I t has killed thousands, sown widespread fear and disruption and caused the worst day for Wall Street since the 2008 financial crisis. One man, however, is not panicking about the coronavirus. Donald Trump just spent two successive days on the golf course.
Even for a US president who has made a habit of denialism – from global heating to the size of Barack Obama’s inauguration crowd – the current crisis is raising the bar. One headline on Monday described it as “Trump’s Chernobyl”, a reference to the Soviet nuclear disaster that authorities could not censor away.
The commander-in-chief’s past attempts to bend reality to his will have often been met with derision or mirth. But this time it is hardly an exaggeration to say thousands of lives are at stake. The international crisis that many feared would test his norm-busting presidency has arrived.
“Denial, accusation, distraction, lies – these are his four principal responses to any rival,” said Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer . “Only this time it’s not a person. When you think of that model, it doesn’t work with germs. A tweet doesn’t knock over a potential global pandemic. ”
At a Fox News town hall last week, Trump was reminded that he is a “self-proclaimed germaphobe”. Blair added: “He’s been quite the germaphobe for many decades. One time I interviewed him he said, ‘You’re lucky I shook your hand.’ In the election campaign and Oval Office, it was hard for him to not shake hands but we can be sure there was a bottle of Purell nearby. ”
Trump has contradicted experts to downplay the coronavirus threat, perhaps not least because it could hurt him in a presidential election year. He has inaccurately claimed that a vaccine will be available soon, that anyone who wants a test can get one and that the virus will be killed off by the spring weather. “A lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat – as the heat comes in,” he said last month. “Typically, that will go away in April.”
And despite years of warnings from scientists that a pandemic would come someday, Trump has reduced the the White House national security staff and cut jobs addressing global pandemics. He has sought to portray the coronavirus as a bolt from the blue. “Who would have thought?’ He asked during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. “Who would have thought we would even be having the subject?’ ”
When reality does not fit, Trump tries to find a workaround. Visiting the CDC while wearing a red “Keep America Great” cap, he suggested he would prefer that people exposed to the virus on a cruise ship be left aboard so they would not inflate the national total. “I like the numbers being where they are,” he said. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault … I’d rather have them stay on, personally.”
The blasé president spent the weekend playing golf in Florida, then began Monday fundraising for his re-election before making a fleeting appearance at a White House briefing. On Twitter, he continued to deny the impact of the virus on tumbling stocks: “Saudi Arabia and Russia are arguing over the price and flow of oil. That, and the Fake News, is the reason for the market drop! ”
He also continued to express “nothing to see here” views out of step with the public mood. “So last year 90, 000 Americans died from the common Flu, ”he wrote. “It averages between , , and , 06 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 2008 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with deaths. Think about that! ”
Trump has also accused Democrats of seeking to exploit the virus for political gain. Such comments have caused dismay among public health officials. Critics say the president is clearly out of his depth.
Rick Wilson, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project and author of Everything Trump Touches Dies, said: “When Trump is confronted with something that does not follow him on Twitter, that does not watch him on Fox News and does not come to his rallies, he’s lost.
“Trump is a day trader. He runs out every morning and throws whatever he’s got in his head against the wall. It does not do the country a service when he is strongly inclined to believe his own bullshit. ”
Wilson, who has experience in crisis management, described the president’s response so far as “the usual Trumpian irresponsibility and mendacity in one package”. He added: “Presidents get judged not on the easy stuff but the hard stuff. He’s going to have people judging him on how he’s handled this. He has not inspired confidence. ”
Trump previously appeared blasé and uncaring when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. He memorably tossed paper towels into a crowd. But the coronavirus is on another scale altogether.
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “Trump has had a history of defying political conventions but the game is up. He has made a colossal mistake with how he’s handling the coronavirus. He has put himself front and center.
“He has belittled experts, his administration has not made adequate preparations and he undermined existing precautions and steps that had been taken for just this emergency. His fingerprints are all over this. ”
Jacobs added: “Trump appears disconnected from reality. While every American is thinking about precautions and wondering about keeping their children home from school, Trump, by underplaying what’s going on, is detached from the reality that middle America is struggling with. ”
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