Hours before his top medical adviser is expected to contradict his assurances that it’s safe to reopen America, President Donald Trump is on a Twitter tear amplifying conspiracy theories and covering up for his own racially-tinged rhetoric to distract from his failures during the pandemic.
Trump is making unfounded charges against his predecessor Barack Obama and wading into the row over his treatment of an Asian American journalist ahead of an appearance before a Senate committee by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist, and oral arguments before the Supreme Court about Trump’s attempt to keep his financial information and tax returns from Congress and New York prosecutors.
In a preview of his likely testimony, Fauci told The New York Times in an email on Monday night: “If we skip over the checkpoints in the guidelines to: ‘Open America Again,’ then we risk the danger of multiple outbreaks throughout the country.”
“This will not only result in needless suffering and death, but would actually set us back on our quest to return to normal,” Fauci continued.
Trump on Monday accused Democratic-led states of deliberately slowing openings of their economies to hurt him politically in an election year and is ignoring warnings of global health experts that reopening societies will spark new spikes in infections without the massive testing and tracing program that he has failed to put in place.
In an extraordinary display of a boiling temperament in a sitting President, Trump offered his fans counter-programming on Tuesday morning, retweeting misinformation by Fox News opinion hosts that seized on his remarks about “Obamagate” on Monday to claim the last administration mounted an illegal bid to destroy the Trump administration before it started. He also used his wild tweetstorm to cover up for his attack on a CBS News journalist during a news conference Monday by claiming Asian Americans were angry at China over the pandemic.
His conduct was a fresh sign that neither Trump nor his conservative media machine backers want to focus on his erratic handling of the worst public health crisis in 100 years with the death toll now at an unfathomable 80,000 in a pandemic Trump long ignored and is now threatening his reelection hopes.
In an appearance in the White House Rose Garden Monday, Trump refashioned his reelection campaign mantra that reflects a realization that his hopes for a “rocket”-like relaunch of the economy have been dashed by massive job losses.
More on the White House's pandemic response
Trump’s original slogan, “Make America Great Again” was snappy enough to fit on a red baseball cap four years ago. He had been running in 2020 on a chest-puffing “Keep America Great” platform. But his new catchphrase “we will transition to greatness” next year shows how he will now have to sell the promise of a painful economic restoration – a case made all the more difficult after his own erratic management of the pandemic – as most Americans continue to say the US government is doing a poor job preventing the spread of Covid-19, according to a CNN poll released Tuesday.
The President’s apparent mission Monday was to stifle an impression that the White House is in disarray after the discovery of several cases of Covid-19 in the West Wing. Trump stood against a backdrop of Stars and Stripes and misleading signs reading, “America is leading the world in testing.” But the US is not performing the most coronavirus tests per capita. Multiple countries are performing more tests than the US relative to their populations, including Denmark, Italy and New Zealand.
Not for the first time, the President trampled over his own message with an ugly controversy involving race that also highlighted his frequent disdain for female journalists.
He snapped at an Asian American reporter who asked him why he was turning a tragic moment into a global competition on testing.
“Maybe that’s a question you should ask China,” Trump told Weijia Jiang, a White House reporter for CBS News who was born in China but moved to the US at the age of 2. Jiang appeared shocked by the President’s apparent conflating of her racial background with China. Trump then cut off the event when another female correspondent, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, who had deferred to her colleague, tried to ask a question.
Even before that unpleasant moment, the Rose Garden event was already surreal, as reporters struggled to make their questions audible over muffling face masks as a result of the White House coronavirus outbreak, which graphically undermines Trump’s claims the country is safe to open.
Fauci to warn Senate of dangers of reopening too quickly
Probably not by coincidence, Trump’s news conference and an announcement that the government would send $11 billion in already appropriated funds to states to boost testing came a day before the trusted Fauci, is due to appear remotely in a Senate hearing.
Fauci has not shirked from truth telling about the quality of the administration’s criticized testing effort, and Democrats will pepper him with questions designed to draw a damaging response.
An unemployment rate that could hit 20% in the coming months and furloughs turning into permanent job cuts in many areas would be disastrous for any President seeking a second term. Trump must deal with that burden amid a still-raging pandemic and facing the possibility of a spike in already high infections caused by early state openings he has been loudly encouraging. Democrats will argue that Trump’s denial and erratic leadership allowed the virus to take root and caused the collapse, causing an even greater challenge to his electoral resilience.
Testing in Trump’s White House
Trump’s boasts on testing during the news conference, a practice that he suggested as recently as last week was not that important in controlling the virus, may also have been designed to dismiss an impression that he and aides are benefiting from a testing and contact-tracing system that he is yet to provide to the rest of the nation.
Trump’s diminished messaging expectations were just one twist of a typically unchained appearance. In attacking China as the source of the virus, lashing out at former President Barack Obama, advertising his border wall, reminiscing about the previously roaring economy and claiming to have saved tens of thousands of lives, the President offered a glimpse of a campaign strategy apparently being retooled by the day.
But he offered his opponents an opening when he said in initial remarks that in every generation and challenge, America has risen to the task.
“We have met the moment and we have prevailed,” he claimed.
Trump later clarified that he meant the US had prevailed in the battle to improve testing – a distinction unlikely to stop his remark popping up in a campaign ad that is likely to accuse him of a “Mission Accomplished” moment.
Trump accuses Obama of a ‘crime’
Trump has defied every expectation since the moment he descended the golden escalator at Trump Tower in 2015 to launch the most extraordinary political career in modern history. It is far too early to write him off in November, not least because many Democrats live in fear of the scorched-earth presidential campaign he is about to unleash. And the President enjoys formidable advantages in organization in key states and campaign financing over his rival, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
His mood on Monday shows how he will use every lever of the presidency to ensure his political survival.
While more people have died in America from Covid-19 than in any other country and few states satisfy the White House guidelines on stemming infections in order to safely reopen, Trump presented his management of the emergency as a famous victory.
“Thanks to the courage of our citizens and our aggressive strategy, hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved,” the President said.
“We will transition into greatness. That’s a phrase you’re going to hear a lot, because that’s what’s going to happen,” Trump said, predicting a strong third quarter, a very good fourth quarter and then pent-up demand being unleashed next year. “It’s a transition to greatness. And greatness is next year,” he insisted.
Trump also signaled a new fallback strategy designed to whip up the fervor of his base by accusing his predecessor of mounting an attempt to cancel out his win in 2016 in what his supporters refer to as a “deep state plot.”
“Obamagate. It’s been going on for a long time. It’s been going on from before I even got elected, and it’s a disgrace that it happened,” Trump claimed without evidence. Asked by a reporter to identify the crime he had accused Obama in a tweet of committing, he responded: “You know what the crime is. The crime is obvious to everybody.”
The conservative media machine is pulsating with the reverberations of Attorney General William Barr’s decision last week to drop charges against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in a case that arose from the Russia investigation.
Shortly after Trump spoke, the scope of the Republican election attack became even more clear as Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa pressed the conspiracy theory on the Senate floor.
“The rule of law is at risk if the federal government can get away with violating the Constitution to do what they did to Lt. Gen. Flynn,” said Grassley. “Given all that we know now regarding the fake foundation to the inquiry, it’s time we asked: What did Obama and Biden know and when did they know it?”
CNN’s Arman Azad and Manu Raju contributed to this story.