Washington – T.S. Eliot famously called April “the cruelest month.” If U.S. President Donald Trump, not known as a fan of poetry, were honest with himself (another unknown), he would likely agree the month turned his tenure into a wasteland.
By April 28, the U.S. was leading the world with nearly 57,000 COVID-19 deaths and over 1 million confirmed coronavirus infections. A recent analysis by the Yale School of Public Health indicates that the number of pandemic-related deaths in the early months of 2020 far exceeded the official public estimates.
Another landmark reached by the end of April was that Trump had lost the faith of much of his own party on the pre-eminent issue facing the country. According to an AP poll released on April 23, only 47 percent of Republicans believed “quite a lot” in Trump’s claims of progress against the virus. And only 23 percent of all respondents expressed a high level of trust in him.
Trump not only squandered the time he’d had to prepare the country from when he was first informed of a possible pandemic (at least early January); he also squandered his opportunity with voters. The damage from his compulsive lying was compounded by the national alarm about the subject — two unstoppable forces that have collided almost daily in the self-serving, meandering “briefings” he insisted on leading in the White House press room. And Trump’s baseless bragging about how much he has achieved collided with his desire to evade responsibility for deaths and other havoc caused by his dilatory response to the pandemic.
Predictably, the result of Trump’s impulsive governing style and his determination to dominate the news cycle has been a stream of bizarre and often contradictory statements. For example, despite the U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment, he recently claimed “total” power over whether and when state governments can lift public health restrictions.
That demarche elicited bipartisan objections, and his political advisers reminded him that the strategy was to avoid responsibility for the pandemic by shifting it to state governors. Although Trump quickly backed down, that didn’t stop him from encouraging demonstrations at statehouses to protest against the very restrictions he had encouraged governors to impose.
The one thing Trump has seemed comfortable with throughout this ordeal has been firing people. Two particular targets of his vengefulness have been inspectors general of federal departments (a genus of official installed after Watergate in order to bring accountability to government agencies), especially if they played a role in Trump’s impeachment in January, and people who have disagreed too publicly with his views about the current plague.
On the other hand, Trump is clearly frustrated that he cannot fire Anthony Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who serves on the White House coronavirus task force. Fauci’s status as the most widely respected authority on the pandemic has enabled him to publicly correct Trump’s frequent misinformation — for example, about the unproven benefits of antimalarial drugs in treating COVID-19 — at the task force’s daily briefings.
As April wore on, Trump’s long-winded appearances at the televised briefings became tiresome to the public, and his poll ratings began to drop. Meanwhile, the lockdown policies in place in most states were slowing the increase in infections, while an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that nearly 60 percent of the public favored stay-at-home policies over loosening restrictions on people’s movements. And yet, despite warnings by Fauci and other scientists, Trump spoke enthusiastically about “opening up” the country.
It should come as no surprise that Trump has abused his power in orchestrating the federal response to the pandemic. For example, he made sure that Colorado received 100 much-needed ventilators, and made sure that Colorado voters knew it, to help re-elect troubled incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner.
More alarming, Trump effectively threatened to wage germ warfare against U.S. Postal Service workers by denying them congressionally approved virus mitigation aid unless the USPS quadrupled rates on packages. Trump’s actual target was Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post.
As the last week in April began, more than 26 million U.S. workers had filed for unemployment in the previous month, Congress had approved four bills amounting to $2.4 trillion in relief to business and individuals, and policymakers were debating the next round of spending. With the economy spinning out of control and expected to sink to depths not seen since the 1930s, polls were suggesting that Trump would lose November’s presidential election to his presumptive Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.
Trump has become his own worst enemy. When, on April 23, he speculated from the podium of the White House briefing room that COVID-19 could be killed off by injecting disinfectants or by ultra-violet light, even many Republicans had seen enough. White House aides said his appearances at the briefings, which he had viewed as a substitute for the frequent rallies he could no longer hold, would be curtailed. Trump himself, evidently stung by the widespread mockery that followed his comments, dismissed the briefings, tweeting that his participation was “not worth the time and effort!” But he couldn’t stay away. After only a few days, he took to the podium again, determined to get a head start on May.
Elizabeth Drew is a Washington-based journalist and the author, most recently, of "Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall." Project Syndicate, 2020. www.project-syndicate.org
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