DC insiders are worried Trump might have a coronavirus quid pro quo up his sleeve

Andrew Feinberg

More than 1,000 Americans have now died from the illness the World Health Organization has dubbed Covid-19, and almost 75,000 have been infected.

Additionally, more than 3.3 million Americans have now been put out of work by the social distancing measures which medical experts have found to be the only reliable method of slowing the spread of the virus.

Those 75,000 coronavirus cases span all 50 states, and experts say the pandemic will soon overwhelm the nation’s healthcare system.

The strain on hospitals could lead to the sort of healthcare rationing and de facto “death panels” which Republicans claimed would be the inevitable result of the Obama administration’s attempt to bring about universal coverage.

EPA

But Donald Trump isn’t interested in any of that

In recent days, the president’s public appearances have taken the form of press briefings, delivered before a pared-down audience of reporters from select media outlets curated by the White House Correspondents’ Association.

These briefings, ostensibly meant to allow the Mike Pence-led Coronavirus Task Force to deliver updates, have instead been largely repurposed to allow Trump to air his grievances and engage in the sort of magical thinking which was on display earlier this week when he posted that the country could be back to normal by Easter.

When asked about a Wednesday morning tweet claiming that the “lame stream media” (rather than doctors and the nation’s governors) is “the dominant force in trying to get [him] to keep our country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to [his] election success,” Trump repeated his earlier baseless allegation.

He then claimed that “certain people” would like to see the social distancing measures which governors have initiated on the advice of medical professionals continue, allegedly in order to hurt the country’s economy “because they think that would be very good as far as defeating [him] at the polls.”

When it was pointed out to him that his own administration’s medical experts were among the “certain people” who want social distancing measures to remain in place (but not for the reasons he alleged), Trump went on the attack rather than respond to the question.

“I think it’s very clear — I think it’s very clear that there are people in your profession that write fake news,” he said.

Although the Trump-era GOP has largely adopted its leader’s hatred of legitimate journalists, former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said his party’s crusade against the press is a luxury it can’t afford during a pandemic.

“The press is how we truly unify, because of all the instruments of communication and institutions of credibility. The press is that last foundational rock that we stand on as a country,” said Steele, who served as Maryland’s Lieutenant Governor from 2003 to 2007.

“I get… the feeling that a lot of conservatives have had over the years about their treatment in the press, but this is the one time, in my estimation, where we need to look past the mundane political, easy tropes that we can throw out and recognize that to get valuable, important, reliable information, we’re only going to get it from the press,” he continued, adding that Trump should “back off of the blame game, the name-calling and picking fights with the press” and instead “use them as the instrument of communication that the country needs right now to get out important facts and data as quickly as possible.”

One ex-White House official explained that Trump needs to keep up his feud with the press to distract those among his political base in “flyover states” from his complete failure to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously.

“He knows what he’s saying sounds crazy to the average person. And he knows what he’s saying is unfair to the press. He’s not stupid,” the official said. “But he’s willing to do it because he recognizes that there’s a group of people that are in the flyover states… that are backing what he’s saying and doing and they like it,” the official continued, but cautioned that Trump’s strategy of attacking the press rather than taking responsibility will only be effective while the coronavirus pandemic is not killing large numbers of people in so-called “flyover country.”

“Right now, the flyover states aren’t dying — that’s why he’s at the 60 per cent approval. But when they start dying, that’s going to be a big problem for him because he did miss it,” he explained.

The official called Trump’s failure to act on his advisors’ warnings “the biggest intelligence failure in the history of the country.”

“It’s worse than 9/11, it’s worse than Pearl Harbor. He had the information and he ignored it because he saw the measures they [his advisers] were recommending at the time [when] Singapore and South Korea got the virus… and he didn’t want to do that because it was going to hurt the economy. But by waiting he hurt the economy more and made more people from this disease.”

And it appears that Trump’s blame-shifting strategy won’t be limited to the press.

On Thursday, the White House released a letter from the president to the nation’s governors, in which Trump promised to release “new guidelines for state and local policymakers to use in making decisions about maintaining, increasing, or relaxing social distancing and other mitigation measures they have put in place.”

According to the letter, Trump plans to publish criteria to classify each of the 3,007 counties in the United States as high, medium, or low risk based on testing results.

Chris Lu, who served as a Deputy Labor Secretary under the Obama administration, predicted that such a plan would likely disincentivize testing and hurt efforts to slow the virus’ spread in so-called “red” states.

“That would just be an odd thing to basically say that in certain counties, you don’t have to social distance, but in certain counties you do. That strikes me as at odds with not only what most governors would say, but what public experts would say as well.”

He also posited that the new criteria could be used to give Trump a way to blame heavily Democratic cities and densely populated “blue states” for the coming economic woes that could hurt his chances of being re-elected.

“He’s clearly trying to deflect blame for what will likely be a severe recession,” he said.

Steele, the former Maryland Lieutenant Governor, said he thought the plan was part of Trump’s push “to try to actualize an arbitrary deadline that he has himself admitted he likes.”

“There is no data-driven reason to believe that on April 12, this thing is over or that this virus has recessed to the point that governors will relax the prohibitions on congregations are congregating in large numbers,” he added.

“Every governor will make a decision, and as a former lieutenant governor, I can tell you that when we were facing a crisis, we welcomed federal help but we did not want federal interference… because the President and the federal government are not on the same level as governor and his county executives and their mayors and so forth, who are having to deal with this in real time in real neighborhoods.”

He cautioned Trump against making following the promised guidelines a condition for the sort of federal aid that governors have been asking for in recent days, noting that such an arrangement was the exact scenario which Democrats used to make the case for removing him during his impeachment trial.

“I cannot believe anyone in the White House would be that slow and that unmindful of what the narrative was just two months ago, but if the idea is to set up a quid pro quo for federal disaster response... that will force the state to act in a way that is not in the interest of its people, that’s going to be a recipe for disaster for this administration.”

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