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Trump Can’t Bluff His Way Out of This

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 6/26/2020 David A. Graham
© Getty / The Atlantic

“We’ve done an incredible, historic job,” President Donald Trump boasted Thursday about U.S. anti-coronavirus efforts.

The president was right, but not in the way he intended. While Trump traveled to Wisconsin, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was telling reporters that he believes that 20 million Americans have been infected. The Labor Department was announcing almost 1.5 million new jobless claims, three weeks after Trump bragged that the economy was back. Governor Greg Abbott of Texas was pausing his state’s reopening. And the U.S. was setting yet another one-day record for new positive tests.

In short, the federal government’s response to the pandemic has been incredible and historic, but in the way that a devastating natural disaster is—only with 10 to 20 times the number of fatalities of any natural disaster in American history. Since the disease first cropped up, the White House has tried denial, swerved to at least pretending to take the virus seriously, then pivoted back to denial. Now, with a new surge of infections sweeping some of the places that have supported Trump most devotedly, parts of the administration are trying to act again. But the president stubbornly refuses to acknowledge reality, continuing to act as though he can bluff his way through a pandemic—long after the pandemic has called his bluff, collected his chips, and cashed them in.

[Read: A devastating new stage of the pandemic]

One demonstration of the contradictory approach came Friday afternoon when Vice President Mike Pence held the first briefing of the White House task force on the coronavirus in two months. Pence is a flawed messenger: Just last week, he wrote an embarrassingly shoddy column in The Wall Street Journal, insisting that “panic is overblown,” and writing, “Thanks to the leadership of President Trump and the courage and compassion of the American people, our public health system is far stronger than it was four months ago, and we are winning the fight against the invisible enemy.”

Yet even as Pence resuscitates the task force, Anthony Fauci has barely been speaking with Trump, though the president has found time to misrepresent him on Twitter. Notably, the press conference wasn’t at the White House, and it didn’t include Trump. (Instead, he was speaking at a workforce-advisory-board meeting at the White House.)

The president is more interested in declaring victory (over and over again), declining to wear a mask, and hosting campaign rallies that are likely to spread the virus. Trump’s presence might signal White House recognition of the resurgent pandemic, but that wouldn’t necessarily help things. When he held briefings, the president tended to turn them into a substitute for his campaign rallies, with political asides and awful medical advice.

That is because the president has never fully understood the pandemic or its repercussions. In his public comments, from his February claim that cases would go to zero to his April suggestion of using bleach and UV light to treat COVID-19 patients, Trump showed he had no grasp on the science of the disease. Though he initially dismissed the threat from the virus, the administration eventually recognized a need to at least attempt to show its seriousness as the virus spread. Daily task-force briefings provided a focal point, but it soon became clear that the White House was not prepared to take serious action to fight the pandemic, and preferred to delegate that work to states. (Though not without some armchair sniping from the Oval Office.)

Having passed the buck to governors, Trump moved on to a new strategy: pushing to reopen the country as soon as possible. But having flunked the science, the president never understood why the economy was reeling, either. He grasped the grave damage to the economy, and also the danger it poses to his reelection, and concluded that those problems could be solved by getting businesses back open and lockdowns loosened. This didn’t work, because the biggest reason for the economic shutdown was not that governors and mayors were forcing people to stay home—it was that people were choosing to stay home. As long as the pandemic was ravaging the country, there could be no real economic rebound, as my colleague Derek Thompson has written.

[Derek Thompson: It’s the pandemic, stupid]

The attempt to solve the pandemic by getting the economy open was an extension of the fake-it-till-you-make-it approach Trump has used on everything, including health policy and foreign negotiations. Because outbreaks were especially concentrated in areas that voted for Democrats in 2016 and 2018, it was easier for Trump to minimize them; he’s never shown much interest in being a president for—much less winning over—those voters who didn’t back him. The administration conceded that some number of people would die (a ceiling that keeps rising) but says that if not for Trump’s actions, millions would have died, and anyway, some level of death is tragic but a necessary sacrifice. You’ve got to break a few eggs to make omelets—and to get your local restaurant back open to serve them at brunch.

For a while, a weird equilibrium prevailed. The number of cases nationwide plateaued, and there was a slight decrease in unemployment at the beginning of June. Though public-health experts shouted that the danger hadn’t even remotely passed, every state began some measure of reopening. Trump declared victory once again. Some of the press moved on to discussing what a second wave might look like. Parts of the country that hadn’t seen as much spread of the disease never closed, or reopened especially quickly. This was particularly true in rural and conservative areas led by governors closely aligned with the president. When local authorities, especially those in urban centers, begged for leeway to fight the virus, they were rebuffed.

[David A. Graham: The night Trump stopped trying]

But as it happened, the first wave had never ended. My colleagues Robinson Meyer and Alexis C. Madrigal laid out all the dire indicators, and wrote, “The American coronavirus pandemic is once again at risk of spinning out of control. A large majority of Americans are worried about the pandemic again, after numbers dipped, and a growing number now say the worst of the pandemic is yet to come.”

Worse for Trump, the new surge is coming not in the blue cities and states but in red ones—and ones such as Arizona and Texas, which he won in 2016 but where polling is tight for this year’s presidential election. One clear correlation is that places where restaurants were open and busiest a few weeks ago seem to have the worst outbreaks now. Those places that took the president’s advice and reopened are now paying the price in health. Against this background, a series of new polls have shown the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, building a large lead over the president.

The president believed he could bluff the virus into submission, the way he’s successfully bluffed many political opponents before. The terrible numbers on infections and hospitalizations show that it didn’t work. Even though that gambit failed, the president is trying to bluff voters into believing he’s done a great job handling the outbreak. The poll numbers suggest that they’re not buying it either.

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