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Major news networks could soon be presented with a choice: either show the president’s news conferences live, or prioritize the public health. That’s already the choice, to a certain extent. Donald Trump has used his daily briefings to peddle wild misinformation about his administration’s response to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Sometimes, these claims are promptly contradicted by the FDA. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the seasoned pandemic-response expert who stuck around the CDC long enough to be cursed with serving a president with even less regard for the scientific method than George W. Bush, has now spoken publicly about his limited ability to stop the deluge of false information disseminated from the White House podium.
Networks should already be evaluating whether carrying the president’s statements live is in the public interest. (It’s not—show them on tape delay with fact-checking.) But over the last 24 hours or so, it’s begun to look like the stakes will soon ramp up. Because it seems Donald Trump and his advisers may be unable to contain their despair over the stock market’s decline, to the point that they may call for scaling back the regime of social distancing and other mitigation measures—which public-health experts tell us could save millions of lives—in favor of getting people back to work. The first sign of this was a Very Presidential Tweet.
WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!
It is worth remarking on the fact that “all-caps diatribe” is not a traditional form of presidential communication during a global pandemic. Traditionally, the executive formulates a response with his sprawling policy and communications teams that combines factual accuracy with a carefully crafted tone that features both calm reassurance and a call for diligence from the public. Of course, Sunday’s briefing featured the President of the United States sneering about a political enemy going into isolation amid fears he’d been exposed to the coronavirus, so what do you expect? Mitt Romney voted for one of the articles of impeachment against me, so I hope he contracts a deadly disease. We’re all in this together! Don’t politicize the crisis!
Above all else, the tweet is a signal that Trump is getting antsy about the virtual economic shutdown associated with social distancing. So are many in the MAGA orbit, like the British guy on Fox News whom Trump may have been live-tweeting when he sent the above. (Yes, the United States pandemic response is driven in large part by what comes on the teevee screen when the president is watching.) This New York Times report bolsters the case.
But at the White House, in recent days, there has been a growing sentiment that medical experts were allowed to set policy that has hurt the economy, and there has been a push to find ways to let people start returning to work. Some Republican lawmakers have also pleaded with the White House to find ways to restart the economy, as financial markets continue to slide and job losses for April could be in the millions.
If you’re keeping score at home, these are the same folks who screamed at anyone who questioned the administration’s response, wailing that critics were somehow Politicizing the Crisis. In reality, the administration has always politicized the crisis, long rejecting evidence and advice from public-health experts in favor of happy talk they felt would benefit them politically. Trump spent the better part of two months suggesting the virus would go away miraculously—that we’d go from 15 cases to zero—and otherwise downplaying the threat while taking no action to ensure we’d have enough test kits, ventilators, masks, and hospital beds. The lack of testing in particular made less severe mitigation measures than our current ones largely impossible, because we had—and probably still have—no idea how many people have the disease and where. Meanwhile, the pressure from the free press has probably driven what limited response there has been, considering Democrats have been AWOL.
Now the White House wants to ignore the advice of public-health experts again, disregard what measures are in place, and possibly allow hundreds of thousands—if not millions—more people to die. To help the stocks.
Vice President Mike Pence indicated on Sunday at a White House briefing about the virus that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would issue new guidelines on Monday, allowing some people who have been exposed to the coronavirus to resume working outside their homes if they wear masks….
But there could be consequences to ending the measures too quickly. The recent rise of cases in Hong Kong, after there had been an easing of the spread of the virus, is something of an object lesson about how ending strict measures too soon can have dangerous consequences.
In a tweet on Monday morning, Thomas Bossert, the former homeland security adviser who for weeks has been vocal about the need for the U.S. government to take stricter measures, said, “Sadly, the numbers now suggest the U.S. is poised to take the lead in #coronavirus cases. It’s reasonable to plan for the US to top the list of countries with the most cases in approximately 1 week. This does NOT make social intervention futile. It makes it imperative!”
In truth, every decision Trump has taken so far has likely been with both eyes firmly fixed on the economy, which he rightly believes is his only argument for re-election. He thought he could talk the virus away for a while, then he thought he could get the markets to bounce back by putting Big Business in charge of the response. (We’re still waiting on the Walmart parking-lot tests, but they seem to be more real than the national Google website Trump promised to the surprise of Google.) Now the president thinks that maybe we can mostly just go back to work and the Dow Jones Industrial Average will go back up, even if a few more people have to die.
There’s an argument that the economic disruptions could cause at least as much human suffering as the virus itself, but what reason is there to believe that there will be no economic consequences if a million more Americans die because we largely abandon social distancing? The solution is to maintain these measures and send people checks, not send them back to work. (Another non-solution: creating a $500 billion—half-a-trillion[!]—corporate slush fund to be paid out at the discretion of an administration with an established record of corruption and self-dealing.) But it looks like the faction in the White House who bill themselves as The Economy Guys have wrested back control of the discussion from people, like Fauci, who actually know things. Maybe Larry Kudlow, who was famously right about the Bush Boom Economy in December 2007 and that you should Buy the Dip on February 25, 2020, now has the president’s ear on this.
The simple fact is that, apart from Hurricane Maria, this country has not previously faced a crisis served up by a truly external vector while this president has been in charge. We have been blessed with relative tranquility—with apologies to Puerto Rico—while a pathologically self-interested and militantly ignorant goon is behind the wheel. Those times are over, however. This is a crisis that requires vision and critical thinking, empathy, clear and empirical public messaging, political sacrifice, and cooperation with others even if they don’t praise you constantly.
Trump has no capacity for any of these things. His government, three years in, is filled with people whose primary qualification is absolute loyalty to The Leader, not any kind of expertise or ethics or competency. He’s using his time behind the podium now to attack the press and his political enemies. This included having an absolute meltdown when a reporter asked him if he had a message to reassure frightened Americans. This query is known to most politicians—including Vice President Mike Pence less than an hour later—as The Ultimate Softball. But to our paranoid and conspiracy-addled game-show-host president it’s some sort of Very Nasty Trick Question Designed to Hurt Mr. Trump.
Meanwhile, New York doesn’t have enough ventilators. California is basically on lockdown. And eventually, this thing is going to creep into communities who support the president, too. Like the climate crisis, it is impervious to claims it is a hoax. This might not just be a choice for the major news networks. Perhaps we will all have to observe and enforce the policies that will save American lives while the president fights us on it.