For Trump, coronavirus proves to be an enemy he can’t tweet away

(T.J. Kirkpatrick | The New York Times) President Donald Trump arrives for a weekend stay at Mar-a-Lago at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Fla., March 6, 2020. A president who is at his strongest politically when he has a human target to attack has found it harder to confront a growing outbreak that has rattled the country.

Palm Beach, Fla. • Defending against criticism of his handling of the coronavirus, President Donald Trump suggested the other day that he could hardly have been expected to be ready for such an unexpected crisis.

“Who would have thought?” he asked during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nerve center for the government’s response to the outbreak. “Who would have thought we would even be having the subject?”

Actually, quite a few people would have thought, and did — including the officials in his own White House who were in charge of preparing for just such a pandemic only to have their office shut down in a reorganization in 2018. “The threat of pandemic flu is the No. 1 health security concern,” one of the officials said the day before that happened two years ago. “Are we ready to respond? I fear the answer is no.”

For a president who lives in the moment, rarely planning too far ahead, the coronavirus has proved to be a leadership challenge he was not prepared for either. The outbreak that has rattled the nation does not respond to Trump’s favorite instruments of power: It cannot be cowed by Twitter posts, it cannot be shot down by drones, it cannot be overcome by party solidarity, it cannot be overpowered by campaign rally chants.

Trump, who is at his strongest politically when he has a human enemy to attack, has seemed less certain of how to take on an invisible killer. The role of calming natural leader is not one that has come easily as he struggles to find the balance between public reassurance and Panglossian dismissiveness. He has predicted that the virus will “miraculously” disappear on its own with warmer weather, suggested a vaccine will be available soon and insisted anyone who wants to be tested can be — all overstated or inaccurate.

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He has expressed an astonishing lack of knowledge while at the same time claiming to be a medical savant. He has treated the crisis as a partisan battle, wearing his red Keep America Great campaign cap to the CDC and calling the governor presiding over the state with the highest death toll a “snake.” He even admitted that he wanted to leave passengers stranded on a cruise ship rather than see statistics for the number of cases on American soil go up because it would look bad.

“If we really want to talk about what is going to potentially create panic in this country, it’s an administration that’s just not being straight with the American public about the extent of this epidemic and the real-life consequences that could be put upon Americans,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS.

Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a prominent cardiologist who performed a heart transplant on former Vice President Dick Cheney and later wrote a book with him, said he was convinced that the Trump administration failed to move more quickly to test for the virus after it emerged in China because the White House did not want to admit the scope of the threat.

“When the story is finally written,” he said Sunday, “we’ll come to understand that tens of thousands of lives were placed at risk because of a political decision made by the president.”

Trump, who was spending the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, rejected the criticism Sunday, pointing to the travel restrictions he imposed early on China, later adding limits or warnings to other affected places like Iran and parts of South Korea and Italy.

[Read more: Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox orders removal of Utah coronavirus tweet that criticized Trump’s ‘misinformation’]

“We have a perfectly coordinated and fine tuned plan at the White House for our attack on CoronaVirus,” he wrote on Twitter moments after arriving at his golf club in West Palm Beach, where he played with several members of the World Series champion Washington Nationals. “We moved VERY early to close borders to certain areas, which was a Godsend. V.P. is doing a great job. The Fake News Media is doing everything possible to make us look bad. Sad!”

After initially brushing off warnings by his health secretary as “alarmist,” Trump in the past two weeks has taken a more assertive public role on the coronavirus, assigning Vice President Mike Pence to lead the government efforts and making multiple appearances to signal that he takes the threat seriously.

But he has also taken a business-as-usual approach to the rest of his schedule, refusing to cancel campaign rallies, fundraisers or social events even as other large gatherings of Americans are scrubbed. Asked by a reporter Saturday night if he was worried that infections were getting closer to the White House, Trump said, “No, I’m not concerned at all.”

The president then went inside Mar-a-Lago to host a lavish birthday party for former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is dating Donald Trump Jr. and turns 51 on Monday, a preview perhaps of the celebration that may be held next month when Melania Trump turns 50. Among those spotted at the revelry were boldface names from Trump’s circle, including Pence, Lindsey Graham, Rudy Giuliani, Tucker Carlson and Matt Gaetz.

Trump happily introduced his visitor, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, to Carlson and other guests in a video shared on social media, boasting that he “gave him a good gift” by not imposing tariffs on Brazil and “that made him much more popular.” Bolsonaro laughed and said, “Sí.” A smiling Pence turned to the camera and playfully repeated, “Sí.”

The first lady did not make the trip to Florida, but she faced a fiddling-while-Rome-burns blowback of her own over the weekend after posting online photographs of herself in a hard hat overseeing the privately financed construction of a new tennis pavilion at the White House.

“I encourage everyone who chooses to be negative & question my work at the @WhiteHouse to take time and contribute something good & productive in their own communities,” she wrote on Twitter on Saturday, adding her anti-bullying slogan, “#BeBest.”

By the president’s own account, the coronavirus has been an education for him. He has acknowledged that “I didn’t know people died from the flu” — tens of thousands, in fact, each year in the United States — even though, as The Washington Post pointed out, his own grandfather died of influenza during the 1918 epidemic.

But he has credited himself with instinctive understanding of the science. “I like this stuff. I really get it,” he said at the CDC on Friday. “People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”

Trump rejected criticism of the slow distribution of test kits, framing it in terms evoking his battle against impeachment. “The tests are all perfect,” he told reporters, “like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect, right?” — a reference to the rough transcript of his telephone call with Ukraine’s president that led to his own impeachment for abuse of power.

The president’s less-than-perfect pronouncements, however, left public health officials straining to reconcile them on the Sunday talk shows. Asked on CNN’s “State of the Union” about a White House aide’s assertion that the coronavirus had been “contained,” Dr. Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, said: “Well, this is a novel virus. It’s a new situation. And the messaging, quite frankly, is hard.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also appeared to walk back the president’s claim that “anyone who wants a test can get a test,” saying on “Fox News Sunday” that it would actually be up to a doctor.

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Trump has become such a polarizing figure that even when he is not necessarily wrong, many do not trust him. On Sean Hannity’s Fox News show last week, he called the World Health Organization’s estimated fatality rate of 3.4% “a false number,” saying “my hunch” was that it would be under 1%. It sounded as if he were substituting his uneducated “hunch” for the judgment of professionals.

But in fact, he was reflecting what he had been told by health experts, including Fauci and Dr. Robert Redfield, the CDC director, who have concluded that once the full scope of unreported infections is known, the number of deaths will most likely represent a smaller share, possibly “considerably less than” 1%. The WHO has also said the rate may fall.

Still, at his appearance at the CDC, Trump had no explanation for why his White House shut down the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense established at the National Security Council in 2016 by President Barack Obama after the 2014 Ebola outbreak, stammering to suggest the coronavirus had been a surprise.

“Well, I just don’t think — I just don’t think that somebody is going to — without seeing something, like we saw something happening in China,” Trump said. “As soon as they saw that happening, they essentially — not from the White House. I mean, you know, we don’t need a lab in the White House. But they saw something happening.”

Elizabeth Cameron set up the global health security directorate at the White House for Obama before turning it over to Rear Adm. R. Timothy Ziemer, who ran it for Trump until May 2018, when he was pushed out and the directorate folded into other parts of the National Security Council. Had it still been around, it would have been charged with preparing for exactly the situation now facing the country.

“I think it would have made a difference,” Cameron said Sunday. “Monitoring and preparing for every eventuality and having a person and a directorate accountable for that is really important and could have been important in this case.”