Trump’s leadership is tested in time of fear, pandemic
By JONATHAN LEMIRE and CALVIN WOODWARD
WASHINGTON (AP) — Not long after noon on Feb. 6, President Donald Trump strode into the elegant East Room of the White House. The night before, his impeachment trial had ended with acquittal in the Republican-controlled Senate. It was time to gloat and settle scores.
“It was evil,” Trump said of the attempt to end his presidency. “It was corrupt. It was dirty cops. It was leakers and liars.”
It was also soon forgotten. On Feb. 6, in California, a 57-year-old woman was found dead in her home of natural causes then unknown. When her autopsy report came out, officials said her death had been the first from COVID-19 in the U.S.
The “invisible enemy” was on the move. And civil unrest over racial injustice would soon claw at the country. If that were not enough, there came a fresh round of angst over Russia, and America would ask whether Trump had the backs of troops targeted by bounty hunters in Afghanistan.
For Trump, the virus has been the most persistent of those problems. But he has not even tried to make a common health crisis the subject of national common ground and serious purpose. He has refused to wear a mask, setting off a culture war in the process as his followers took their cues from him.
Instead he spoke about preening with a mask when the cameras were off: “I had a mask on,” he said this past week. “I sort of liked the way I looked ... like the Lone Ranger.”
These are times of pain, mass death, fear and deprivation and the Trump show may be losing its allure, exposing the empty space once filled by the empathy and seriousness of presidents leading in a crisis.
Bluster isn’t beating the virus; belligerence isn’t calming a restive nation.
Angry and scornful at every turn, Trump used the totems of Mount Rushmore as his backdrop to play on the country’s racial divisions, denouncing the “bad, evil people” behind protests for racial justice. He then made a steamy Fourth of July salute to America on the White House South Lawn his platform to assail “the radical left, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters,” and, for good measure, people with “absolutely no clue.”
“If he could change, he would,” said Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “It’s not helping him now. It’s just nonstop. It is habitual and incurable. He is who he is.”
Over three and a half years Trump exhausted much of the country, while exhilarating some of it, with his constant brawls, invented realities, outlier ways and pop-up dramas of his own making. Into summer, one could wonder whether Trump had finally exhausted even himself.
“Some people don’t love me,” he allowed.
On Feb. 5 in the White House residence, Trump had watched all the Republican senators, save Mitt Romney of Utah, dutifully vote to acquit, ending the third impeachment trial in U.S. history.
His rambling, angry, 62-minute remarks the next day were meant to air out grievances and unofficially launch Trump’s reelection bid — with the crucible of impeachment behind him, his so-so approval ratings unharmed, Republicans unified and the economy roaring.
The president’s advisers also watched, relieved that the shadow of impeachment — which loomed first due to Russia’s U.S. election interference, then his Ukraine machinations — was now behind them, letting them focus on the reelection battle ahead.
The plan was taking shape: a post-trial barnstorming tour, rallies meant to compete with the Democratic primaries and a chance for the president to dive into the reelection fight that had animated so many of his decisions thus far in his term, according to some of the 10 current and former administration and campaign officials who requested anonymity to speak candidly for this story.
A few days earlier, the first coronavirus death outside China had been recorded, in the Philippines. Known cases of the disease in the U.S. were under a dozen. The U.S. had declared a public health emergency and restricted travel to and from China. But this was not something Trump wanted to talk about in the glow of acquittal and fog of grievance, and events had not yet forced his hand.
The day was meant to mark a new chapter in Trump’s presidency. It did. But not the one the president and his people expected.
THE LONGEST DAY
Trump’s whirlwind trip to India was meant to be a celebration and in some ways was. He addressed a rally crowd of 100,000 and visited the Taj Mahal.
But in a quick talk to business people at the U.S. ambassador’s residence, he felt compelled to address the virus, which had begun rattling the foundation for his argument for another four years in office: the economy.
Fighting jet lag and anxiety about a dive in the stock market, Trump was up much of the previous night on the phone with advisers, peppering them with questions about the potential economic fallout of the outbreak, according to the officials who spoke with The Associated Press.
“We lost almost 1,000 points yesterday on the market, and that’s something,” Trump told the two dozen or so business leaders. “Things like that happen where — and you have it in your business all the time — it had nothing to do with you; it’s an outside source that nobody would have ever predicted.”
The virus was “a problem that’s going to go away,” he said. “Our country is under control.”
But the markets fell again the next day, creating their biggest two-day slide in four years. When Trump boarded Air Force One well after sundown in India, he was in a rage about the virus and his inability to slow the market tumble with reassuring words, according to the officials.
Trump barely slept on the plane as it hurtled back to Washington overnight, landing early in the morning Feb. 26 after more than a dozen hours in the air, creating the effect of one endless day. He then quickly tore into aides about Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, who had publicly predicted that the virus’ impact would be severe.
It was already too late to pretend otherwise, not that Trump stopped trying. Warning signs had been missed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed in an early attempt at a coronavirus test. Trump had refused to turn up the pressure on China for fear of alienating Xi Jinping and scuttling a trade deal.
His conventional weapons failed him. The virus doesn’t have a Twitter account.
“Trump was elected to burn down the system and entertain,” said Eric Dezenhall, a crisis-management consultant who has followed Trump’s business, TV and political careers.
“When things get terrible, people don’t want a leader to burn down the system and entertain. We actually want a system. And you can’t bully a disease, which has been his one maneuver for 74 years.”
The president returned to the West Wing to watch the market fall yet again and told aides that, later that day, he would take the podium and preside over the coronavirus task force briefing for the first time. This would become a daily ritual for Trump to try to force his belief that the virus was under control even as infections surged and the death toll mounted.
The virus was not the only exterior event shaping his week. Three days later, Joe Biden began his remarkable political comeback by trouncing Bernie Sanders in the South Carolina Democratic primary.
Trump’s assumption that he would be running on the back of a strong economy against a socialist had been flipped on its head.
Coronavirus cases were about to soar.
At an April 23 briefing that would live in infamy and make some comedy careers, Trump wasn’t really listening. By this day about 50,000 Americans had died from COVID-19.
Trump has long had trouble focusing in meetings, hearing one piece of information and often going off on tangents, frequently a memory from his time in New York real estate.
Instead, he focused on the televised briefings and relished his jousting with reporters. He scheduled them for the late afternoon or early evening and would tell aides and confidants about the huge ratings they’d get, according to the officials.
The briefings would often stretch more than an hour, the vital health information from public health officials often drowned out by Trump’s attacks on the media and insistence that the pandemic was under control when, in late April, it decidedly was not.
Trump’s aides had already begun counseling the president to scale back or stop altogether his appearances at the briefings, nervously watching polls that found his scattershot performances were eroding support, particularly among older people, the group most vulnerable to COVID-19.
Trump refused. He told aides that his successes in politics were from dominating the stage and he was not going to give that up, particularly when his beloved campaign rallies were suspended and he couldn’t run the race against Biden that he wanted.
But in the task force meeting that April 23, Trump only somewhat heard or understood a discussion about a study detailing the use of light and disinfectants to help kill the coronavirus on surfaces.
He then began a dialogue with William Bryan, acting head of science at the Department of Homeland Security, who said the “virus dies quickest in sunlight.” Trump had a thought or two about that.
“So supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just a very powerful light — and I think you said that hasn’t been checked because of the testing,” Trump said in a helpful tone. “And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or some other way, and I think you said you’re going to test that, too.”
“Then I see the disinfectant,” he continued, even more perilously. “Knocks it out in a minute.” Perhaps an “injection inside or almost a cleaning.”
“It would be interesting to check that.”
The uproar was instantaneous, the White House’s attempted cleanup futile. Soon, the briefings would be canceled, the president surrendering his pulpit in the midst of sinking poll numbers and growing questions about his fitness for the job.
What might have worked for Trump before the pandemic stopped working as the death toll mounted and the president looked increasingly out of his element, Jillson said.
“People would watch Trump and see the instability ... the emergencies of his own making he would then claim to have taken care of, and be mildly entertained or at least not deeply worried,” he said. But now? “A lot of that ‘Am I still amused?’ quickly gets to a ’No’ answer.
“You’re never going to come out a major natural disaster unscathed but you can mitigate the damage by an empathetic response that describes the path out of this. That’s what Trump is literally incapable of doing.”
The chants could be heard inside the White House residence.
George Floyd, a Black man, had died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, igniting several nights of protests in the Twin Cities. Trump had said little about the death but was quick to denounce the violence that accompanied some of the demonstrations. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he tweeted, a threat flagged by the social media company and pilloried by Democrats because it reprised the language of a racist Miami police chief in the 1960s.
That Friday afternoon, May 29, as racial unrest now gripped the country and the virus death toll stood at more than 100,000, Trump spoke to reporters from the Rose Garden about China. He did not mention Floyd’s name.
That night, the protests reached Trump’s front yard.
Thousands of people descended on Lafayette Square, clashing with law enforcement and overwhelming the security perimeter hastily set up just a few hundred yards from the front fencing of the White House. The size and energy of the protest had caught the Secret Service off guard and Trump, along with members of his immediate family, were rushed to an underground bunker, usually used to protect presidents during possible terrorist attacks.
The president’s tweeting continued, threatening a further crackdown against the protests, which he depicted as unlawful even though the vast majority were peaceful. When the bunker story became public, Trump reacted in a rage, screaming at aides to find the leaker, whom he deemed a traitor, and angry that it made him look weak, according to the officials. In the days that followed, Trump argued unconvincingly that he was only in the bunker to inspect it.
It was that anger — and a reflexive desire to align himself with law enforcement even when polling indicated widespread support for the protests — that led Trump to make one of the defining decisions of his term. He authorized the clearing of the square so he could walk across to the nearby “Church of the Presidents,” which was damaged during the protests, and hold up a Bible.
The photo op went terribly wrong. Democrats likened it to the actions of an authoritarian while Republicans dissociated themselves from the spectacle. Aides cast blame on each other and even Trump privately admitted that he did not expect the fierce blowback.
Trump issued an executive order directing the government to establish a national database tracking police officers who lose their jobs for misconduct and freeing grant money to improve policing practices. With these steps, Trump “turned justified anger into meaningful action,” said deputy White House press secretary Sarah Matthews.
She spoke of a “whole-of-America response to this pandemic” that let states decide when and how to reopen and ensures “the federal government will be there to support states if needed.”
Trump’s instinct, his ability to read a moment, had long been his strength as a politician. But from the bunker to the church to his increasingly lonely defense of Confederate monuments, he appeared out of step even with many Republicans on matters of race and in denial about the ravages of COVID-19.
“In a crisis, when you lack an operational solution, all you are left with is humanity,” Dezenhall said. “This is just a situation where Trump cannot pivot because he views empathy as the equivalent of running down Pennsylvania Avenue in high heels and a tutu.”
THE SACRED AND THE PROFANE
The empty seats made him angry.
The rally in Tulsa was supposed to signal his comeback, the first mega campaign event since the onset of the pandemic. It was to be a show of political defiance and force in deep-red Oklahoma, reassuring nervous Republicans.
It didn’t turn out that way.
Despite campaign boasts of 1 million ticket requests, only slightly more than 6,000 people came to the indoor rally in a space holding 19,000. An overflow space went unused. Fears of the virus and protests kept many away. But the scant crowd also raised questions about whether the Trump show was wearing thin even with his supporters in red hats.
It was June 20. The virus death toll was closing in on 120,000.
The woebegone rally was part of a bet his campaign was making and still is. It’s predicated on the belief that few voters who don’t like Trump can be persuaded to swing behind him now, so success lies in motivating those who are still with him.
The plan: First, drive up negative opinions about Biden, whom the Trump campaign believes is liked by perhaps 60% of the country, if tepidly.
Second, on the theory that a largely unwavering 40% of the country likes the president, Trump would serve up policies and rhetoric to generate enough enthusiasm to turn out that slice of the country to vote.
A key recent stop for that plan was Arizona, where Trump in 109-degree Yuma heat marked progress on the border wall central to his 2016 campaign.
Then a speech at a Phoenix megachurch, a nod to evangelicals and a group of avid young Republicans. And when Trump looked out at the rows, he saw none of the empty seats that bedeviled him in Tulsa just three days earlier.
Trump reveled in the crowd, speaking for more than 90 minutes and getting the in-person adulation he had been missing for months. He did not mention that his supporters in the church were placing themselves and others at risk by sitting close together and not wearing masks. Confirmed infections and hospitalizations in Arizona have hit daily records.
The president boarded Air Force One in an ebullient mood, telling aides to return to scheduling rallies — perhaps in smaller venues than Tulsa, perhaps outside — that could soon again get him in front of a crowd, the officials said.
No rallies have been held since Tulsa. One is coming up Saturday in New Hampshire, to be held outside at Portsmouth’s airport. The virus has come roaring back in widespread parts of the country, pushing the death toll to about 130,000.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway acknowledged “it’s a new world” because of the pandemic and many Trump supporters won’t go to a traditional rally because it’s “high risk, low reward for them,” given that they already back the president.
Nonetheless, Trump tried to entice the masses to his July Fourth event, drawing only a scattered crowd to the National Mall for an air show and fireworks while he remained at the White House, hosting several hundred invited guests on the South Lawn.
There his angry words washed over the guests and ricocheted across the country.
The people in front of him were said to be medical and other front-line workers in the pandemic and law enforcement. But he was speaking really to his most fervent supporters around the country, tapping the divide over race and culture and making it about us versus them — the leftists, the looters and the clueless.
He cast himself as the defender of heritage and the “American way of life.”
He wore no mask. But the Lone Ranger was riding again.
Associated Press writer Nancy Benac contributed to this report.