t be bothered to remember. He has appointed a motley collection of toadies, incompetents and corrupt individuals to manage foreign policy. He has eviscerated U.S. foreign policy institutions such as the National Security Council, the State Department, the Justice Department, the intelligence community, and the uniformed military. He has disparaged some countries as “shitholes” and insulted a variety of groups, including ethnic minorities and female leaders. As someone interested in a robust foreign policy, I am horrified to see the president of the United States being perceived as universally unpopular. Leaders at the U.N. General Assembly and NATO have publicly mocked Trump.
All of these trends scare me. But then I look at Joe Biden, and he scares me even more. I am scared very easily! Perhaps I should see someone about that.
Yes, this is satire:
I made it very clear during the Democratic primaries that I could not vote for a socialist. Then the Democrats nominated Biden, and I had to search for even greater clarity to view Biden as a socialist.
That is the current Republican project, and Drezner mocks that effort:
I look at Biden and I see a seasoned, experienced politician who has pursued the presidency for close to four decades now. This is clearly a man who will automatically outsource his administration to the Manhattan-San Francisco progressive mores that increasingly permeate my daily newspapers. That must be why he ran in the first place! The only way for Biden to implement fringe left views was to knock out the preferred candidates of the folks who hold those views. This is just science! And science frightens me.
Nor do Biden’s national security positions reassure me. He would enact a reprise of Obama administration policies, and all we got from those eight years was a slow, steady recovery from the Great Recession with restored power and prestige. No one needs to revisit that dark era ever again.
Yes, he’s thinking like a Republican, even if there are Republican goofballs:
There is the QAnon candidate running for the House of Representatives, and the guy who Instagrammed his visit to Hitler’s redoubt, and the U.S. senators more obsessed with “Cuties” than actual real-world problems. But I read somewhere that a left-wing state senate candidate nominee did something real bad, and that guy could be the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. AOC terrifies me!
With Trump, I know what I am getting. His sins are on the outside.
And that’s the problem:
You know what? I’m too scared to think straight right now. Even the prospect of Biden’s winning has forced me to retreat to my safe space.
A dull orange haze really has settled down on America. It’s the smoke in the air. But it can’t last forever.