Analysis: Trump struggles to adjust to crisis presidency

  • President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) Patrick Semansky

Published: 3/23/2020 5:26:01 PM

President Donald Trump has never been known for his patience or long attention span.

Now, as the coronavirus crisis threatens his presidency, and upends his campaign for reelection, Trump is rapidly losing patience with the medical professionals who have made the case day after day that the only way to prevent a catastrophic loss of life is to essentially shut down the country — to minimize transmission and “flatten the curve” so hospitals aren’t overwhelmed with critical patients.

The president also has been furious that his efforts to halt the harrowing drop in the stock market have so far proven ineffective. He has been calling friends and economists at all hours and berated aides and reporters who try to persuade him to recognize the severity of the outbreak.

Beyond the crisis, he has been agitated that he can’t run the campaign he wants against Democrat Joe Biden, and he has used daily, hour-long briefings as near proxies for his campaign rallies, guaranteed to attract attention and to maintain the backing of his fervent political case.

This account is based on interviews with a dozen White House aides, former administration officials and Republicans close to the White House granted anonymity to discuss private conversations.

In a sign of his growing restiveness, Trump tweeted just before midnight:

“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!”

He followed up early Monday with a series of retweets that seemed to endorse re-opening American society upon the conclusion of the initial 15-day restrictions, meant to slow the spread of the virus, next week.

It reflected the view from a growing number senior administration officials who believe the closing of the economy was too harsh but also would directly contradict the advice of health experts, a bipartisan group of governors and mayors and potentially set up a confrontation with his own medical advisers, including top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Trump tried to minimize the threat of the virus from the outset and in recent days has vacillated between acknowledging the crisis and suggesting that it would all soon be over.

With his Mar-a-Lago club shuttered and his frequent trips to the golf course now off limits, Trump has been largely stuck in the White House. Even in good times, other presidents have likened life in the White House to being like prison.

For Trump, that feeling is magnified by walling himself off during the crisis. Unable to travel and unsure of what to do, he’s been crashing West Wing meetings, often forcing staffers to hurriedly adjust agendas as the president frequently gets in the way of health professionals trying to chart a course of action.

While some around him have suggested that he should only appear when there is big news to announce, Trump has been missing the spotlight and has told people that he knows the nation is watching the briefings and doesn’t want to give up the stage.

On Sunday, he asked the briefing, originally slated for 4:30 p.m. to be pushed back later into the evening, when more people would be watching — including those tuning in for “60 Minutes,” the president’s favorite broadcast news magazine.

Trump has rebuked reporters whose questions he does not like, and behind closed doors, it has been much the same. The president has snapped at aides delivering news that contradicts his relentless belief the crisis will be resolved soon.

Upon his return from a trip to India last month, Trump lit into aides about Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who had provided a dire warning about the virus’ potential impact. He chided Vice President Mike Pence in a West Wing meeting for defending Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a one-time Democratic presidential contender, for his handling of the crisis. And he angrily upbraided medical providers who called on his administration to do more, saying they should be upset instead with their local leadership.

And he has railed against journalists for investigating his sluggish response, driven, in part, by a desire to discredit the media at a time when he knows the headlines are only going to get worse.

“I watch and listen to the Fake News, CNN, MSDNC, ABC, NBC, CBS, some of FOX (desperately & foolishly pleading to be politically correct), the @nytimes, & the @washingtonpost, and all I see is hatred of me at any cost,” he tweeted over the weekend. “Don’t they understand that they are destroying themselves?”

That line has been picked up by others in the administration who also made clear that they don’t see value in reporters digging into how the administration prepared for the looming crisis.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate right now for the press to be going backwards,” echoed White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. “There’s no reason to go backwards and figure out tick-tocks of what happened when. We’ve got a crisis on our hands, we’ve got a coronavirus in this country, and the press should – they’ve got a real opportunity...to also spread great information to this public and give information that our task force is trying to get out there.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Mere weeks ago, Trump and his reelection campaign had planned to use his massive financial advantage to try to define his opponent to the public in the race’s early months, much like former President Barack Obama did to Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.

Trump had planned to frame the race as a contest between a decisive president who had ushered in an economic golden age, versus either an avowed socialist like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or a creature of the Washington establishment, Biden, who was struggling to raise money or enthusiasm.

But instead of facing a wounded Democrat at the end of a drawn-out nomination fight, an emboldened Biden has emerged as his party’s clear front-runner, having coalesced much of the party around him while addressing his cash shortage. And now Trump is staring at a recession, a potentially lethal political blow for any incumbent, but particularly one who has so tethered his fortunes to the stock market and a once buoyant economy.

Unable to hold his rallies, Trump has lost his favorite outlet and deprived his campaign of compiling valuable voter data. And while his campaign’s war chest remains robust, any sort of TV ad campaign has been sidelined, though anti-Biden digital spots are still being produced and aides have expressed surprise and relief that the former vice president has largely ceded Trump the spotlight the last two weeks.

With no chance of any trips anytime soon aboard Air Force One, where Trump often spends his time talking out campaign strategy and socializing with old friends and allies, he’s unleashed his anger on Twitter — including at Democratic governors who dare criticize him — and has been on the phone constantly, peppering people with calls.

In recent days, the president tried to reach one economist late at night but the person slept through multiple calls.

So Trump just kept calling. Eventually, the economist woke up.


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