Still sick and dependent on a potent cocktail of antiviral drugs and steroids, President Donald Trump turned his highly choreographed return to the White House into another vivid example of the recurrent theme of his presidency: the denial of obvious facts when they don’t meet his political needs.
His message Monday evening and reiterated Tuesday was that Americans had nothing to fear from the coronavirus, and it denied the obvious: The disease he said would disappear as the weather warmed in the spring, “like a miracle,” had already claimed the lives of more than 210,000 of his compatriots.
Trump wasn’t really saying anything new — he has minimized the effects of the virus since January — and his presidency has in many ways been defined by his dismissal of many of the biggest threats facing the United States. His preoccupation with demonstrating strength or rearranging facts to reinforce his worldview has led him, time and again, to downplay, ignore or mock everything from climate change to Russian interference in the American political process.
Trump’s own Pentagon declared in a report last year that a warming climate was a major “national security issue” that could spur future instability around the globe, but to Trump it remains a theory, something to be stricken from government reports and explained away when the West erupted in wildfires.
His intelligence agencies have assessed that North Korea’s nuclear stockpile has expanded significantly on Trump’s watch. But to the president, that arsenal — which he said in 2017 might force him to take military action leading to “fire and fury like the world has never seen” — is hardly worth mention today. Asked about it, he invariably turns the conversation to his relationship with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader.
The unremitting stream of cyberattacks by Russia, many aimed at the heart of the American political process, has preoccupied intelligence and military officials determined to keep Vladimir Putin from interfering in another election. But not Trump, who has said he has no reason to disbelieve the Russian leader’s denials that Moscow was involved.
On virtually every front, said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Trump has embraced “denialism,” as if wishing problems away was a substitute for policy and action.
“The denialism is a pattern,” said Haass, who served several Republican presidents at the National Security Council and the State Department. “It is pervasive. And the fear among friends and allies is that all this is not limited to Trump but reflects how this country has not just changed, but changed for the worse.”
“They have put their security in our hands,” said Haass, author of “The World: A Brief Introduction,” “and they are questioning that wisdom, at the same moment that our adversaries see us as divided and distracted.”
It is a distinctive pattern that began in the Trump administration’s first hours, when the new president bristled at photographs released by the National Park Service that suggested the crowds at his inauguration paled when compared with the turnouts for the swearing-in of some past presidents, including Barack Obama. Then came his search for 3 million fraudulent votes — all in the service of denying that he had lost the popular vote, even while winning the Electoral College.
Some of the moments were laughable, like the Sharpie used to alter National Weather Service maps of the course of Hurricane Dorian last year, all to justify Trump’s erroneous declaration that the storm was headed to Alabama.
It was great fodder for late-night comedians. Then, in March, as the virus emptied out offices and began to strike U.S. cities, denialism went from deadly serious to simply deadly.
Trump’s own Department of Health and Human Services, with the help of the White House staff, had prepared for an influenza pandemic that many experts had viewed as inevitable. They had even run a monthslong exercise, code-named “Crimson Contagion,” that mapped out how the government needed to respond if a virus — somewhat different from the coronavirus — that originated in China came to U.S. shores aboard direct flights, borne by tourists, students, business executives and returning Americans.
But the tabletop exercise missed one key element: a president who made it clear he didn’t want to hear news that imperiled economic expansion, especially in an election year.
“Nobody ever thought of numbers like this,” Trump said in mid-March, as his early story that the virus was under control began to collapse around him.
In fact, they had — it was simply that Trump did not want to acknowledge those numbers. He kept downplaying the casualties, saying he was sure that deaths would top out below 60,000 and creating a White House culture where mask-wearing was equated with weakness, rather than the pandemic equivalent of strapping on seat belts.
Trump has also seemed incapable, or at least unwilling, to acknowledge the cost of denying reality. He continues to insist the economy will have a “V shaped” recovery, even though the Federal Reserve chairman he appointed, Jerome Powell, said Tuesday that Americans should brace for a “longer-than-expected slog back to full recovery.”
Powell warned of potentially tragic consequences if economic stimulus wasn’t extended; hours later Trump pulled the plug on negotiations with Democrats, saying he would take it all up again after he won re-election.
The recklessness of mocking mask-wearing appealed to the base, but imperiled his staff, his Secret Service detail and his supporters.
Anyone who thought the president might be chastened by his personal experience with the coronavirus, from the drop in his oxygen levels to his helicopter evacuation to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, got a dose of reality when he insisted on being driven around the outside of the hospital to wave at his supporters, no matter what the risk to his protective detail in an armored limousine designed to cut off outside air.
But it was his return to the White House that showed Trump was determined to turn his infection from a vulnerability into another sign of strength, of triumph. He declared that the United States should just soldier forward, even while his press secretary was announcing that she, too, had the coronavirus.
And his dramatic ripping off of his mask as he returned to the White House, even though he knew he would be encountering White House staff members as soon as he stepped indoors, drove home his determination to deny the risks — not for him, but for those who worked for him.
Now he presides over an executive branch that is running on half speed. Most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are in isolation. His chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, is working at home because he has comorbidities, and his staff is staying away, too.
In short, there was nothing the president was doing at the White House, one of his aides conceded, that he couldn’t have gotten done from the sprawling presidential suite at Walter Reed. Except it wouldn’t have looked right — it would have looked as if Trump was sick.
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