President Donald Trump, faced with a death toll of over 50,000 Americans from a pandemic he once said was “totally under control,” is increasingly coping by launching frequent trial balloons of far-fetched ideas to try to end the outbreak and get America back to work.
On Thursday, it was injecting disinfectant into one’s body to get rid of the coronavirus and using sunlight to do the trick too. (On Friday, after widespread mockery, he claimed he was merely joking.) A week earlier, the president was claiming “total authority” to decide when states reopen only to later say it was up to governors. Before that, he was touting as a cure-all the malaria pill hydroxychloroquine despite his health advisers’ concerns that the drug was an unproven and possibly unsafe remedy. He called for “packed churches” for Easter Sunday, a wildly unrealistic timeline that he had to walk back under withering pressure.
Some of Trump’s would-be quick fixes have more grounding in reality. In late March, he bragged that a fast new diagnostic test for the virus was “a whole new ballgame” — and aides rushed to bring it to market. But while impressive, the speedier tests have run into supply bottlenecks, and health experts have warned of unacceptably high error rates.
It’s a pattern that has repeated itself throughout Trump’s presidency, where Trump grasps for new ideas (often by what he sees on television), shortcuts and anything that can deliver hope and high ratings as the clock nears six months to the election. And those who know the president best say that even a crisis that has devastated American families and brought the economy to a standstill has hardly changed him at all.
“He continues to lead by floating trial balloons, gauging how those trial balloons are being received and then adjusting along the way,” said a person close to the White House. “He launches the trial balloons as he sees fit and then the adjustment comes after everyone starts chiming in after being sort of blind-sided by the original trial balloon.”
While sometimes soaking in their praise, Trump has frequently slammed governors during the crisis for the quantity of supplies that they’ve asked for
Another frequent motif in Trump’s presidency has returned with a vengeance: blaming others. Under fire for mishandling the outbreak, Trump has lashed out at China, the Obama administration, the “fake news,” the World Health Organization, governors and even his own scientists.
“I think we are seeing that pattern re-emerge throughout this crisis,” said Dave Lapan, a former senior DHS official in the Trump administration, “with the president not taking responsibility and trying to again shift blame elsewhere.”
While sometimes soaking in their praise, Trump has frequently slammed governors during the crisis for the quantity of supplies that they’ve asked for and more recently, for reopening states before the worst of the outbreak is behind them.
The Trump administration believes that governors of states hard-hit by the pandemic have been “two-faced” in how they deal with Trump and the White House, said a senior administration official.
“Some of them have acted like a bunch of ungrateful spoiled teenage brats, telling sugar daddy ‘give me more more more’ and basically saying eff you” on TV news shows, said the official, who said that at times Trump has noted the mixed messaging when they thank him on calls the president has with the governors.
Interviews with eleven people who worked closely with Trump or at high levels of the administration gave Trump disparate reviews on how he’s handled the crisis, although some are harshly critical.
“He’s performed poorly,” said Guy Snodgrass, who was former defense secretary Jim Mattis’ chief speechwriter and communications director and is the author of “Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis.” “He’s president of the United States. During a time of crisis, I believe most Americans want their senior most elected leader to imbue strength, to imbue honesty, to be a source of strength for them.”
“Exaggerating the size of the crowd that came to his inauguration or exaggerating the size at the Fourth of July event, those are annoying but those aren’t life and death,” added Lapan. “This is a time for serious response and serious communication and not using the opportunity to repeat past patterns of blaming others, of trying to underplay certain things and overplay other things.”
While former White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump has done a good job on handling the virus, he said that where Trump is not helping himself is by getting into feuds with the media and with Democratic governors and mayors.
“The briefings are extremely helpful to get information to the American people and the president is getting a lot of credit for that. His numbers reflected that early on, but when he is fighting with the governors and the media, it’s a distraction from the good work they’re doing,” he said.
A senior administration official defended the briefings by saying they have opened up Trump to an entirely new audience and “must see TV and a daily appointment for many Americans.”
A senior administration official defended the briefings by saying they have opened up Trump to an entirely new audience | Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
Former Trump officials also said a big problem in his response is that he is not relying much on data but instead using what he’s previously called “his very, very large brain.” At a briefing in mid-April, he pointed to his head when asked the metrics he would use to decide when to re-open the economy.
“He’s a gut guy that doesn’t like a lot of detail on stuff so that’s why he runs with the hydroxychloroquine thing working because ‘hey, that’s a good one, I have a good feeling about that,’” said a former senior Trump administration official.
Others are skeptical that Trump’s daily briefings are accomplishing anything positive for him, and are worried that they are backfiring by letting the president engage in his favorite sport: getting into arguments with reporters and attacking the media.
“He’s got two hours of material he’s got to fill every day in his show and will go with things before they’re fully baked,” said the former official. “They’ve kind of outlived their usefulness,” added a former White House official.
Three former officials said Trump is most worried about the economy.
Most don’t think Trump, 73, has changed much as a person even with a 9/11-scale death toll every day in recent weeks, a scourge that has felled one of his closest friends and inundated the Queens neighborhood where he grew up.
When asked if Trump is a different person because of the virus, Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s short-lived communications director, said: “No way. This guy hasn’t changed one iota.”
Scaramucci added that one thing that has stayed consistent with Trump is what he cares about most: himself.
“There’s only one thing that he’s concerned about and you know what that is? It’s ‘TRUMP,’” he said, spelling out the letters for effect. “When he does a news search, he’s searching ‘TRUMP.’ He doesn’t search ‘USA,’ he searches ‘TRUMP.”
Three former officials said Trump is most worried about the economy, because the president believes he cannot win a second term if the U.S. enters a sustained downturn.
Trump studies his base religiously, several noted, and frequently shifts his rhetoric based on where he thinks his most reliable supporters are going.
There is also strong skepticism about whether he’s learned much if anything since the early days of the crisis, when he compared Covid-19 to the flu and said it would “disappear” like a “miracle.”
“Most people would say, ‘Yeah I learned from that, I learned not to jump out ahead, or to be so definitive on things’, but I don’t see any evidence of that,” said the former senior administration official. “He’s sort of doubled down [by saying] he’s handled this thing perfectly well and I’m not sure whether he learns in the same way that other people might.”
Republicans close to the White House are worried about how Trump’s dismissive comments early on will be heavily used by Democrats against him, which are already appearing in early ads by Democratic groups.
In the latest example, this week Trump hauled Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in front of reporters to say he hadn’t meant to warn that an outbreak of the disease in the fall would likely be “worse” — only that it could be made more difficult by the onset of flu season. But the president went further, declaring the virus “might not come back at all,” in comments that could haunt him later.
“Where he’s going to get burned is his initial rhetoric claiming that the disease would never come to the U.S. and it would simply go away,” said a person close to the White House. “Basically those comments about it being overblown and a media hoax all of that is going to be a lesson in not shooting off your mouth before you actually know the truth because television ads are going to come fast and furious.”
Trump knows that his legacy largely rests on whether he can get America out of this mess, according to four officials — cognizant of the likelihood that if he loses, his handling of the coronavirus will be one of the first things that Americans learn about his presidency 100 years from now, just as Herbert Hoover is known for not responding well to the Great Depression.
The president also feels that some of his staffers haven’t done an adequate job and instead tried to preen for the history books, in particular Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who Trump thinks has leaked a number of things to make himself look like a clairvoyant hero who tried to warn of the dangers from the coronavirus, said a senior Trump administration official.
While Trump usually gets to blow off steam by playing golf and doing political rallies, for weeks, he’s been trapped at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue unable to escape much, although as POLITICO first reported, he’s planning to hit the road again for events around the country.
“He’s reveling in the fact that he can go on television every day on the one hand, but on the other hand he’s confined to the glorified bubble that is the White House,” a former senior White House official said.
As part of his eventual road-show, he wants to make sure that the massive federal aid that was intended for people and small businesses in need is getting to them and not to well-endowed colleges, fancy restaurateurs and publicly traded companies, said a senior administration official.
But Trump is hamstrung by the fact that it will be governors, and millions of Americans themselves — not the frustrated man in the Oval Office — who will largely determine whether the economy recovers robustly by November.
And if there is a larger plan for getting the country out of the mess, his allies aren’t yet seeing it. As one person close to the White House said: “I think people are being hopeful. That’s the strategy.”