Listening to Donald Trump’s White House coronavirus briefings this week, his first in 90 days, I remembered an old joke:
Doctor: There’s good news and bad news.
Patient: What’s the bad news?
Doctor: We amputated the wrong leg.
Patient: Oh my god! What’s the good news?
Doctor: The other one’s getting better.
Trump is trying to sell us a little bit of dubious good news here and there while distracting us from the bad, especially the non-stop multitude of unenforced fatal errors made by this president and his Republican pals, in particular the governors of now disease-ridden red states who did his bidding and opened their states too early.
He’s covering up bad news like the fact that on Tuesday, for the first time since May, the United States recorded more than 1,000 coronavirus deaths for the day. Or that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of infections probably is two to thirteen times higher than we officially know. Or eighteen straight weeks of more than a million Americans filing unemployment claims as a result of the shutdown.
Instead, he’s pushing his usual snake oil—“My administration will stop at nothing to save lives and shield the vulnerable!”—exaggerating the truth, spinning the statistics and downright lying while still claiming the virus “will disappear.” Which makes it all the more peculiar to hear the media talking afterwards about Donald Trump’s “change of tone.” All he’s done is perform his usual dreary read off the teleprompter, avoiding disastrous ad libs and sounding for all the world like the kid forced to recite in front of the grownups before he can have cake.
Granted, he did admit for the first time that the pandemic “will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better.” And he does now express his support for wearing a mask, claiming that he carries one with him and wears it—although I can think of only two instances when he was seen with one on his face and last Monday night, video showed him cavorting around without a mask or social distancing at a fundraiser in his DC hotel. Nonetheless, wearing it, he says, is about patriotism. Bless our Yankee Doodle Dunce.
So change of tone? Not really. For one, you just know he’ll be back to his usual maniacal stand-up act any minute now. For another, he’s clearly not just satisfying his craven lust for airtime but responding to polls showing a majority of the country disapprove his handling of COVID-19 and distrust anything he says about the virus. He’s also trying to win back his eroding support among seniors, not only by singling out the importance of their medical care in the briefings—“high risk, wonderful people” (!)—but by trying to scare them with bogus reports of anarchists flooding the streets and criminals on the rampage assaulting little old ladies if Joe Biden’s elected.
What’s more, Trump seems to know that his bungling of coronavirus is creating cracks in his support among his GOP stalwarts. According to Sunday’s New York Times, “Once-reticent Republican governors are now issuing orders on mask-wearing and business restrictions that run counter to Mr. Trump’s demands. Some of those governors have been holding late-night phone calls among themselves to trade ideas and grievances; they have sought out partners in the administration other than the president, including Vice President Mike Pence, who, despite echoing Mr. Trump in public, is seen by governors as far more attentive to the continuing disaster.”
An advisor to Texas Governor Greg Abbott told the paper that Trump “got bored” with the virus and was doing nothing. So some Republican senators have been telling the president to at least resume the COVID briefings—albeit wanting him to do so with his medical advisors and not solo, as he was doing last week.
It also should come as no surprise that Trump has resumed the briefings because he so desperately wants to distract from and cover up his immoral, ineffective and corrupt conduct throughout this crisis. Recent expert reporting by both The New York Times and The Washington Post make his spectacular blundering even clearer.
The reviews are in: A Post investigative team wrote, “The fumbling of the virus was not a fluke: The American coronavirus fiasco has exposed the country’s incoherent leadership, self-defeating political polarization, a lack of investment in public health, and persistent socioeconomic and racial inequities that have left millions of people vulnerable to disease and death…
“While other countries endured some of the same setbacks, few have suffered from all of them simultaneously and catastrophically. If there was a mistake to be made in this pandemic, America has made it.”
The Times team reported, “Mr. Trump’s bet that the crisis would fade away proved wrong. But… the approach he embraced was not just a misjudgment. Instead, it was a deliberate strategy that he would stick doggedly to as evidence mounted that, in the absence of strong leadership from the White House, the virus would continue to infect and kill large numbers of Americans…
“The real-world consequences of Mr. Trump’s abdication of responsibility rippled across the country…. Other nations had moved aggressively to employ an array of techniques that Mr. Trump never mobilized on a federal level, including national testing strategies and contact tracing to track down and isolate people who had interacted with newly diagnosed patients…
“By early June, it was clear that the White House had gotten it wrong.”
James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, told The Post, “You look at the Great Depression and how Roosevelt made a concerted effort to unite the country—the fireside chats, the New Deal. That is the instinctive reaction of almost every president in crisis. Even if you don’t succeed, you try to convince people that they’re all in this together. This presidency is the exception and anomaly.”
Exception, anomaly, catastrophe. He is, of course, doing his favorite thing (besides talking about himself)—shifting blame, even implying on Wednesday that the increase in cases—now more than four million, the most in the world—is in part due to the Black Lives Matter protests and Mexico. Thank goodness for that barely existent wall! And on Thursday, not only did he announce the cancellation of his big nominating shindig next month in Jacksonville but that, “The country is in very good shape, other than if you look South and West. Some problems. It’ll all work out.”
Sure thing, Mr. President sir. It’s the same old song—the self-deception that believes the lie. So here’s my good news/bad news story. Bad news: he’s still the president, still a disaster. Good news: November is coming.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.