President Donald Trump spent the weekend vacillating between casting himself as an empathetic leader and wartime president as the coronavirus spreads through the United States.
But above all, he still wants credit. Credit for cutting off travel from China. Credit for giving up money to run to run for office. Credit for uniting the nation.
During three collective hours of briefings on Saturday and Sunday, the president extolled his administration’s “extraordinary mobilization in our war against the virus,” dropped superlatives while describing efforts to offset testing shortages and move a major economic stimulus bill on Capitol Hill and trumpeted a national emergency he declared over a week ago.
“There’s never been anything like we’re doing on the Hill right now,” he told reporters in one of many laudatory passages.
Even as he repeatedly offered comfort and hope to a nervous American public — “no American is alone as long as we’re united,” he said — Trump would fall back into familiar tropes from his campaign. He attacked the press. He decried the sacrifices that he made as a rich person in choosing to run for office.
The two weekend briefings offered a window into the challenges that lie ahead for Trump, as he tries to appease the country and appear in control while also keeping in check his personal grievances. The tone Trump strikes will be critical to whether he is reelected, as the coronavirus crisis is quickly becoming the biggest challenge of the president’s three-and-a-half years in office. His daily briefings have essentially become stand-ins for his campaign rallies that are on hiatus until the coronavirus recedes — his way to communicate with the public and rally his base.
While the public’s approval of his handling of the virus jumped this past week, the ongoing challenges with testing and medical equipment — not to the mention virtual shutdown of the U.S. economy — pose problems that will be playing out for weeks, if not months.
“During this event, candid and forceful truths will do us a lot more than sugarcoating false assurances, or only trying to present this only in the best light,” said Craig Fugate who ran the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Barack Obama from 2009 until early 2017.
“I don’t care about your popularity,” added Fugate. “This isn’t about us. It’s about how many people we can save. This is brutal math right now. Can we keep the death toll as low as possible?”
The president’s rhetoric this weekend belied the country’s ongoing inability to broadly test Americans for the coronavirus, almost one month after the first homegrown case appeared in California. Doctors, nurses and major medical groups spent the weekend begging for additional masks and protective equipment to keep health care workers safe as they treat an increasing number of infected patients, and local leaders and governors warned of potentially dire shortages at hospitals that lack enough beds and ventilators to treat the expected waves of new cases.
Trump tried to combat these complaints by announcing over the weekend that his administration intended to send thousands of masks, hospital gowns and respirators to hard hit states, including New York, California and Washington, early this week. Two government ships are also making their way to both New York and the West Coast to serve as extra hospital beds, the president said on Sunday night.
These announcements came after Trump and his top officials could not answer direct questions on Saturday and Sunday morning during the briefing and on various talk shows about the availability of new tests it hoped to unveil in coming weeks, or the timeframe for the federal government to get crucial N95 masks to health care workers.
“It is a dynamic and fluid operation,” Peter Gaynor, the head of FEMA said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” when pressed for an exact figure of the number of masks the government had. “The president appointed FEMA five days ago to manage federal operations. And since I have been here, we have been shipping continuously from federal warehouses and, again, connecting those governors that need supplies to those who have it in the commercial sector.”
White House officials note they are working overtime to combat the coronavirus outbreak, freeing up billions in government funding, clamping down on travel and tweaking regulations to expand health care options and ease the shipping of supplies to states and cities.
Trump and White House officials have argued that states and local public health leaders are also responsible for tracking down much-needed supplies. The federal government cannot solve all of these problems, officials have argued, and to assume so is a “socialist fantasy,” said one senior administration official.
The president put it more diplomatically on Sunday night. He said the federal government was there to support states, not dictate strategy. Yet he made this argument while continuing to make himself the face of the administration’s response.
Public health experts say the Trump administration is still playing catch-up after not responding aggressively in the early stages of the coronavirus. One former senior administration official said the U.S. government would have been in a much better situation if officials had started taking more assertive action in January or February. China reported its first death from the virus on Jan. 11.
The White House argues that it was taking action then, citing the decision to bar most travel from China and declare a public health emergency on Jan. 31.
But critics say the White House has not stuck to a clear and succinct message about how serious the outbreak is for the American public, and how it might be solved.
Trump sent mixed signals over the weekend on potential drugs that could be used to treat this virus. He also touted the Defense Production Act — a law that allows the government to mandate that companies repurpose facilities in moments of crisis — yet his administration has yet to actually compel the production of health supplies, insisting companies are cooperating voluntarily.
The shifting messaging — and debate over who deserves credit for what — only muddies the main takeaway, experts say.
“We need to get out of the discussion of who said what, who did a good job and a bad job. Our outcome has to be to reduce the death toll. We get too hung up on who did what. That is a great topic for a future commission to review,” said Fugate, the former Obama FEMA administrator. “Everything now needs to be about what can we do differently tomorrow.”