Trump's desperate April: 34 days of fumbling — and it was worse than we thought

Behind Trump's frenzied push to reopen: Much higher levels of death are fine, if he can win re-election

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 4, 2020 9:00AM (EDT)

President Donald Trump points to a reporter to ask a question as he speaks about the coronavirus, as White House adviser Jared Kushner listens.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Donald Trump points to a reporter to ask a question as he speaks about the coronavirus, as White House adviser Jared Kushner listens. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

I mentioned a while back that the Atlantic's James Fallows had compared the ongoing stunning reporting about the U.S. government's catastrophic response to the coronavirus pandemic to the Pentagon Papers scandal, and it's true. I don't think I've ever seen anything like this in real time before. Media accounts of the administration's response to the coronavirus crisis are simply devastating.

We've learned that in the month of January, intelligence agencies were anxiously informing the president that the virus was exploding even while he was publicly dismissing the threat. Then we had several stories by various media outlets about the "lost month" of February when Trump dawdled and lived in denial that the virus would affect Americans.

The month of March started with footage of Trump finally pretending to take the crisis seriously at a trip to the CDC where he gave away his thinking on how to handle the virus. When asked about whether or not a cruise ship with infected passengers should dock in San Francisco, he said he was against it: "I like the numbers being where they are. I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault."

That month he played his last rounds of golf and held his last rallies, clinging to denial until he was finally forced to declare a national emergency. The stock market crashed, the government issued some social-distancing guidelines and Trump launched into his daily briefing ritual, first insisting that he wanted the country to get back to work immediately and then finally agreeing to extend the guidelines through April.

Meanwhile the administration dithered, unable to process the scope of the problem, provide necessary information or deal effectively with the logistical challenge of getting crucial supplies where they were most needed.

Now we have an account of the month of April — and it's something else. Written by Philip Rucker, Josh Dawsey, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Robert Costa and Lena H. Sun for the Washington Post, it's headlined "34 days of pandemic: Inside Trump's desperate attempts to reopen America," It reveals a stunningly dysfunctional White House intensely focused on one thing and one thing only: reopening the economy in order to re-elect Trump in November.

Trump's team somehow seems to have persuaded itself that the economy will recover by the fall, relying on some dubious data provided by Kevin Hassett, formerly the chairman of the president's council of economic advisers, who drew up an econometric model to help them make decisions about the response. Although Hassett denies it, numerous sources told the Post that this model projected a much smaller death count than the estimates given to the president by the scientists on his task force. This lowballing of possible fatalities was music to Trump's ears as well as to Jared Kushner, economic adviser Larry Kudlow and others who are solely or primarily concerned with the economy and the re-election campaign.

Hassett's projections of the economic fallout were as pessimistic as his death rate was optimistic, which gave the White House the excuse it needed to pivot to opening up the economy even as public health experts warned that a premature withdrawal of stay-at-home guidelines would result in a surge of new cases. That explains why Trump weirdly started to claim that the total death toll would only be between 50,000 and 60,000 at a time when we were clearly closing in on those numbers and likely to blow past them (as in fact occurred during the last week). He was still living in his dream world where he could "keep his numbers down."

Trump made a valiant effort to push for the hydroxychloroquine miracle cure, in an effort to get this pesky pandemic out of the way so he could get back the economic success he believed was the magic bullet to re-election. 

Trump at times went to extreme lengths to promote hydroxychloroquine. Keith Frankel, a vitamins executive who occasionally socializes with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., said the president asked him to call California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on his cellphone and try to make a deal for the nation's largest state to buy millions of tablets of hydroxychloroquine from an Indian manufacturer. Frankel said he got Newsom's phone number from Trump.

This was totally off the books, with no involvement by the government. It was some buddy of Trump's running around trying to make deals with governors to buy an unproven treatment for a deadly disease. This is a pretty good example of the Trump White House's reckless, ad hoc, ineffectual crisis management during the month of April. It isn't getting any better.

And of course there was the testing debacle, which continues to this day. That's not even really an issue for the federal government anymore. The states have either accepted that they are completely on their own or have just given up on the idea of testing at all. That failure will end up being the most deadly result of Trump's incompetence.

Meanwhile, Hassett and Kudlow were telling Trump he needed to get the economy open no matter what. And Trump heard from his favorite outside advisers Arthur Laffer, Steve Forbes and Stephen Moore, the latter of whom told the Post that he recalled telling Trump, "Get open, get open, get open — we kept pressing that point. You'll have a mini-Great Depression. You'll have body bags of dead businesses and jobs that will never be resurrected."

That's right. He actually said "body bags of dead businesses." Evidently the body bags of dead humans are of lesser concern.

Soon Trump was tweeting for his MAGA protesters to "LIBERATE" their states from their social distancing orders and as April came to a close, states all over the country were starting to tell people to go back to normal, even as the numbers of coronavirus were still going up. (In fact, the caseload is sharply increasing in most places outside the original epicenter in the New York metropolitan area, where the curve has indeed flattened.)

Trump and the administration are now embarked on a "back to work" happy-talk tour to persuade Americans that we've recovered and everything's going to be better than ever.

Trump's alma mater, the Wharton School, has released a new model which projects that reopening the states now will result in 233,000 additional deaths from the virus by the end of June. Since many states will not completely reopen and others will stay locked down for some time, the actual number probably won't be that bad. But make no mistake — it's going to go up, possibly way up, as states open up willy-nilly and many individuals decide they aren't going to bother with social distancing guidelines anymore. It's already happening.

Dr. Deborah Birx made it clear on Fox News this weekend that her projections were always between 100,000 and 240,000 American lives. It's hard to see how the worst-case scenarios aren't much more plausible now, and she seems to know it.

Since the Trump administration didn't have the ability to manage the crisis effectively, the decision has obviously been made to accept massive casualties. President Trump clearly sees the growing death toll as nothing more than a political liability he can overcome with a strong economic recovery. Time will tell whether that strategy works, but it appears he no longer cares about keeping his numbers down. 

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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