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Truth bites as president finds enemy he can't belittle or deny

Robert Schmuhl


View from White House: Coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx speaks as Donald Trump listens. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

View from White House: Coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx speaks as Donald Trump listens. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Getty Images

View from White House: Coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx speaks as Donald Trump listens. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Before US President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency this day last week, he tried to keep the global outbreak at bay by sugarcoating statements light years removed from reality.

"We have it totally under control," he said back on January 22. "It's going to be just fine."

A month later, he took to Twitter to boast "the Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA", adding: "Stock Market starting to look very good to me!"

On that day (February 24), the Dow Jones Industrial Average experienced the third-largest drop in its 124-year history.

At a re-election rally in South Carolina four days later, Mr Trump claimed "the Democrats are politicising the coronavirus", going so far as to call it "their new hoax".

Like Pavlov's dogs, pro-Trump media, conditioned to accepting such pronouncements as gospel, raced to take up the "hoax" narrative, downplaying public health problems. One television channel played up this graphic: "Coronavirus Impeachment Hoax."

The president's no-big-deal approach was on full display a week before declaring the national emergency when he toured the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

For the occasion, he dressed casually, wearing a red baseball cap emblazoned with his 2020 campaign slogan, 'Keep America Great'.

During the visit, Mr Trump boasted, "Anybody that wants a test can get a test. That's what the bottom line is." Actually, the bottom line was health professionals across America were desperately seeking test kits.

He went on, apropos nothing, to say the tests were "perfect" - comparing them to his "perfect" telephone conversation with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. That call resulted in his impeachment last December.

Besides dismissing a state governor critical of the federal response as a "snake" he took time to admire himself.

"I like this stuff. I really get it," Mr Trump remarked. "People are surprised that I understand it.

"Every one of these doctors said, 'How do you know so much about this?' Maybe I have a natural ability."

In days following this performance, severity of the crisis came into sharper focus, yet the president's "natural ability" couldn't see it.

He knew better, tweeting: "The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant."

But 48 hours later, as cases mushroomed and people died, the president delivered an address from the Oval Office, just his second since taking office.

During the 10-minute talk, he made not one but three major mis-statements that required correction or clarification.

The financial markets heard no reassurance in the confusing remarks and responded by nosediving to the worst day on Wall Street since 1987.

The Dow Jones Average dropped 2,350.6 points to 21,200.62. (One month earlier, the Dow had climbed to 29,551.42, its highest close ever.)

The morning after the markets plunged, the front page of 'The New York Times' reported that "Mr Trump has essentially become a bystander" with governors, mayors, school administrators, business leaders and others seizing the initiative in dealing with the pandemic.

That's why the Trump administration scheduled the highly choreographed, "emergency" Rose Garden ceremony last Friday before markets closed for the week.

"To unleash the full power of the federal government," the president intoned, "today I am officially declaring a national emergency. Two very big words."

The declaration releases $50bn (€47bn) in federal disaster funds. During the press conference after the announcement, the imminent availability of testing received the most attention.

When a reporter asked if the earlier absence of tests might have been his government's fault, Mr Trump balked: "No, I don't take responsibility at all."

Social distancing might be popular protocol today, but political distancing will no doubt be the president's principal positioning as the pandemic explodes.

As many discombobulating predicaments as this White House has faced, what's happening today is its first full-fledged, genuine crisis and it comes eight months before the November election.

A couple of weeks ago, the Pew Research Centre released an opinion survey involving 6,395 adults that revealed a stunning 80pc of respondents, both Democrats and Republicans, view the president as "self-centred", a finding that could spell trouble amid a large, public emergency.

Until recently, Trump was counting on a strong economy, with high employment and consumer confidence, as his ticket to re-election. On Twitter and at rallies, he's taken credit for nearly every stock upswing.

In commercials, his campaign confesses, "He's no Mr Nice Guy", going on to brag about economic success the past three years among other administration activities.

Should the economy go into recession, as many analysts predict, how will the Trump campaign explain this new reality?

It's possible "the Chinese Virus" - a phrase the president repeats often - will receive full-throated blame, stoking nationalistic 'America First' passions.

With large gatherings now taboo, the president is unable to perform at rallies, events important politically and personally. At each rally, contact details are collected, building a bank of supporters and potential voters.

But other electoral work will continue, including fundraising. The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee collected a whopping $463.6m last year and more than $146m since January. They're ready to fight.

Presidential incumbency provides extraordinary vote-seeking power, as the last three White House occupants learned en route to their second terms. None of them, however, confronted a global pandemic.

What Donald Trump says and does during the next few weeks will help determine - and seal - his political fate.

Irish Independent