President Donald Trump appears to have made his choice in the awful dilemma posed by the coronavirus pandemic – whether to destroy the nation’s economic foundation in order to save lives.
In his zeal to fire up American prosperity after helping to trigger an unprecedented self-inflicted economic meltdown, Trump is already losing patience – weeks before the virus may peak.
“Our country was not built to be shut down,” the President warned on Monday. “We are going to be opening up our country for business because our country was meant to be open.”
“We are going to get it all going again very soon,” he said, without setting a timeline – though he previously called for rethinking the White House’s guidance on social distancing next week.
His comments came on day when the number of confirmed cases soared past 40,000 and 100 people died in a single day for the first time. Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, warned that the “attack rate” of the disease in New York, America’s dominant economic and financial powerhouse, was five times that of elsewhere.
The President admitted Monday that “certainly, this is going to be bad,” on the deadliest day in America’s struggle with the pandemic, but he argued that “if it were up to the doctors, they may say let’s keep it shut down – let’s shut down the entire world.”
But in a powerful briefing on Tuesday, New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has said that at the right time there will be a need to slowly reopen commercial activity, warned: “We are not going to put a dollar figure on human lives.”
“No American is going to say ‘accelerate the economy at the cost of human life,’ ” Cuomo said.
Trump’s change of emphasis previewed a building confrontation inside his own administration – between public health officials using the science of epidemiology to battle Covid-19 and political and economic officials desperate to save an economy that is fundamental to basic life and Trump’s reelection hopes.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak reported Tuesday that the administration was working on a handful of options to present to Trump to provide for some careful opening of the economy in a way that would not compromise efforts to halt the spread of the virus. Some of the plans being drafted are based on geography or on allowing younger people, who are less prone to critical complications, to return to work.
But the President is likely to face warnings that attempts to reverse a shutdown to alleviate a horrific unemployment picture that has devastated the economy are premature at a moment when the pandemic is still exploding.
The President’s upbeat prediction of a return to full speed ahead directly contradicted the actions of state governors nationwide – who are imposing stay-at-home orders, closing businesses and ordering schools out for summer in March.
Local and public health authorities fear the highly contagious virus will cause a tsunami of critically ill patients that will swamp hospitals and mean people will die in the thousands.
The idea that the situation will stabilize in a few weeks – when most experts say that much, much worse is to come – appears fanciful. This raises the question of whether Trump is willing to take a decision that could indirectly cause many deaths but that could save millions of other Americans from the deprivations brought on by economic blight.
The President’s insistence Monday that “we can do two things at once,” may indeed be the eventual prescription for a slow return to normal life. But the reason why the economy is shuttered is that governments have concluded that it is not possible to do two things at once – keep the curve of infections manageable and open up the economy – right now.
The most visible and trusted member of the President’s task force – top infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci – was not at Trump’s side when he vowed to open the country up at his daily briefing, instead participating in meetings to attack the pandemic. But the President insisted he would listen to Fauci’s counsel, as well as others within the White House.
Trump’s course change – after warning last week the shutdown could last until July or August – was consistent with the scattershot way in which he has managed the coronavirus pandemic.
He spent weeks denying it was a serious problem, predicting it could simply go away and was not much worse than the flu.
Then, with the crisis building last week, he turned himself into a wartime leader – vowing to battle an “invisible enemy” and warning normal life may not resume until July or August.
It was noticeable Monday that Trump was talking about the virus in the past tense.
“This was a learning experience for the people of our country,” the President told reporters.
And he went back to comparing Covid-19 to the seasonal flu even though it is far more virulent, has a far higher death rate and has no vaccine. Then he borrowed an argument being made by conservative commentators.
“You look at automobile accidents, which are far greater than any numbers we’re talking about. That doesn’t mean we’re going to tell everybody no more driving of cars. So we have to do things to get our country open,” Trump said.
There is no doubt that the President faces a balancing act – between the nation’s health and the economic well-being that makes life bearable, that no recent predecessor has confronted.
His top White House economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, suggested in a Fox News interview in which he advocated a prompt economic opening that Trump would confront “difficult trade offs.”
There is no mistaking the severity of the nightmare that has turned one of the strongest economies in American history into a disaster area that might rival the Great Depression.
The country could be about to endure its worst-ever single week for job losses – with millions of shops and restaurants shuttered, firms closed and airlines on the edge of bankruptcy.
And Trump should be thinking about when to open the economy up again and how it can be achieved with the least possible jeopardy to the effort to beat the pandemic. Presidents get paid to make the tough decisions that no one else can make. They must challenge entrenched positions of various factions of their own administrations.
But Trump’s apparent impatience, only days after declaring war on the virus, raises questions about the depth of his thinking and his own motivations given the importance of a strong economy to his reelection campaign. And his sudden lurches make it more difficult to unite the nation behind him in the grim fight.
This would not be the first time that Trump has been influenced by conservative news chatter or that his personal political goals might weigh heavily on his thinking.
How to start up the economic engine
Still, the President is not the only leader thinking about how to revive economic activity.
“How do you restart or transition to a restart of the economy?” Cuomo mused on Monday.
“And how do you dovetail with a public health strategy,” Cuomo said. Yet Cuomo made clear that such a plan was not imminent and also brought depth to the argument and his public comments that eluded the President.
There was a strong sense in Trump’s press conference on Monday that he was engaging in wishful thinking that the pandemic would get better in order to allow his preferred reality – unleashing what he hopes will be a post-crisis boom.
He doubled down on his belief that a cocktail of anti-malarial drugs could turn into a revolutionary treatment for Covid-19 when it begins to be administered on Monday.
Again, Trump is acting as presidents should – urging his officials to go above and beyond in pursuit of a solution.
But while the use of the drug has been encouraging in France and elsewhere, no large scale clinical trial has taken place to test its efficacy or if there are any dangerous side-effects.
Trump may not have the power he thinks
Apart from questions about Trump’s motivation, there are deep practical questions about his desire for a swift reopening of the economy. First up, he doesn’t have the power to do it.
Many of the shutdowns imposed on US cities and states have been ordered by governors fearful that their hospitals could be overrun.
An order from Trump would not simply cause them to reopen shops and restaurants and stalled public transport systems.
There are also warnings from abroad about the danger of easing restrictions too soon. Hong Kong for instance, with a comprehensive social distancing program, kept its infection rate from coronavirus fairly low. But it clamped new restrictions on public gatherings amid anxiety about a resurgence.
Singapore and China, after getting their outbreaks under control, have imposed new entry restrictions after travelers from abroad threatened to trigger secondary outbreaks.
One option being prepared for Trump would see people potentially aged under 40 to return to their jobs, followed later by older employees. Restrictions could be kept in place only on vulnerable and elderly people. Another possibility would be for Trump to lift federal guidelines but give discretion to governors on how to go forward.
The roster of options hadn’t been presented to Trump as of Monday evening and officials were expected to keep developing options this week ahead of next Monday’s deadline for the end of initial 15 day restrictions.
Allowing people to return to work would likely require the kind of blanket testing regime to isolate virus carriers and to protect the most vulnerable populations that the Trump administration, with its sluggish initial response to the crisis, has never approached.
And a decision to return to anything like normal life could spike infections and worsen an already disastrous situation for hospitals, where doctors and nurses are warning of a chronic shortage of ventilators that keep sick patients alive, and fear they will soon run out of personal protective equipment.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report