By the weekend, all 50 states will have taken at least some steps to reopening societies and economies as the country stops trying to halt the virus in its tracks and tries to learn to live with it – at least until a proven therapy or vaccine is developed.
But they will not be shepherded by a President offering advice on how to safely open, empowering his public health officials, or publicly shouldering the fear and concern of his compatriots.
Instead, Trump is undermining his own government’s best practices by dosing himself with the drug hydroxychloroquine, discrediting studies that found it isn’t effective in combating Covid-19 and refusing to wear a mask as recommended by his own health experts. He’s conjuring up conspiracies, taking premature victory laps and igniting clashes that fracture the national unity needed to weather such a terrible crisis.
Trump, disdaining a mask and flouting the scientific advice of doctors, portrays himself as a warrior President standing up for Americans who believe liberal elites have leveraged the crisis to stifle freedoms and defeat their hero.
The President on Tuesday declared that the world leading US case load, with more than 1.5 million infections and nearly 92,000 deaths, was actually a measure of success – not failure of his own neglect.
“I view it as a badge of honor. Really, it’s a badge of honor,” Trump said. “It’s a great tribute to the testing and all of the work that a lot of professionals have done.”
Trump’s behavior in recent days flies in the face of every template of convening presidential leadership amid a crisis that will join the list of the greatest challenges in US history.
On Tuesday, the President convened a Cabinet meeting that involved inflated testimonies to the administration’s success and Cabinet officers praising him for his leadership.
Democrats accuse him of caring more about himself and his press coverage than the crisis he is supposed to manage.
“It’s a reminder in a crisis like this how much many of us yearn for an American, a leader of human values, of empathy,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Tuesday during a town hall sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.
But in Trump country, every step the President takes that seems a dereliction of duty to his critics can be perceived by loyal fans as delivering on the promise of establishment-splintering leadership for which they voted in 2016.
He and his son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief of staff Mark Meadows swept barefaced into the US Capitol for lunch with GOP Senators on Tuesday. The President’s resolve will be tested on Wednesday when he heads to a Ford plant in Michigan. Managers have told the White House that masks are mandatory.
“It depends. In certain areas I would, in certain areas I don’t. But I will certainly look at it,” Trump said, when asked by reporters whether he would don a surgical mask.
Trump’s strategy – that effectively replaces the rallies that invigorate the base he believes is the passport to a second term – is stirring a combustible political brew that is likely to further deepen national divides exacerbated by the pandemic.
And while Trump’s methods are explosive and his push for an aggressive nationwide opening often discounts the possibility of a resurgence of the virus, no one in the political realm is arguing the country must stay closed given the hideous economic impact of shutdowns.
New leaders emerge into the vacuum
While Trump is not providing unifying national leadership, it is coming from elsewhere.
Governors of both parties are struggling to reconcile the balance between greater infections and deaths and economic destruction caused by the pandemic – a dilemma the President has already personally resolved.
Leaders are also emerging outside politics. College presidents are pioneering innovative calendar changes to get students back in school in the fall while avoiding a spike in infections.
Doctors, nurses and nursing home workers continue to put their own lives at risk to across the country, as thousands of new cases of Covid-19 are discovered every day, in a complicated mixed picture of hope and potential signs of building hotspots.
And leadership is coming from individual citizens – despite isolated scenes of overcrowding in beaches and parks – as they observe social distancing and mask-wearing practices that have throttled normal life but allowed an academic study group this week to adjust downward the projected death toll by August.
Trump on Tuesday vehemently defended his decision to take hydroxychloroquine despite Food and Drug Administration warnings that there is no evidence that it treats Covid-19 or can prevent it based on several studies that contradict the President’s belief that the drug is a “game changer.”
Trump lashed out at a study of Veterans Affairs patients who received the drug, calling it false because it was administered to sick people who “were ready to die.”
“Everybody was old, had bad problems with hearts,” he said, after earlier claiming what he called a “phony” study was conducted by doctors who were Trump enemies who wanted to hurt him politically.
Apart from being insulting to the dead and coming across as callous from a national leader, the comments were yet more evidence of Trump’s rejection of scientific rigor that has been exposed by the pandemic and his conspiratorial mindset.
In recent days, there has been little coherence to Trump’s presidency. While most Americans have been facing up to the worst public health crisis in 100 years, Trump and his conservative media propagandists have pushed a conspiracy theory that his predecessor Barack Obama plotted to destroy his presidency.
That theory was undermined by the release of an email written by former National Security Adviser Susan Rice on Tuesday about the previous administration’s anxiety about sharing classified information with her incoming replacement Michael Flynn. The former general’s frequent and unusual contacts with the Russian government that had interfered in the US election worried the Obama White House, but the email did not show wrongdoing. Even so, Trump’s cheerleaders immediately declared it a smoking gun against the evidence of the email itself.
While Trump has his eye on November’s election, governors around the nation are trying to get their states moving again.
“This is the time to take baby steps and start reopening,” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, said on CNN’s “The Situation Room” ahead of his state’s “slow and methodical” re-emergence Tuesday. Another previously hard-hit state, Washington, announced that 10 of its 39 counties were moving toward phase two openings that would see in-store retail with restrictions and return of barbershops and hair salons.
Some states have been far more ambitious, including Texas and Georgia, where there are some encouraging signs for the rest of the nation. Texas, however, did experience a spike in infections at the weekend that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott attributed to extra testing, especially at two meat packing plants.
“We are getting through this. But now more than ever, we need to work together as one,” Abbott said Monday, calling on Texans to continue observing social distancing and wearing masks even as the state enters phase two of reopening that will see day care resume and bars, restaurants and bowling alleys progressively open, some at reduced capacity.
Abbott’s Democratic opponents warned, however, that he was manipulating case figures and testing to hide the fact that it’s too early to safely open the state. Another early opening state, Georgia, had been seeing a decline in new cases, though the infection rate rose on Monday. It remains too early to properly assess whether openings have caused a spike in infections or whether these two states could serve as a role model.
What you need to know about coronavirus
In the meantime, some Democrats are accusing the Trump administration of a reckless approach to opening.
“How many workers should give their lives to increase the GDP or the Dow by 1,000 points?” Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a hearing on Tuesday.
“No workers should give their lives to do that, senator, and I think your characterization is unfair,” Mnuchin replied.
Leadership on opening from the education sector broadened as several institutions outlined plans that could allow students to get back on campus in the fall.
New York University may offer a mix of social distanced and online courses, and class could stretch over three semesters in the fall, spring and summer.
Brian Hemphill, President of Radford University in Virginia, told CNN that contingency plans saw students returning to campus in August and then lessons ending before Thanksgiving – to prepare for a possible viral resurgence late in the year.
“This is going to be something that I think will change higher education and the landscape of higher education,” Hemphill said.