And now he may be making the same mistake again.
When he is not diverting attention from the health crisis by stoking controversy over racial injustice and unrest in US cities, Trump has returned to his aggressive push to get the economy firing on all cylinders. A new demand for a full slate of college football games follows his earlier demands for all kids and students to get back to class.
But while the President is surely channeling the fatigue of millions of Americans with the pandemic, his demand for reopening without offering solutions that could restore a semblance of regular life safely is another apparent sign he’s prioritizing his political prospects over science.
With 184,000 Americans already dead, White House officials are hoping that Trump’s dive into cultural warfare following protests and unrest over police brutality will to some extent cover over his liabilities on the pandemic, sources told CNN reporters. Following last week’s Republican National Convention that largely ignored the virus,Trump is making yet another premature declaration of victory over the worst public health disaster in 100 years.
“We’ve done a great job in Covid but we don’t get the credit,” Trump said on Fox News on Monday.
But the unspoken reality of that approach is that many more Americans will contract Covid-19 before the election, and thousands more will die. That is likely to play into efforts by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to crush Trump’s hopes of a second term by lambasting his failures during the pandemic.
“Mr. Trump, you want to talk about fear?” Biden asked on Monday.
“Do you know what people are afraid of in America? They’re afraid they’re going to get Covid. They’re afraid they’re going to get sick and die, and that is in no small part, it’s because of you.”
New CNN reporting reveals that White House officials have all but given up hopes of stopping the pathogen and are now returning to a forceful state opening strategy. The shift comes amid fierce political pressure from the White House on government agencies to approve new treatments and even a vaccine before Phase 3 trials are complete – in a move that could provide a short-term political payoff for the President while he is locked in a tough reelection fight but could have dire scientific consequences.
“We risk a blow-back. We risk one step forward, three steps backwards,” Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Monday night.
“That’s what happened with this administration opening too soon in southern states. That’s what’s happening in schools opening where there’s lots of COVID, and having to slam shut again,” he added. “We don’t want that to happen with a vaccine, because vaccines are precious. They’re our most powerful tools to control a pandemic.”
Discord inside coronavirus task force
Trump’s growing impatience coincides with multiple reports that the White House is growing receptive to the herd immunity, a theory reportedly advanced by the President’s favorite new adviser Dr. Scott Atlas.
The concept relies on allowing the virus to spread to build community resistance. Independent medical experts warn such an approach could lead to several million US deaths in the long-term. Atlas has forcibly denied he backs such a strategy. Yet an administration official told CNN many of his policies appear to point to such an approach. And even if the administration has not formally endorsed herd immunity, its failure to corral the pandemic and resistance to full-throated promotion of social distancing and masks – flagrantly demonstrated by Trump’s Republican convention speech at the White House last week – means that it is almost falling into such a counter-virus plan by default.
“Whether the number is 2 million, 1 million Americans dead, it’s unacceptable,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, Dean of the School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor University, told CNN’s “New Day” on Tuesday.
Sources told CNN that that key players around Trump inside the administration have all but given up hope of quelling the virus with the aggressive suppression and mitigation efforts advocated by trusted medical experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci.
While US infections and deaths are declining, they remain at levels unseen in most of the developed world. There are flashing warning signs through the Midwest. Surging cases in colleges that have welcomed students back point to the inexorable threat from the disease. And there are already fears that the Labor Day holiday could produce a spike in infections much as Memorial Day did, ahead of a feared fall resurgence.
Some colleges and smaller schools have succeeded with rigorous testing and quarantine programs with safe openings. But every day brings more stories of the broader reopening going off the rails. At least 37 states are reporting a total of 25,000 positive cases of Covid-19 at colleges and universities.
Time is running out before the election
Trump’s demands for swift openings of state economies earlier this year helped unleash a wave of sickness and death across sunbelt states that had escaped the initial peaks of infection that hammered New York and California.
But two months before Election Day, and with time running out for the rocketing economic bounce-back he has promised, Trump is again ignoring the potential consequences of a rapid return to normal.
“We’re opening it up and we’re opening it up to record numbers,” he said in New Hampshire on Friday night. “Democrats are keeping their states shut down and hurting people that live in those states.”
After months of lockdowns and stay at home orders, Americans are impatient to have their lives back. And it may be time to rebalance the risk between becoming infected and living with a semblance of normality. But in a dereliction of duty, Trump’s administration has failed to put in place measures like a massive test and tracing program that might make such a goal possible and limit its potential danger.
Trump, instead, is focused on other things.
On Tuesday, the President revealed that he has spoken to the commissioner of the Big Ten to try and get its games back on, after the college powerhouse conference postponed its season over coronavirus concerns, including shortages of testing capabilities and concerns over the long-term health impact of the disease on athletes. Several other conferences plan to go ahead with games, and Trump piled pressure on the Big Ten to follow suit.
“We’re pushing very hard. … I think they want to play, and the fans want to see it, and the players have a lot at stake, including possibly playing in the NFL,” he told reporters.
The President’s initiative – which does not appear to include new measures to solve the issues that caused the season pause – looks like yet another attempt to downplay science in a bid to recreate normality. While the prospect of no fall football is unthinkable, the Big Ten just happens to include several schools in crucial Midwest swing states like Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio, which may explain the sports-fan-in-chief’s concern.
The college football push is the latest sign of the deficit in Trump’s approach to the virus. Time and again the US experience – one being learned in the rest of the world – is that the virus just doesn’t go away. The only way to reopen colleges, businesses, restaurants and travel is to conquer it.