It’s enough to steam your pants.
The national debate set off by Donald Trump’s announcement that he wanted churches packed on Easter was, like so many Trump crises, a self-inflicted one. In the days after Trump tweeted that “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” his medical advisers, led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, implored Trump not to relax the government’s social distancing guidelines. Trump dug in. “His view was: I need to show people that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” a former West Wing official told me. Under pressure, members of the coronavirus task force discussed privately how parts of the country might be opened in April, but cautioned Trump not to get locked into a specific timetable given the deteriorating conditions in New York hospitals and ominous upticks in cases in New Orleans, Detroit, and elsewhere. “They discussed it internally, but they never intended Trump to announce it,” a Republican working with the task force told me.
Trump’s impulsive decision—and its messy aftermath—consumed the West Wing during the critical week that governors were pleading with the White House to deliver medical supplies before hospital systems began to collapse. “It was totally crazy,” the Republican told me. Dr. Fauci, Senator Lindsey Graham, and others raced to convince Trump that an Easter opening would be a cataclysmic error that could cost millions of lives. “This is a very, very stressful situation for everybody, including me,” Fauci told me in a phone interview on Monday. By last weekend Fauci’s arguments broke through: Trump agreed to extend the social distancing guidelines until the end of April.
Trump’s latest tonal and tactical shift (and almost certainly not the last) was driven by several factors, both personal and political. Trump learned that his close friend, 78-year-old New York real estate mogul Stan Chera, had contracted COVID-19 and fallen into a coma at NewYork-Presbyterian. “Boy, did that hit home. Stan is like one of his best friends,” said prominent New York Trump donor Bill White. Trump also grew concerned as the virus spread to Trump country. “The polling sucked. The campaign panicked about the numbers in red states. They don’t expect to win states that are getting blown to pieces with coronavirus,” a former West Wing official told me. From the beginning of the crisis, Trump had struggled to see it as anything other than a political problem, subject to his usual arsenal of tweets and attacks and bombast. But he ultimately realized that as bad as the stock market was, getting coronavirus wrong would end his presidency. “The campaign doesn’t matter anymore,” he recently told a friend, “what I do now will determine if I get reelected.”
In recent days Kushner has advocated for his usual, iconoclastic public-private approach, drawing on business contacts. Last week he called Wall Street executives and asked for advice on how to help New York, people briefed on the conversation said. Kushner encouraged Trump to push back against New York governor Andrew Cuomo after Cuomo gave an emotional press conference during which he said New York was short 30,000 ventilators. In a White House meeting around this time, Kushner told people that Cuomo was being an alarmist. “I have all this data about ICU capacity. I’m doing my own projections, and I’ve gotten a lot smarter about this. New York doesn’t need all the ventilators,” Kushner said, according to a person present. During an interview on Hannity on March 26, Trump said: “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators.”
Meanwhile, Trump is also consulting his longtime confidante Hope Hicks, whom Trump hired back in February (Hicks had been serving as chief communications officer for Fox Corp., the parent company of Fox News). Officially, Hicks reports to Kushner, but according to sources, Hicks is constantly with Trump. “Hope is in charge of Trump’s calendar, which means Jared is in charge of Trump’s schedule,” a Republican who deals with the White House said. Sources said Hicks prepares Trump for his daily task force briefings and advises him to act presidential. “She’s been trying to play to his better angles,” a former West Wing official said. (Given Trump’s recent blowups at reporters Yamiche Alcindor and Jim Acosta, Hicks’s influence has its limits.)
Trump’s press conferences for the last few weeks had mostly been rally substitutes—boastful, contentious, featuring Trump as pitchman, selling the great job the administration was doing and the beautiful future after the novel coronavirus had magically flowed through, while compulsively blame-shifting to China, the media, governors, anyone but his own administration.
Ultimately it was about reelection:
while the president was slow off the mark to respond to the pandemic, he was always working off a political plan that had his reelection as the top priority.The president's strategy was that if the US could avoid the pandemic, despite all the loud calls for more action, he would be seen as the wise leader who didn't overreact and didn't kill our economy. In an ironic twist, he co-opted former President Barack Obama's mantra of hope as a strategy. But I believe Trump had a fallback plan in case the deadly virus hit us hard and he had a political plan ready to deploy.When the virus did erupt here, the president justified his earlier comments as an attempt to keep Americans calm. He also began shifting the blame in many different directions. One of his first targets was the Obama administration, which he claimed had left him with an obsolete system not fit for a 2020 pandemic.That criticism ignored the fact that Trump had already been in office for three years and had done nothing to remedy the purported deficiencies. […]Blaming the blue state governors has a phase two also. As the virus spreads to the less densely populated states that are mostly red, the president is poised to blame the blue state governors for not doing enough to stop the spread of the virus. Thus, deflecting blame for the lack of a national response and setting up an important talking point for the fall.His most insidious blame game tactic came over the weekend when he implied that New York frontline responders — docs, nurses and hospital workers — who were all putting their lives on the line, might be guilty of stealing desperately needed respirators and inflating the need for ventilators so they could hoard them. He publicly called out health care workers for their need of hundreds of thousands of masks when tens of thousands in the past were enough. He conveniently left out we're in the middle of a deadly pandemic.And the president had an offensive strategy prepared also. Daily briefings that last nearly 90 minutes were designed to show a president in charge, and a beneficial leader giving his people everything they wanted and needed. Trump touted big numbers on how many tests, protective equipment and ventilators were being produced every day, each time missing the context of how these numbers were just a drop in the bucket for the overall need — both now and as the virus spreads.The president also used the presence of corporate leaders to highlight what the administration was doing with the private sector. The reality, though, is that many of the things that he promised would materialize quickly simply haven't — like a Google national website, and nationwide testing in the parking lots of Target, Walgreens, Walmart and CVS.And every day he produced public health officials who looked like they were forced to praise the president publicly in return for any chance of influencing him in private. Most of all, he flooded the press with so much misinformation that the public couldn't keep up. By the time the press had caught up with one grandiose misstatement, he was on to several others.
This is what’s important: