WASHINGTON — His face framed by the golden Oval Office curtains behind him, President Donald Trump stared straight into the camera aimed at the Resolute Desk.
It was the night of March 11, 2020. And Trump’s presidency was to be forever changed.
Trump, whose improbable election ripped up the rules of American politics, had spent three-plus years defying history and orthodoxy in a chaotic spectacle that dominated the national discourse and fervently engaged both sides of a deeply divided country. And now, essentially for the first time, he was confronted by a crisis that was not of his own making.
Five months later, the coronavirus has killed more than 175,000 Americans and left tens of millions unemployed. And now, as Trump prepares to again accept the Republican presidential nomination Thursday, he must convince an electorate that has largely disapproved of his handling of the pandemic that his stewardship is not to blame, that he deserves another term, that all the chaos he has stirred has been worth it.
“The future of our country and indeed our civilization is at stake on Nov. 3,” Trump said Friday.
Trump has spent his presidency bending Washington to his will. He has transformed a public health crisis into a political litmus test. He has presided over a booming, if stratified, economy, and claimed he created it. He has again forced race to the centre of the American conversation, using federal police to enforce his view. He has alienated historical allies and changed how much of the world views the United States.
At seminal moments — in set speeches, impromptu riffs, long-sought policy reversals — he has redefined, at least temporarily, the presidency.
But he has not shaken the virus.
A virus born in China had swept through Europe and reached America’s shores. Global markets were tumbling, hospitals filling, cities locking down. On the day the coronavirus was officially declared a pandemic, beloved actor Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive. The NBA suspended its season.
And for only the second time as president, Trump addressed the nation in a formal Oval Office speech. His spoke slowly, his voice halting, and he seemed unsure of what to do with his hands.
The U.S., he told Americans, would “expeditiously defeat this virus.” But by any measure, Trump’s address didn’t go over well: The White House had to correct a pair of significant errors — one on travel from Europe, another on international cargo — within minutes of the speech’s conclusion.
And ever since, the virus has proven impervious to bullying tweets or the ability to dictate cable news chyrons. It has upended American politics, stripping Trump of both his most potent reelection argument, a strong economy, and the venues from which to extol it, his trademark campaign rallies.
“Historically, demagogic power wanes when seismic events overwhelm the existing moment,” said presidential historian Jon Meacham. “Pearl Harbor crushed America First; Bloody Sunday helped break the grip of Jim Crow. The pandemic may be the seismic shift, the mind-concentrating challenge, that ends Trump’s appeal beyond his hard-core base.”
Until now, one of Trump’s greatest skills as a politician has been to assert his own political reality, careening from headline to headline, while seemingly able to dodge scandals that likely would have doomed any other politician.
After a two-year investigation into Russian election interference, the president emerged relatively unscathed — only soon to enter another maelstrom over foreign help, this time his request to Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden.
Yet only in the frenzy of Trump’s Washington can the third impeachment of a sitting president feel like both a foregone conclusion and an afterthought. He had, again, survived. But the day after his acquittal brought an ominous milestone: the nation’s first COVID-19 death.
THE NEWS CONFERENCE
Under a glistening ballroom chandelier, reporters packed into Trump’s Bedminster country club in New Jersey, waiting for the president to address shocking events that had unfolded more than 300 miles to the south on a sweltering day in August 2017.
A clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacists and anti-racism demonstrators had left a young woman dead, mowed down by a neo-Nazi who drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters. Trump’s response: There was hatred and bigotry on “many sides.”
His equivocal words roiled the White House. Senior West Wing advisers threatened to quit. Republicans found their voices and condemned Trump.
It was more than just a moment. Trump, a billionaire by some accounts, sold himself to voters as an unlikely champion of the forgotten man who would “Make America Great Again,” a slogan that was read by many as a callback to a simpler — and whiter — era in the United States.
His moves to sharply curtail legal and illegal immigration became a frequent fault line for the administration. Thousands of Americans protested at airports in January 2017 when the White House enacted its first ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries, demonstrations that foreshadowed the uproar the following summer when the administration moved to forcibly separate migrant families at the southern border, leading to television images of weeping children pulled from their parents.
And he pushed a hard-line message of law and order after the death of George Floyd led to sweeping protests.
“He has made explicit what has been fueling American politics since the 1960s. He is saying the quiet parts out loud,” said Eddie Glaude, chair of the department of African American studies at Princeton University. “He has made direct appeals to white grievance, to white resentment.”
Vladimir Putin smiled.
The world was watching a post-summit news conference by the American and Russian leaders in Helsinki in July 2018, and Trump had just publicly sided with Putin over his own intelligence agencies on the question of election interference.
The uproar was immediate. Even before Air Force One took off for Washington, Trump’s comments were condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Trump’s deference to Putin, beyond reviving questions about the American leader’s possible ties to Moscow, illuminated his own brand of foreign policy, one that has strained ties with Western allies, in favour of transactional relationships and a warmth toward strongmen.
Outside of Trump’s links to Putin, no relationship has attracted more scrutiny than the president’s hot-cold ties with China’s Xi Jinping.
Early days of expedient restraint are long gone, replaced by Trump’s determination to affix blame elsewhere for the pandemic that has imperiled his presidency. The coronavirus, in Trump’s telling, became the “China virus.”
Jonathan Lemire And Aamer Madhani, The Associated Press