Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
Who was that man speaking at the White House podium, and what did he do to President Donald Trump? I’m just kidding, of course. The man addressing the media on Tuesday evening was Candidate Trump, terrified that his approval ratings are collapsing and his rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, is leading him by what could turn into a humiliating defeat in November. Unless something changes.
With 105 days until Election Day, Trump launched a new campaign strategy that consists of reversing much of what he has said about the virus until now. Sticking carefully to prepared notes and taking only a few questions, Trump avoided fiery clashes with reporters, and kept the lies, deception, and misleading information to what, by Trumpian standards, were remarkably low levels.
Forget (for a moment) his old claim that the virus “will disappear;” that promised magic was replaced (briefly) by a stark truth. Trump declared, “It will probably get worse before it gets better.” (He later repeated it will disappear.)
That would come as a shock to anyone who has limited their intake of information to the President’s rosy statements.
Importantly, he urged Americans to “wear a mask,” if they cannot physically distance, and stay out of crowded bars.
For a moment, he sounded like a man who actually understands the virus is dangerous and realizes it won’t go away on its own, a dizzying pivot after months of incendiary exhortations against stay-at-home orders, ridiculing those wearing masks, and bringing together thousands of people, mostly without masks, to places like Tulsa and Mount Rushmore to hear him speak.
The shift in tone is important because millions of Americans listen to the President. Trump’s switch on masks could end up saving tens of thousands of lives. (Which brings up the sad question of how many would have been saved if only he had done this sooner.) But there’s no telling how long the new tone will last.
Before we get carried away with the celebration that the President of the United States has spoken like a relatively normal leader in the midst of a national crisis, let’s note that the pandemic continues and Trump has not yet announced any significant policy change. The rhetoric is important, but it is not enough. The US still has an uncoordinated national response, a patchwork of policies that change state to state, against a virus that knows no borders.
This was a politically driven pivot. That’s why there was only Trump on the stage. If it had been a legitimate change of heart by the President, a decision to do whatever it takes to sharply flatten the curve, he would have had the experts, perhaps Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, by his side. He would have allowed those who know what they’re talking about to do some of the talking.
It’s not enough because he has lost credibility, not only because of more than 20,000 false or misleading claims since taking office, but because from the start of this pandemic he has pushed misinformation, disinformation, propaganda and lies. If that is over, that would be great news. But it’s doubtful.
Trump claimed the US is doing great – “better than most” other countries. That’s ridiculous. Few, if any, developed countries have a more disastrous track record.
The number of cases started going down months ago, and Trump encouraged governors to rush their reopenings, pushed a “return to greatness,” refused to promote mask wearing. Loyal Republican governors followed suit. Georgia’s Brian Kemp, probably trying to impress Trump, is even suing Atlanta to stop it from requiring masks. Trump’s policies and pronouncement turned the US response to the virus into a tragic circus.
Trump absurdly declared from the podium that he has had “a relentless focus” on the virus, “from the beginning.” Any look at his Twitter feed, his golf outings, or his speeches, shows that is patently false. In fact, White House officials recently told reporters he’s been too busy to attend meetings of the coronavirus task force. He didn’t speak to Fauci for several weeks.
Until two days ago, Trump’s campaign strategy was to pretend the virus is no big deal. That the skyrocketing case numbers are a fluke. In an interview this weekend with Fox News, in which he again and again tried unsuccessfully to get away with lying about the extent of the crisis, he claimed many of the cases are children with “the sniffles” and that the surge in cases is the result of too much testing.
Trump has hewed to the bizarre denial strategy for months. More than 86,000 people have died since the last White House coronavirus briefing, shortly after he appeared to suggest people should consider injections of disinfectants, sparking uproarious laughter and urgent health warnings.
For now, Trump’s latest statements look like a campaign turn, not a policy turnaround. But it’s still Trump. If for a time he sounded closer to normal it’s because he has to be scared. This still seemed to be a man not concerned for the country, but for himself and his political future. It’s hardly surprising he again forgot to show sympathy for the more than 140,000 who have died of coronavirus in this country.
We’ll see how long it takes for the other Trump, the real one, to emerge again. Meanwhile, go ahead, wear the masks, Americans. Please.