As the country enters its second month of a social lockdown and shuttered economy, the White House’s coronavirus response has diverged into two camps: one that defends whatever the president has chosen to care about or watch on TV, and another that actively works to ignore and paper over those excesses.
The most recent, glaring example of that wild discrepancy came over the weekend, when Trump began encouraging protests against stay-at-home orders overseen by Democratic governors in several states. The president’s messaging took on the language of uprising, calling on these states to be “LIBERATE[D],” with some of his loudest allies and friendly media personalities immediately joining the chorus.
But within Trump’s coronavirus task force, his latest Twitter outburst is being treated as simply another speed bump. Trump’s own aides and officials are aware that the president’s missives are at odds with the recommendations embraced by his top public-health experts. But rather than correct the record or even push back internally, they have tried to proceed as if the president didn’t just do what he had so clearly done.
“It is a pain in the ass sometimes, for sure,” said a senior official working with the task force. “There isn't much more [some of us] can do in that, except continue making sound policy recommendations and hope they sink in. Sometimes the president backs off on some things, sometimes he doesn’t. It’s his call.”
What once was a task force hyper-focused on being in lock-step with the president for fear of drawing his ire is now a team operating on a parallel but separate track: working to ameliorate a public-health crisis despite Trump pushing policies that scientists say could make that task harder.
“It’s bipolar down there,” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said of the administration’s response in an interview with MSNBC on Monday. “We had a good, constructive meeting with the vice president’s commission… Then you hear the press conference of the president. You sometimes feel like the governors are being used as a campaign prop.”
The administration’s approach is not without its risks. Across the country, protests have erupted outside various statehouses demanding that lawmakers lift the harsh social-distancing restrictions put in place to stop the virus’ spread—a demand that, if met, could lead to a spike in new infections, experts warn.
The number of actual protesters appears relatively small. But with the president amplifying their message, the likelihood that they become a more potent cultural and political force has grown. On Monday, Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) announced that he would soon be reopening various social and economic functions in his state, including restaurants, gyms, theaters and even bowling alleys. The same day, the Republican Party of Virginia formally embraced the president’s “liberate” tweet. And in Pennsylvania, at least two elected officials spoke at protests.
“The main issue that we are talking about through this and what my speech had to deal with is let’s follow guidelines,” one of those speakers, State Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R-PA), told The Daily Beast. “But following those guidelines doesn’t mean destroying livelihoods.”
“No doubt about it, you could have those situations,” Bernstine said of the possibility of more infections resulting from reopening society. “But I believe there is a way to get people back to work, safely.” You can stick to certain social distancing and public safety measures, he added. But “people also make those wise decisions for themselves. They don’t want to put their family in danger.”
As protests continue to spread throughout the U.S., officials working with the administration’s coronavirus task force say the team has tried not to engage with the president on the issue. One U.S. official told The Daily Beast that the task force was “not discussing” the protests because it was “up to the states” to draft their own guidelines on reopening their local economies. Another official said the task force is instead focusing on things like ramping up testing and delivering medical supplies and personal protective equipment in an effort to not only try and slow the rate of infection but also ensure the country is prepared for a possible second wave of COVID-19 infections later this year.
The split between some of the task force and the president in recent days underscores the extent to which Trump’s antics have alienated officials in his own administration even as coronavirus-related deaths have blown past 40,000 in the United States.
One White House spokesperson said the president was using “a data-driven, phased approach” to reopening the economy, pointing to statistics gathered by Deborah Birx that outline which states are experiencing a decrease in daily infection rates and hospitalizations. So far, though, some of the task-force officials, including Birx, have refrained from advocating publicly for the loosening of social-distancing guidelines.
States throughout the country are continuing to implore citizens to adhere to social-distancing guidelines. In the Northeast—where the coronavirus has killed tens of thousands of people—governors are pushing back against the president’s efforts to reopen the economy next month. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who will be meeting with Trump on Tuesday, has repeatedly said in recent press conferences that more testing needs to be done before he can safely send New Yorkers back to work.
Trump’s own task-force officials have supported the call for additional testing as well. At a press briefing Monday evening, Birx said the U.S. not only needs to continue to ramp up testing, but to also ensure that testing is accurate. And Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading official on infectious diseases, said Sunday that “unless we get the virus under control, the real recovery economically is not going to happen.”
Among certain members of the president’s political team, there is also a sober acknowledgement that the risks Fauci has routinely discussed could be measured electorally as well as medically. Any effort to open up the country that resulted in a re-emergence of cases in the colder months leading up to Election Day would likely end up in blame being directed squarely at the president.
But Trump has already rationalized such a scenario and devised a way through it. Two people who’ve spoken to him about this in recent days told The Daily Beast that when the topic came up, he immediately began riffing on how he has the “best people” or a “tremendous team” to deal with another big wave if it hits in the fall. One of these sources mentioned that Trump said he and his team would “crush” a possible second wave of the virus, just like (as he believes) he and his team did with the first one.
So far, Trump’s handling of the pandemic has been roundly censured by numerous experts and public-health professionals who have criticized the president and his administration for conducting a sluggish, and at times chaotic, response to the deadly crisis.