Thousands are dying each week, the economy is cratering, and the president is at a total loss.
It’s been 111 days since the first reported case of the coronavirus in the United States. It’s been 57 days since President Trump issued social-distancing guidelines, and 12 days since they expired.
Yet the Trump administration still has no plan for dealing with the global pandemic or its fallout. The president has cast doubt on the need for a vaccine or expanded testing. He has no evident plan for contact tracing. He has no treatment ideas beyond the drug remdesivir, since Trump’s marketing campaign for hydroxychloroquine ended in disaster. And, facing the worst economy since the Great Depression, the White House has no plan for that, either, beyond a quixotic hope that consumer demand will snap back as soon as businesses reopen.
As for the cratering economy, which on Friday produced the worst jobs numbers on record, Trump shrugged. “We’re in no rush, we’re in no rush,” he said.
The president’s shiftlessness in the face of the greatest crisis of his presidency, and the greatest political threat during it, is confounding. Of course, Trump has faced mortal political threats before; less than five months ago, he became only the third president in American history to be impeached. He’s shown a remarkable ability to survive damaging situations. And his plans have often been derided by skeptics as unwise, unrealistic, or simplistic. This situation is different, though: Grappling with a multifront crisis, Trump seems to have no plan at all.
Let’s begin with efforts against the illness itself. The 45 days during which Trump recommended social distancing were meant to prevent hospitals from being swamped with patients, and give the government time to devise more effective measures. But when that period ended at the end of April, Trump simply let his recommendations lapse, opting not to extend them in favor of vague calls for reopening the economy.
Those six weeks didn’t actually buy the country much time, because the White House wasted them. With New York City removed from the numbers, the national curve hasn’t flattened at all. States continue to fend for themselves on tests and personal protective equipment. Trump held a White House event yesterday to tout growth in testing in the U.S., but the president’s rhetoric was misleading. The U.S. does not, as he claimed, lead the world in testing, on a per capita basis. He also continues to compare the U.S. rate favorably to South Korea’s, eliding that South Korea was able to control its outbreak sooner by testing faster, and thereby reducing its need for testing.
As my colleague Robinson Meyer has reported, based on figures in the COVID Tracking Project, which is housed at The Atlantic, the U.S. has increased testing but still needs to expand it dramatically to match expert recommendations. “To an almost astonishing degree, the U.S. has no national plan for achieving this goal,” Meyer writes. “There is no effort at the federal level that has mustered anything like the funding, coordination, or real resources that experts across the political spectrum say is needed to safely reopen the country.”
One possible problem is that to muster the kind of government effort required to catch up, Trump might have to acknowledge that his various premature “Mission accomplished” announcements were grievously wrong. Instead, he has repeated them. “We have met the moment. And we have prevailed,” he said yesterday.
Having declared victory, Trump has begun calling for the country to reopen. He is correct to note that social distancing has knocked the American economy flat, but once again, he has no plan for how the reopening should occur. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did have a plan—but as the Associated Press first reported, the White House quashed it, telling the CDC its guidelines would never “see the light of day,” then lied about the process by which they were killed.
In any case, the White House push to reopen is based on a serious misunderstanding of the causes of the economic damage. In Trump’s imagination, which seems fired largely by the rowdy and often heavily armed—but highly unrepresentative—protesters gathering in state capitols, the problem is that governors and mayors have tyrannically consigned brave American “warriors” to their homes, when in fact the populace wants to be going about its business of haircuts and meals out and gym sessions as though there weren’t a deadly pandemic sweeping the country.
This is simply wrong. Commerce has ground to a halt because many Americans have decided they don’t want to risk infecting themselves or their family, regardless of whether there are formal government policies instructing or mandating that they stay home. As Jordan Weissmann (drawing on OpenTable data) points out, restaurants in states that have lifted stay-at-home orders have seen a tiny increase in attendance, but nowhere near enough to save those restaurants, much less float the economy. Nate Silver notes that states that have opened up aren’t seeing significantly more movement than those that haven’t.
In short, Trump has placed most of his energy behind a vain hope, without any plan to accomplish reopening even if it were plausible. That has distracted his administration from any other efforts to boost the economy for what is likely to be a very long slog. The first three phases of stimulus have been, despite some complaints, positive measures, but they’re also clearly insufficient; Friday’s epochally bad jobs report came despite the billions Washington has already spent.
The government will need to spend much more to prop up the economy. This should be no problem, at least as a matter of politics. Democrats are already clamoring for more spending, and there’s little chance Republicans would balk en masse if Trump demanded a new bill. Some members of the administration acknowledge the seriousness of the problem. The White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett on Sunday forecast unemployment rates topping 20 percent, though he said he hoped policies so far had bought the White House time.
But others are inexplicably sanguine. Larry Kudlow, who incapably played an economist on television before being hired as the director of the National Economic Council, dismissed any need for new spending anytime soon. “We put all this money in, which is fine,” he said Friday at the White House. “It’s well worth it. Let’s see what happens. As we move into the reopening phase this month, maybe spill over to June, let’s have a look at it before we decide who, what, where, when.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who worked well with Democrats on earlier phases of stimulus and has few clear ideological precommitments, would be a logical champion for more spending, but he appeared to remain fixated on reopening during a Sunday interview on Fox.
Meanwhile, a faction of fiscal conservatives, reportedly led by new White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and budget chief Russ Vought, has suddenly discovered the concern for deficits that Republicans displayed throughout the Obama presidency and abandoned completely when Trump became president. They’ve returned to the theme at the worst possible time, both economically and politically. Austerity will only further crush the economy, and a cratering economy will make Trump’s reelection tougher.
Surveying the situation, Eric Levitz concludes that Republicans are simply “not cynical enough” to recognize the opportunity posed by stimulus spending: “For Republicans, some things are more important than winning elections—and, apparently, denying government assistance to desperate workers and their underfed children is one of them.”
That charge might be leveled at fiscal conservatives, as inconstant in their creed as they may be, but it is clearly not true of Trump. The president has no particular attachment to desperate workers or underfed children, as he has demonstrated throughout his life and now in his time as president. But he also has no attachment to fiscal conservatism either, nor will he be out-cynic’ed. For Trump, as for Vince Lombardi, winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.
Even with a clear imperative to spend, Democrats eager to work with him, and little need for wonky detail—all he has to do is sign a huge check—Trump hasn’t managed to commit to the most straightforward thing he can do to boost the economy and therefore his own reelection chances.
This isn’t because Trump is confident about November. White House reporters say the president is privately “glum and shell-shocked by his declining popularity.” His public behavior betrays the stress. He tweeted incessantly and manically on Sunday, then stormed out of a press conference yesterday after a jarring, testy exchange with reporters. He has begun a bizarre bombardment of his predecessor, Barack Obama, part of an unending search for villains. Trump is also deeply engaged in other efforts to boost his chances, including a campaign against voting by mail—a step many experts say is necessary to protect voters’ health, but which he has concluded (without much evidence) will help Democrats in November.
So much of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus was easily foretold. Experts had warned for years of a global pandemic. The president is obviously overmatched in his job. Trump badly botched the response to previous natural disasters, most prominently Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and pundits had predicted that he would stumble worse when faced with a larger test. His chaotic style of governance, lack of faith in his advisers, and inability to maintain his attention were all manifest before the coronavirus, and are on vivid display now. He has never been interested in the actual work of policy. None of this should have been a surprise to anyone paying attention for the past three years.
But through it all, Trump displayed a clear will to win, and a keen instinct for what it took to do that. This makes his failure to come up with even a semblance of a plan—good, bad, or unclear—a true mystery. Yesterday, the U.S. death toll crossed 81,000, a mark Trump had previously said it would never touch. More recently, he’s offered 100,000 as a likely figure. Will the president have a plan for the pandemic by then? At the moment, he’s in no rush.