In an extraordinary performance Tuesday, as the daily death toll again soared toward 1,000 and the number of Americans dead approached a tragic milestone of 150,000, Trump again foreswore the most basic requirements of national leadership in a crisis.
At a White House briefing that turned almost into a parody of his own mismanagement of the pandemic, he complained that the government’s top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, had better approval ratings than he did.
He painted a misleading picture of a viral surge still raging across Southern and Western states that is showing new signs of spreading deeper into the heartland, saying large portions of the country were “corona-free.”
And he launched a stunning new pitch for hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug beloved by conservative media but that has not been shown in rigorous clinical trials to be an effective treatment for Covid-19.
Given the trail of sickness and death that has unfolded in recent months, it was bizarre though not surprising that the President would return to the controversy over hydroxychloroquine. On Monday night, he retweeted videos describing hydroxychloroquine as a “cure” that meant Americans didn’t need to wear masks.
He could have used his soapbox to drum home his government’s guidelines for state openings (which he again contradicted on Monday) or to make a strong case for mask wearing, which he belatedly adopted last week and to plead with young Americans to observe social distancing.
His negligence in this regard confounded hopes of Trump loyalists that his return to the briefing room after weeks in denial over the coronavirus could win back voters who are despairing over his handling of the pandemic.
But more important than mere political calculations is the evidence that Trump’s obsessions left no doubt that he lacks a coordinated national strategy or knowledge of the leadership, empathy and inspiration required of a president as the US struggles with one of the world’s worst coronavirus responses.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said Trump’s repeated falsehoods could undermine a serious national conversation needed when a vaccine is finally available.
“People listen to what a president says. And if a president repeatedly says things to you that are not true and then comes a time when they say, ‘I have something that I think can cure you, but it could really hurt you,’ you’re not going to listen to the guy who’s been lying to you,” Biden said.
Trump goes off the rails
For the first few, scripted moments, Trump’s briefing went fine. He made an exaggerated case for his leadership in the crisis, but had encouraging news that everyone could get behind: a $765 million government loan to Kodak Pharmaceuticals under the Defense Production Act to boost production of generic drugs so the US becomes less reliant on therapies from supply chains in places like China.
Characteristically, Trump, despite apparently trying hard to be upbeat, read out pre-written remarks with a slight air of distraction, pausing now and again to add off-the-cuff commentary of his own.
Often the President’s claims were dubious – including one that unrest in Portland, Oregon, which he has branded the work of “fascist” left-wing groups, is causing a spike in infections. But they weren’t all outlandish, and from a political point of view, posing as a champion of vaccine development and listing steps taken to battle the virus was a plausible strategy.
But it was when Trump invited questions that the trouble started, and offered what is undoubtably a more authentic glimpse into the President’s views and soul than the remarks crafted by aides.
Trump, who is now speaking to Fauci again, after weeks fixated upon the media profile of one of the most respected US public health experts, insisted they had a “very good” relationship. But he still appears to be jealous.
“He’s got this high approval rating. So why don’t I have a high approval rating … with respect to the virus? We should have it very high,” the President griped.
“So it sort of is curious,” Trump said, “a man works for us, with us, very closely, Dr. Fauci and Dr. (Deborah) Birx also, very highly thought of – and yet, they’re highly thought of, but nobody likes me?”
“It can only be my personality, that’s all,” he said.
Trump did not appear to be speaking tongue-in-cheek and, even if he was, it was strange that he would be joking about his popularity at a time when nearly 150,000 Americans are dead from a virus he repeatedly said would not pose a problem.
Among a series of retweets on Monday night, Trump sent one out to his 84 million followers that described Fauci as a fraud. And Fauci’s throwing out of a ceremonial first pitch at a Washington Nationals game appeared to prompt the President to announce an impromptu and now-aborted plan to do the same at a New York Yankees game next month.
The President may not realize it, but his fretting about his popularity while Fauci was delivering the latest of his grave science-based warnings about the virus Tuesday perfectly explains why more Americans trust the doctor.
Fauci, who Biden has said he would keep on and empower if he wins the election, said earlier that he had not misled the American people in any form, when asked by ABC News about the President’s retweet.
“I’m just going to certainly continue doing my job,” Fauci said on “Good Morning America.” “I don’t tweet … I don’t even read them, so I don’t really want to go there.”
A new warning from Birx
While Trump was sowing new controversy in the White House, the exhausting, dispiriting nature of the fight against Covid-19 was playing out across the country. There were some hopeful indications that intense outbreaks are cresting in the Sun Belt – though still at elevated levels.
But another leading coronavirus task force member, Birx, had a daunting warning for what the administration terms red zone states, with more than 100 cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 people.
She expressed concern about rising cases and test positivity in Mississippi, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, Oklahoma, Georgia, Idaho and Arkansas.
The next tier of states with lower levels of cases and positivity also need to take steps now to avoid becoming new hot spots, she said, warning about a first wave of infection among 20- to 30-year-olds.
“Remember, the majority of those are asymptomatic, so if you expect to see hospitalizations, by the time you see hospitalization your community spread is so widespread that you’ve flipped into a red state incredibly quickly,” Birx said.
Given that such warnings are coming from his administration, a normal president might have been expected to repeatedly stress social distancing, masking and careful reopening. But Trump went off on his hydroxychloroquine tangent when prompted by a reporter.
“I think it’s become very political. I happen to believe in it. I would take it – as you know I took it for a 14-day period. I happen to think it works in the early stages. I know front-line medical people believe that too, some, many,” the President said, then used his platform to almost market the drug without observing scientific protocols normally expected of a president.
“It’s safe. It doesn’t cause problems. I had no problem,” Trump said, adding, “It didn’t get me and it’s not going to hopefully hurt anybody.”
Several credible clinical studies have shown that neither hydroxychloroquine alone nor hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin appeared to affect the condition of coronavirus patients at the 15-day mark.
Additionally, unusual heart rhythms and elevated liver-enzyme levels have been detected in patients given the treatment, which Trump has in the past called a “game changer.”
One study at Henry Ford Health System in Southeast Michigan found hydroxychloroquine increased hospitalized patients’ chances of survival. However, researchers not involved with the study were critical, saying it did not match the rigor of previous assessments.
The plan for the President to boost his approval ratings with a “change of tone” at the podium further unraveled when he was asked by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins about his support for a doctor who was featured in one of the retweeted videos downplaying the use of masks and who once suggested aliens’ DNA was used in medical treatments.
Trump cut short the briefing and walked off.