A disastrous week that may define — or doom — Donald Trump's presidency

A botched Oval Office speech, a Wall Street collapse — and an epidemic that has already reached the White House

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 13, 2020 10:40AM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Dow Jones average dropped almost 10% on Thursday after two weeks of unprecedented volatility. It was the worst day on Wall Street since 1987. Cities and states have declared emergencies, and major sporting events have been canceled for the foreseeable future. Disney resorts are closed, Broadway is closed and schools in many cities and states around the country are closed. (That's not true yet in the largest cities — but stay tuned.) Our nation is finally on the emergency footing experts have been predicting would be necessary for weeks now.

But that is no thanks to the president of the United States. In fact, he's actively making things worse. From the beginning, he has been pretending that he already heroically saved the day — but his response has been nothing short of catastrophic.

One obvious illustration of Trump's overwhelming incompetence in the face of this pandemic is that he personally appears to be oblivious to the most basic mitigation strategies that his experts have instructed everyone else in the country to observe. He is 73 years old. He has been in the presence of numerous people who have been exposed to the virus, from his appearance at CPAC to parties at Mar-a-Lago, yet he reportedly does not want to be tested. Nine members of Congress are in self-quarantine including the newly named White House chief of staff, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro spent the weekend with Trump in Florida and we learned on Friday that Bolsonaro has now tested positive, following previous reports that his press secretary has the virus:

Most of those people have spent time with the president in recent days, including Bolsonaro and Graham. Trump has almost certainly been exposed but says he has not been tested and insists he will still shake hands with people. He went ahead and met with the Irish prime minister on Thursday. For a famous germophobe, our president is certainly being cavalier about this extremely contagious disease. More important still, he is not modeling the behavior experts are telling everyone in the country to follow.

But that's entirely in keeping with his attitude about this epidemic since it was first brought to his attention months ago. Politico's Dan Diamond reports that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar tried to muscle his way past Trump's aides back in January to try to make him aware of the impending crisis. Some among them, like Kellyanne Conway, didn't think it was a presidential priority and Trump wasn't interested.

As it became clear that the testing protocol had failed in epic fashion, Azar apparently didn't feel comfortable offering the worst-case scenario to the president because he knew what his real concerns were:

Trump did not push to do aggressive testing because more testing might have led to more cases being discovered of the Coronavirus outbreak, and Trump made it clear the lower the numbers on Coronavirus, the better for the president and his re-election this fall.

That was obvious from the president's personal appearances but it's interesting to see how it affected administration officials. By the middle of this week, Trump must have realized he could no longer treat the crisis as just another public relations problem he could tweet away with repetitive slogans. That was when he scheduled a fateful prime-time speech from the Oval Office.

Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and White House adviser Stephen Miller reportedly wrote the speech, and it was a total disaster. Trump called Covid-19 a "foreign virus" and announced a ban on all travel from Europe, mistakenly saying that European goods would also be barred. (He also made an exception for nations where, coincidentally, he owns resort properties.) He didn't bother to inform European leaders in advance, explaining later that he hadn't had time and anyway they hadn't call him before they instituted a tax that one time.

The administration had to walk back a number of the president's comments after the speech was finished. He had said cargo would be banned. It was not. He had said private insurance companies would guarantee coronavirus treatment at no cost. They had not. His original statement suggested that American citizens in Europe might not be allowed back to the United States. That comment led to chaos at European airports on Thursday morning as U.S. travelers paid exorbitant prices to get flights before the stated Friday deadline. But that wasn't true either.

Keep in mind that all those mistakes were made in a prepared speech that Trump delivered with a teleprompter.

As for the travel ban itself, former Trump administration Homeland Security official Tom Bossert explained to MSNBC on Thursday that it was pretty much a waste of time:

Those travel restrictions and additional screening measures are going to have little to no effect at this stage on controlling the spread of the virus. I think people perhaps misunderstand that the virus is here already in large numbers and the reason we're only 10 to 12 days behind Italy is that that disease takes some time to show symptoms in the people that have already been infected. So containment at this stage is not the best option.

According to the New York Times, Bossert has repeatedly tried to get through to the White House to discuss this but has been blocked by administration aides. So he's writing op-eds and going on television to get their attention. Perhaps he's on one of the enemies lists?

The problem is the same it's been for the past month: lack of testing. Immunologist Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, testified before Congress on Thursday and said that "the system is not really geared to do what we are dealing with right now and that is a failing. ... Let's admit it."

At virtually the same time, in a meeting with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the White House, Trump said that "testing has been going very smooth."

According to the Washington Post:

Trump — who believed that by giving the speech he would appear in command and that his remarks would reassure financial markets and the country — was in "an unusually foul mood" and sounded at times "apoplectic" on Thursday as he watched stocks tumble and digested widespread criticism of his speech, according to a former senior administration official briefed on his private conversations.

Incoherent xenophobia isn't quite as reassuring as he thought.

One imagines Trump's mood was not improved when he saw both former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders give speeches that were clearly more presidential than his devastating appearance the night before.

Biden made the specific point that Trump's incoherent foreign policy and his toxic behavior toward U.S. allies has made it nearly impossible to confront these difficult interconnected challenges.

As MSNBC's Chris Hayes memorably quipped after Trump's speech, "If all you've got is a wall, everything looks like an invasion." This crisis makes it obvious that America can try to retreat from the world all it wants, but it won't work. We share this planet and it gets smaller every day. If we are to deal with massive disruptions like global pandemics and the existential threat of climate change, we cannot afford to have leaders who fail to understand that. If nothing else, the Trump presidency has made that crystal clear.  

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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