This version of Donald Trump will save lives.
The President offered Americans something they have rarely seen from him in his latest and most somber press conference yet on the coronavirus pandemic on Monday.
He dispensed unimpeachable information based on fact. He called for national unity and seemed like he meant to help forge it. And he ditched his normal habit of hyping the best possible outcome to a situation with improbable superlatives – instead communicating the gravity of a fast-worsening crisis.
“It’s bad. It’s bad,” Trump said as he unveiled a 15-day plan to try to flatten the curve of new infections to alleviate a feared surge of sick patients that could overwhelm the health system.
“Each and every one of us has a critical role to play in stopping the spread and transmission of the virus,” Trump said, summoning national resolve as he plunges deeper into a crisis that will now define his term and possibly his reelection hopes.
The President’s pivot to seriousness contrasted sharply with some of his previous commentary on the pandemic, which he has compared to the flu and predicted could just go away, and came after he claimed he had “shut it down” and had the disease under control.
In many ways, Trump’s temperate performance was the most conventional moment of a presidency in which he has refused to adopt the traditional mien associated with his position.
He came across as a the leader of a nation in crisis, calling on its citizens to unite in an outpouring of collective action that might temporarily paper over deep national political divides.
It will take more than one serious news conference to turn the tide of the pandemic. And Trump must prove in the coming days he has the focus to lead more than fitfully and that he can command the complicated machinery of the federal government and corral Americans behind him.
The President lashed out at several Democratic governors on Tuesday in a way that will undercut his calls for unity. He singled out Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and New York’s Andrew Cuomo who have won plaudits for their handling of the crisis.
“Failing Michigan Governor must work harder and be much more proactive. We are pushing her to get the job done. I stand with Michigan!” Trump tweeted. Holding onto the Wolverine State is critically important for Trump’s hopes of winning reelection in November.
Trump also took a new slap at Cuomo who has been vocal about the need for more federal leadership amid the emergency.
“Andrew, keep politics out of it….,” Trump wrote.
Still, Trump’s performance on Monday was so unusual that he may stand a chance of shocking watching viewers into action and getting them to fully understand the desolate reality of the coming weeks.
Trump urged Americans to avoid discretionary travel and social gatherings of more than 10 people. He said older people should stay home, as should those with preexisting medical conditions. Anyone who is sick should not go out and whole households were told to quarantine, not just the ill family member.
“If everyone makes this change or these critical changes and sacrifices now, we will rally together as one nation and we will defeat the virus and we’re going to have a big celebration altogether,” Trump said. “With several weeks of focused action, we can turn the corner and turn it quickly.”
A dark turn in the crisis
The President’s steely and inclusive temperament was an appropriate match for a day in which the coronavirus crisis darkened by the hour.
Across the nation, local authorities ordered bars, restaurants and gyms shut down and pleaded with young people to stay home to avoid spreading the virus to vulnerable, sick and older people.
“It feels more like Italy than ever before,” Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccination specialist at Baylor University told CNN, comparing the US to the European nation that is now the epicenter for COVID-19, which recorded its deadliest day so far in the battle with the virus with nearly 400 deaths on Sunday. “I am concerned about where we are headed right now.”
US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams had a similar warning.
“You’ve got several different models, and yes, there is a potential for us to become Italy,” Adams said on CNN’s “New Day.”
Trump’s performance wasn’t perfect. It’s still not clear that he is ready to assume responsibility for the anti-virus effort, missteps and all. Asked whether the buck stops with him, he replied: “Yes, normally, but … you know, this has never been done before in this country.”
Trump also awarded himself his customary 10 out of 10 for his management of the virus emergency, despite repeatedly playing it down and firing off misinformation about the building storm for weeks in a way that appears to have contributed to the slow federal government response.
And Trump’s apparent sudden decision to take the novel coronavirus seriously leaves him racing to catch up with state governors and mayors who have been complaining for days about the failure of federal authorities to provide more testing kits and to prepare for the nation’s hospitals to be inundated.
“This is a national problem and we need federal leadership,” Cuomo said at a briefing on Monday as he prepared to essentially shut down his state.
Trump warns crisis may not break until July or August
Trump has managed to act like a normal president would before in short bursts but has always restored to the bilious approach that destroys trust and carves deeper political divides.
But his change of tone has the potential to be a significant moment in this crisis. There is nothing that can mobilize the federal government and its massive resources more than a president who is demonstrably engaged.
Trump’s new attitude might also permit a shift in emphasis by some conservative media figures who have taken his lead in downplaying the gravity of the coronavirus cases in a way that is detrimental to public health. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll on Sunday found that while seven in ten Democrats were worried about the virus, only 40% of Republicans share their concern.
Trump often seems to operate in a highly limited time horizon, seeming to say anything in the middle of a political storm that will help him get through the day so he can live to fight again.
That was why it was surprising that he mentioned July or August as possible dates for when the pandemic might abate — a longer and more precise time horizon than most experts have predicted.
The President’s comments may have helped to tank the stock market in its closing moments of trading Monday. For once, after celebrating the market’s rally in his press conference on Friday, the President didn’t seem to care that much.
“Best thing I can do for the stock market is we have to get through this crisis, that’s what I can do. That’s the best thing we can do,” Trump said. He even seemed to contemplate the possibility of a recession brought on by the coronavirus crisis that could be disastrous for a president seeking reelection.
But he did allow himself one moment of hyperbole.
“I think there’s a tremendous pent up demand, both in terms of the stock market and in terms of the economy, and once this goes away, once it goes through and we’re done with it, I think you’re going to see a tremendous, a tremendous surge.”
This story has been updated with additional reporting.