Tuesday is Day 69 of the coronavirus crisis and counting. Do you know where your president is?
We’d had nothing from him while he vacationed until a blasé tweet on Monday morning in which he continued to confuse the common flu, for which there’s a vaccine and treatment, with the current virus, which has neither. He boasted about what he isn’t doing: “Nothing is shut down,” he tweeted. “Life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that.”
We’re thinking, and counting: A few hours later, the number of cases had risen to 606 and deaths to 26.
When he finally appeared in the press room late Monday, he still treated the coronavirus crisis like an economic one when the only real way to fix the economy is to face up to the deadly virus. The briefing looked more serious than prior ones when he talked about his hunches, Fox News ratings, and how infectious disease specialists are so impressed by his knowledge he could be one of them. He read from a list of possible actions: payroll tax relief, insuring pay for hourly wage employees, urging people to travel—or not to, as the CDC advises the elderly, he won’t really say. To avoid freelancing, he took no questions and walked off as he was asked whether he’d been tested. Monday night, the White House confirmed that he had not been, “because he has neither had prolonged close contact with any known confirmed COVID-19 patients, nor does he have any symptoms.”
Sen. Ted Cruz and a growing number of House members who attended the same CPAC conference as Trump are in self-quarantine since learning an attendee tested positive. Those include Trump's incoming chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and Matt Gaetz, of gas mask fame, who was on Air Force One with the president when he quarantined himself on the flight, whatever that means, after getting word he’d been in contact with someone with the coronavirus.
You still wouldn’t know it from Trump but the coronavirus is spreading and people are dying, some who might not have if sensible protocols were in place. There are not enough tests, “perfect” or otherwise. Even when trading on the stock exchanges was halted after the Dow Jones Index plunged 1,700 points at the open Monday morning, Trump proceeded to a fundraiser in Longwood, Florida.
Look at one example of what a country with a functioning government is doing. Italy, the most Catholic country in the world, has called off Mass to signal that in the midst of a deadly illness, everything that can be done must be, as it locked down a democratic country of 60 million.
Then look at us. To call the messages mixed would be a compliment. The Centers for Disease Control says keep your distance, and most of us are happy to do so. What’s six feet of separation to lower your chances of going six feet under? But not Trump. Elbow-bumps are for wusses. As new illnesses were being confirmed and even though he doesn’t like rope lines, he brazenly pressed the flesh with a group gathered at the Orlando Sanford airport before getting on Air Force One to return to Washington where the AP reports he overruled the Center for Disease Control’s travel restriction that advised the elderly not to fly.
It’s hard to know if what the president has done, or what he’s not done, is worse. If he’d mobilized the government after closing the border with China, we’d surely be in better shape. We lost three weeks as what’s left of our public health expertise waited for a green light that didn’t come.
Look at cruise ships, a floating microcosm of the crisis. Trump was so worried about "his numbers" going up if the Grand Princess should dock that he kept the floating Petri dish at sea for days longer than necessary, with food being delivered to the cubicles of confined passengers by waiters in soiled gloves. The ship finally docked in Oakland, which is only prepared for cargo ships. Not knowing if the administration was any more ready to deal with the 2,500 passengers and 1,000 crew members, 21 of whom are infected, than with the crisis in general, chef Jose Andres, who has previously come to the rescue in other Trump-worsened disasters like Puerto Rico, will be feeding those disembarking.
There’s hardly anyone inside the White House working to contain the virus or the president. It was mostly closed for business while Trump vacationed over the weekend, except for senior counsel Kellyanne Conway emerging with her alternative facts to insist the virus was contained. The 44-year-old surgeon general gushed over the visibly obese 73-year-old president, who had an unexplained visit to Bethesda Naval Hospital late last year, declaring the boss “healthier than I am.” Monday morning on Fox News, Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said Trump would not be doing anything differently because he’s in the pink of health. “This man who doesn't sleep and who I have seen work 15, 16 hours a day every day,” she said. “I have no problem thinking that he is going to be just fine and just healthy.”
It’s long been obvious that Trump invades the psyche of aides who weigh the gravity of any situation against what the boss wants and do the latter. Kudos to the person who knew that a visit by a virus-denier to CDC headquarters would not be helpful and cancelled it. A pink slip to the person who put it back on and it may not be a coincidence that later that day acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney got one. He’s acting no longer. He will be telling the people of Northern Ireland politics affects everything and to “get over it.”
It took a few months for Republicans in the U.S. Senate to be anesthetized and do anything Trump said. The undetectable gas turned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell into a zombie. It took only a few hours of direct exposure to Trump for officials at the lead agencies responding to the coronavirus to succumb and let his uninformed judgments supersede their informed ones.
It’s not desirable but usually not deadly when your run-of-the-mill White House aides and Republicans in Congress give in to fear of the president’s rage. But for the CDC and others, it’s not enough to stand behind the president who’s lying and try to clean it up when you get back to your desk. Trump is president and, normally, the default position is to believe him. We live in non-normal times and when the president downplays the crisis, the president must be contradicted in real time. It’s understandable that no one wants to be Jeff Sessions, humiliated every day, driven out of Justice and unlikely to get back his Senate seat because Trump so openly hates him. But if you’re not willing to be a pariah, you don’t belong in government.
Fortunately, the deep state persisted, despite Trump’s best efforts. The hero of pandemics past and the world’s leading epidemiologist, the National Institute of Health’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, said Sunday on NBC that the time for containment had unfortunately passed and now what’s left to us is mitigation. CDC Director Robert Redfield is scrambling to produce the perfect test kits Trump talked about but had no interest in fast-tracking, given that testing would inevitably confirm more cases on his watch.
Joe Biden chimed in late Monday in an interview in which he said “Trump says everything is perfect, like his Ukraine call, and he’s down there golfing… the reason you see markets falling, people are very upset… and innocent bystanders are being hurt.” He went on to note that the president “turns everything into what he thinks is of political benefit for himself but he's imploding. I wish he would just be quiet.”
With that, contrary to what Trump keeps saying, Biden proved he’s totally on top of things.
Trump has wasted his crisis by doing the opposite of what he should have to slow the virus when containment was possible. Monday marked the first day newly confirmed cases of 3,949 outside China surpassed the Chinese high-water mark of 3,389. There may not be time for Trump to help more than he’s hurt. But please, if there’s a God in heaven, let the president start trying.