It is falling to President Donald Trump to lead America into its most tragic month in decades, as experts say the coronavirus pandemic could kill more citizens than the Vietnam and Korean wars combined.
But the President’s bullish, self-congratulatory rhetoric – a staple of a presidency that has divided the nation – is still jarring with the desperate reality of a fast-worsening pandemic that is running out of control.
On the day that heralded another grim new record in reported deaths – more than 500 – and that the fatality toll was roughly on par with those killed on September 11, 2001, Trump opened his daily news conference with a stark message, even though he still struggles to summon the empathy appropriate for such a time of mourning.
Trump, who will be called upon to steady an anguished nation in the days to come, warned the country of a “vital 30 days” ahead, a day after extending social distancing guidelines until the end of April.
“Our future is in our own hands and the choices and sacrifices we make will determine the fate of this virus and really the fate of our victory,” he said.
No recent President has faced the kind of pervasive public health crisis that now confronts Trump. No administration’s response would be completely surefooted. And Trump’s optimism is important for a country that may be about to lose tens of thousands of citizens, according to forecasting models. His belated decision to listen to top public health officials represents progress and will save many lives.
The President’s administration faces many crucial decisions in the coming days that will determine how grave the eventual death toll will be, and how quickly the economic shutdown that has pitched millions out of work can be lifted. He must put in place intricate plans to stem the full fury of Covid-19 and to eventually ease the nation out of its defensive crouch.
It’s no exaggeration to say Trump faces the most critical month of his presidency yet – and how he conducts himself will be crucial for the country and his own hopes of reelection. But there are signs that he does not fully understand the stakes nor is willing to relegate his own interests in favor of the common good.
Trump still appears to be marveling at the spread of the virus, which he says no one could have predicted. Health experts had anticipated its arrival in the US for months as he predicted a miracle would occur and it would just go away.
And on a day when so many Americans died, he boasted at one point that his hair blowing in the breeze in the White House Rose Garden was his own, marking an inappropriate tone for a harrowing national moment.
Trump blasted reporters for asking “snarky” questions when they use facts and his own words to point out shortcomings in the effort to combat the virus in the United States, which now has more confirmed infections than any other nation. His reaction did not dispel the impression that he is more interested in protecting his reputation than fixing mistakes that may worsen the pandemic.
Governors warn federal government is still falling short
There are clear signs that the federal government response – for instance, with the approval of fast new viral testing kits and the swift construction of field hospitals – is finally gearing up.
Yet Trump’s belated mobilization of the federal government, which he touts in briefings every day – after his weeks of downplaying the crisis – appears likely to come too late for the peak period of infections, expected in the next few weeks.
He announced on Monday the dispatch of thousands of surgical masks and protective gear for health care workers. But front-line doctors and nurses still lack what they need.
Trump boasted that the United States had now conducted more coronavirus tests than any other nation – more than a million. But health experts say the administration was unprepared to test sufficient people when it might have done more to stop the pandemic. And the US is still testing fewer people per capita than some other countries, such as South Korea.
Trump lauded Ford and GE, saying they would churn out 50,000 ventilators in 100 days. But governors in multiple states told the President on Monday that they lacked the machines and other supplies needed ahead of a surge on hospitals within days.
Trump painted the opposite picture, telling governors: “I haven’t heard about testing being a problem.”
In his news conference, he denied there had been any criticism of his leadership in his call with governors.
“I think for the most part, I think they were saying thank you for doing such a great job,” the President said.
With Trump in the thick of his reelection race, his daily early evening briefings are increasingly fusing with his political strategy, and the crisis is already shaping the 2020 race.
On Sunday, he embraced warnings by senior health officials that 100,000 or more Americans could die from coronavirus if he failed to extend his self-distancing guidelines. Trump alone among senior officials had been itching to ease the measures.
There was a subtle yet significant shift in his rhetoric on Monday.
“By very vigorously following these guidelines, we could save more than 1 million American lives. Think of that: 1 million American lives,” the President said.
The comment suggested that at the end of a national disaster that has been exacerbated by his leadership failings, he will bill himself as a victorious wartime President who rescued many Americans from death.
National Democrats – who unlike governors do not have to work with the federal government each day – appear to be laying the groundwork to block this strategy with their own new counter-messaging. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned Sunday on CNN: “As the President fiddles, people are dying.”
Trump’s entire presidency has been an exercise in whipping up his political base, and a new CNN/SSRS poll on the pandemic suggests his leadership in this crisis is following a familiar model.
Some 48% of Americans said the government has done a good job in preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, while 47% say the government has done a poor job. Opinions are sharply split according to partisan identification – a factor likely to hamper national unity at a vital moment.
Some 77% of Republicans say the federal government is doing a good job preventing the virus’s spread, compared with 27% of Democrats.
Trump’s news conferences remain a self-serving mix of the most positive developments in the coronavirus fight, saved up for campaign-style announcements. On Monday, Trump posed like a game show host’s assistant as he lifted a new testing kit out of its box for the cameras – and the President basked in testimonials to his leadership from Cabinet officials and invited corporate CEOs.
The reality of the coronavirus crisis appears far less upbeat on the front lines than it does from Trump’s boisterous sessions in the White House Rose Garden, however.
Maryland’s Larry Hogan, a Republican who’s one of several governors who introduced tough stay-at-home orders on Monday, warned that the Washington metro area was likely to replicate the difficult scenes in New York soon.
“We’re just two weeks behind New York, with … higher numbers here than they were at two weeks ago,” Hogan told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
Hogan warned that warnings by the federal government’s top infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci that 100,000 Americans could die in the pandemic were a best case scenario.
“Just to put that in perspective, that’s more than the number of Americans that died in the Vietnam war and the Korean war added together. And we’re not talking about over a number of years. We’re talking about in a very short period of time,” Hogan said.