Frank Bruni: A president in the hospital and a nation in the dark

(Anthony Peltier | AP) President Donald Trump drives past supporters gathered outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. Trump was admitted to the hospital after contracting COVID-19.

The coronavirus’ rampage through America threw a spotlight on its failings — on the galling inequality, the fatal partisanship, the susceptibility to fiction and the way in which rugged individualism had curdled into plain old selfishness.

The coronavirus’s rampage through the White House has had the same effect. What we have seen over recent days is Donald Trump’s presidency in miniature, his worst traits distilled. Two in particular — mendacity and recklessness — are on especially unsettling display.

When exactly did the president get sick and precisely how sick did he get? That’s knowable, but we still don’t really know it. He’s in the hospital. We’re in the dark.

How many people might he have exposed to the coronavirus since first experiencing symptoms himself? We’re still plumbing that mystery. We’re still doing that tally.

What is clear amid all this defensive murkiness is that Trump’s dismissive attitude toward the virus became its accomplice, as his disdain for masks and perverse sense of invincibility translated into a packed calendar of events and blasé behavior by the people attending them that amounted to epidemiological suicide.

Illness isn’t illuminating him, not to judge by a stunt he pulled early Sunday evening, when he left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center briefly to ride past and wave at supporters outside. Although he wore a mask, “Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary Presidential ‘drive-by’ just now has to be quarantined for 14 days,” Dr. James P. Phillips, an attending physician at Walter Reed, wrote on Twitter. “They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity.”

Reviewing the timeline of the president’s activities leading up to his positive coronavirus test, journalists have focused, for good reason, on the Rose Garden ceremony on Sept. 26 at which he introduced his latest Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, to the nation. At least a half-dozen people who have tested positive for the coronavirus over the past few days were there, in a crowd where neither social distancing nor face covering was enforced. It may have been a superspreader event.

But the crazy part is that Trump’s next five days were a sequence of potential superspreader events, because his look-Ma-no-mask presidency is its own potential superspreader event: the rallies, the big convention speech outside the White House, the sessions of debate prep and the debate itself, at which the safety protocol decreed that everyone in the audience wear a mask.

Trump’s family members and Trump’s chief of staff did not and, according to the debate’s moderator, Chris Wallace, waved away an official from the Cleveland Clinic who offered masks to them. Wallace recounted that situation on “Fox News Sunday,” asking a Trump adviser if they think that “rules for everybody else” don’t apply to them.

Great question. With an obvious answer. They are trapped by their own denialism, which demands that they model the lack of concern that they push on voters, and they elevate looking undaunted over being smart, confidence over prudence, because that’s the administration’s way.

Besides, masks would have incensed Trump, who, based on his debate performance, needed to be cooled down, not fired up. As Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman reported in The New York Times, he created a “top-down culture of fear” about exhibiting any worry about infection. “If you wanted to make the boss happy,” Karni and Haberman wrote, “you left the mask at home.”

That’s a metaphor for a whole lot more. If you want to make the boss happy, you tell him that his inauguration drew many more people than it did. You tell him bad news is fake. You tell him the polls are off. You tell him Robert Mueller’s investigation is a hoax. You tell him that President Barack Obama spied on his campaign.

You become Attorney General Bill Barr, a one-man factory of exonerations and excuses. You abet his existence in an alternate reality, where the sun is always shining and will magically zap an inconvenient virus into oblivion.

Trump’s aides abetted him all the way to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, supplemental oxygen, steroids and remdesivir. In the course of making the boss happy, they helped make him sick.

A president’s diagnosis with a serious illness should be a moment of at least temporary conciliation, unity and healing, when political adversaries put away their weapons, journalists muffle their alarms and Americans say a public prayer for a speedy recovery.

But Trump’s path to this point and his manner at this point prevent that. They compel the telling of hard truths, because they’re so reflective of the mistakes made in battling this pandemic.

“What I hope is that what we have seen with the president is a cautionary tale for people” and that more of them “wear a mask to help other people,” one governor said publicly. That governor was a Republican, Mike DeWine of Ohio.

I’ve heard nothing yet from Trump or senior White House officials that suggests that necessary lessons have been learned — that a commitment to a new conscientiousness has been made. As of early Sunday evening, they’d offered absolutely no public information or assurances about contact tracing for all the people who’d attended Trump events recently or crossed paths with him.

On Saturday evening, Trump tweeted out a four-minute video in which he had the good grace to thank the medical professionals tending to him and the many Americans who’d sent kind wishes his way.

Nevertheless, he persisted in his irresponsibility. Instead of promoting mask wearing and proper social distancing — a message that would have had tremendous power, given the circumstances of its delivery — he defended all those crammed events of his, saying the alternative was sequestering himself upstairs in the White House and abdicating his duties.

“I had no choice,” he said, preposterously. There’s a middle ground between hiding out and a schedule that summons maskless throngs and dispenses with all caution. He just didn’t care to inhabit it.

And while he found no time in that video to discuss proper protection against the coronavirus, he did reassure Americans that medical advances, such as new treatments, would save the day. “They’re miracles, coming from God,” he said. That statement isn’t an incentive to behave better. It’s an invitation to nonchalance.

Early Sunday evening, he released another video, just over a minute long. Again, no mention of masks. No mention of social distancing. But lavish self-congratulation.

“We have enthusiasm like probably nobody has ever had — people that love the job we’re doing,” he said of his administration’s supporters. “We have more enthusiasm than maybe anybody.”

It’s certainly not the fruit of candor or transparency. He and his administration have demonstrated neither since the tweet in the wee hours of Friday morning when he told the world that he had the coronavirus.

Physicians and administration officials have contradicted one another. They have contradicted themselves. They have moved and muddled the timeline of his first symptoms and treatments. They have given us every reason to wonder about a cover-up and made calm impossible and trust a joke.

“What is the actual state of President Trump’s health — now and over the past 24 hours?” Jonathan Swan of Axios wrote late Saturday. “It’s one of the most high-stakes questions in the world, and I cannot answer it, despite having spent since 5 a.m. on Friday on my phone with sources inside and close to the White House.”

In fact, Swan added, some of those sources merely echoed and amplified his wonderment.

“They’re utterly perplexed about what’s going on,” he wrote. “They, like us, have little confidence in what they are being told.”

To my ears they’re not just talking about Trump’s current illness. They’re talking about his administration’s sickness from the start.

Frank Bruni (CREDIT: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.