When Donald Trump walked back his plea that by Easter we should be back to our normal routines of church services and Sunday brunch, with the economy "raring to go," it didn't mean he'd grown in the presidency or listened to his experts. It only meant he was watching TV.
As he did on his quick retreat from quarantining New York, Trump saw that the early April date he'd proposed was absurd to everyone but the business buddies who planted the lethal idea that the cure for the virus was worse than the virus. Someone got the heave-ho from Fox for pushing that point. He knew that if it wasn't working there, it wasn't working anywhere. Too bad Trump can't be fired for saying it.
Trump had already proved he isn't up to governing in a time of pandemic — the only curve that's flattening is his learning one. He isn't heeding his experts — who are now warning that 200,000 deaths may be the best-case scenario, less than 24 hours after Trump said 100,000 deaths would mean "we all together have done a very good job" — nor has he at long last pivoted to being presidential. There is nothing presidential about his briefings, except that they take place in the White House.
On Monday, Trump continued with his usual pop-offs at reporters for allegedly being snarky and nasty to him, this time by reading him a list of exact quotes about how the virus would disappear, magically. Trump insisted that each quote was true, despite the 15 cases he said would go down to zero growing to 160,000 cases and 3,000 deaths at latest count. He got in another swipe at his favorite foil, PBS's Yamiche Alcindor, this time for failing to congratulate him for replacing what he said had been a broken system for dealing with pandemics with one that he said is the envy of the world. Please.
While governors here are begging for ventilators, Trump talked about sending them to to Europe. He said there's now an instant test available, some six weeks after he said that we had perfect ones ready for anyone who wanted one, and he took credit for the idea behind a new sterilizing kit for masks, as if that made up for a critical shortage. He introduced "all the great American companies" (and their products) present, starting with the ubiquitous My Pillow guy who lavished praise on Trump as anyone who speaks knows to do. Trump said everyone was fantastic, incredible and tremendous, like a roast without the insults.
It's hard to believe that every day during a pandemic Trump puts on a show that pulls a supporting cast to the White House for hours of kumbaya. Traditionally, even lackluster presidents raise their game in a crisis and the great ones like Lincoln and FDR saw us through the darkest days. Instead, Trump is concentrating on being his own press secretary, completing a transition begun months ago in the White House driveway. With rehearsal and performance, it consumes much of his day. He boasts that his rating beat the finale of The Bachelor, the only metric that matters to him. He didn't retreat on his promise of an Easter Day resurrection to save lives. He retreated to keep his numbers up.
Trump's turn as his own spokesperson and TV producer is not victimless. He relegates experts to bit players. Trump can barely do one job, much less two. He pulls Dr. Anthony Fauci away from his work for hours a day while giving him just enough crumbs to convince the sleepless doctor that it's worth it to keep trying to convince Trump to do his job. Right after dropping the Easter fantasy, Trump threw out another date a month hence, moments after Fauci cautioned that only the virus sets the timeline.
To bolster his claim that his response has been a 10 on a scale of 10 while also stressing that he's not responsible for anything that's gone wrong, Trump took credit for pushing through limited FDA approval for drugs Fauci is cautious about but that Dr. Trump believes will cure COVID-19. All he's done is create a run on those drugs so that people with the life-threatening diseases they're intended for can't get them.
Trump squandered a good six weeks while experts tiptoed around his fragile ego and cajoled him into taking the slightest measures. Meanwhile he descended from depraved indifference to reckless endangerment, jeopardizing lives in states with unappreciative governors he accused of hoarding, whining, and exaggerating the need for ventilators as an excuse for not providing them. He's still surprised when he sees a picture of a truck as long as the Rose Garden serving as a makeshift morgue outside a hospital in Queens, where he was raised. No one else is.
Two hours of full-frontal Trump is too much to take when we are facing a dystopian future with memos instructing doctors on how to ration care and health-care workers making arrangements for their children. He injects more hate and selfishness into our trying days than we can bear. I flinched when Trump threw out the idea that masks intended for hospital workers might be "walking out the back door" as if those who need the protection the most would remove them. I choked up an hour later when New Yorkers leaned out their windows to bang whatever they could find during the change of hospital shifts to show their support for those same workers risking their lives for us.
The bobbleheads behind Trump, standing much closer than six feet apart, in mute agreement, aren't helping. Neither is Birx, at least when she's standing behind Trump or speaking on his behalf. She's way too pliant, praising the dear leader's supposed attention "to the scientific literature … his ability to analyze and integrate data that comes out of his long history in business." Maybe, if that analysis would help Don Jr. make a buck off it, as Trump would have off the stimulus bill if Democrats hadn't removed his oversight of how the $2 million was to be spent.
It's painful to utter a word critical of Fauci, with his voice grown hoarse, his off-the-rack suits, his years of service. Fauci saves himself for the big fights and he did get Trump to briefly don a metaphorical uniform and announce a war against the virus. Heckuva job, General Trump, until a short time later he waved the white flag because the virus didn't surrender immediately. Like a long line of officials before him living in exile, Fauci may believe he'll be banished if Trump deems him insubordinate for pushing him to do the right thing.
But it's a fallacy to believe you can get Trump to do the right thing. No one died when Sean Spicer declared Trump had the largest inaugural crowd in history. People will die if the current press secretary keeps mainlining disinformation into the country's veins and in the middle of death and sickness rewards the pillow guys of America with Rose Garden cameos. Every minute Trump is on air he exudes the wrong attitude, that sure it's a nice idea if you feel like isolating yourself but not essential if you don't. He laughed over an errant handshake in the Rose Garden on Monday. He said we have to get back at it, meaning the economy. He still believes that the cure for the virus is worse than the virus.
Fauci loses nothing by speaking his mind. If he were to be banished, he goes back to his deep state office in suburban Maryland with his influence enhanced. He wouldn't have to travel two hours to the cameras in the West Wing. The cameras would come to him. And so would we. He's a much better guide through the hellscape that's coming than Trump serving as his own press secretary, and not much else, could ever be.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the Daily Beast. She was formerly the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, a weekly panelist on CNN's "Capital Gang" and managing editor at the New Republic. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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