President Trump is now grappling with a grim reality.
Under fierce media pressure on three different fronts, Trump in recent days has changed course on the coronavirus.
This is highly unusual, because the press usually has little ability to influence this president. Whether it was the border wall or the climate change agreement or the Ukraine mess or a collective insistence that he apologize for one controversial comment or another, Trump usually delights in doing the opposite of what the pundits want.
But you can’t spin your way out of a pandemic. Far more than media criticism is involved in these presidential decisions, of course. Political pressure, the gyrating stock market and public opinion all play a role. But it’s rare for Trump, who thrives on doubling and tripling down, to reverse himself.
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It began with the ventilators. For many days, Trump said that while he had leverage under the Defense Production Act, there was no need to actually use it to force private industry to make more of the life-saving devices. When Andrew Cuomo said New York desperately needed 30,000 ventilators, the president challenged that figure on Sean Hannity’s show and said of the governors, “A lot of equipment is being asked for that I don’t think they will need.”
But a day later, Trump changed his mind, invoked the act and ordered General Motors to start making ventilators. (GM, with a company called Ventec, had already been working on such an effort, but Trump had become dissatisfied with the pace and the cost.)
Trump, who is under a constant negative barrage, is more angry at the press than at any time in the more than three decades I’ve known him. He ripped into PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor, not for the first time, at Sunday’s briefing for asking about the evolution of his stance on ventilators. He is treating her as the new Jim Acosta, picking her and then picking a fight with her.
The president asked why she wasn’t being “more positive. It’s always trying to get you, get you. And you know what, that’s why nobody trusts the media anymore… Look, let me tell you something, be nice. Don’t be threatening.”
There was nothing threatening about Alcindor’s question, and it was asked in a respectful manner. She accurately quoted what he said to Hannity. Trump allowed that she is a “fine journalist” and said “we’re all on the same team.” I don’t see how these rough exchanges with individual reporters are helping him, except perhaps with his anti-media base. (Interestingly, when she tried to ask a second question, CNN’s Jeremy Diamond passed the mike back to Alcindor, who got her followup answered.)
The next pivot took place within a single day. The president told reporters on Saturday that he was considering slapping a quarantine on New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — and that he might do it that very day. This caused something of a freakout in the tri-state area, as residents wondered if they needed to jump in their cars and escape if they wanted to relocate or be with family.
Trump’s words were immediately branded reckless across the media. They also prompted a sharp attack from Andrew Cuomo, who branded it a declaration of war and said the president hadn’t mentioned the idea when they spoke earlier in the day. By evening, Trump had dropped the idea but had the CDC issue a travel advisory.
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Trump’s governing style is thinking out loud, which is fine if he’s musing about nominating someone to a post and never follows through, but causes instant reverberations with something as sensitive as a travel ban.
The third shift is one where the president should be given a bit more slack. When he said he hoped the country could get back to work by Easter, the media savaged him for putting the economy over public health. But Trump never set it as a firm goal.
When he extended social distancing and other restrictions through April 30, the media acted as though he had finally come to his senses. Trump told reporters the Easter idea had merely been “aspirational.”
But something far more consequential happened at Sunday’s presser than a new target date. The president aggressively warned how serious the coronavirus situation had become. He had been told by his top experts, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, that if all restrictions remain in place, the death toll could still be 100,000 or as high as 200,000. But if restrictions were to be relaxed, they warned, models said that fatalities could reach 1 million or even 2 million. Trump repeated the higher figure 16 times at the briefing.
He also seemed more emotional, and for good reason. The president is from Queens, and he spoke of the anguish of seeing freezer trucks pull up to the borough’s Elmhurst Hospital to take away more body bags. He also spoke of an unnamed older friend who contracted the virus and is now hospitalized with a coma. “It’s really horrible,” Trump said. That sort of thing hits home, no matter who you are.
Perhaps the president is finally coming to grips with the magnitude of this crisis. Perhaps the round-the-clock media coverage is a factor. What really matters in this perilous situation is not how he got to these decisions but whether he is now on the right path.