“I don’t take responsibility at all.”
This quotation, from Trump’s answer, when a reporter asked him if he took responsibility for the lag in testing for the novel coronavirus, will be in every single history book written about this era.
He went on. When PBS White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor asked why he doesn’t take responsibility for the problems combatting Covid-19 when the White House got rid of the pandemic team in 2018, he answered “I just think that’s a nasty question…. When you say me, I didn’t do it…. I don’t know anything about it.” He followed up with “We’re doing a great job.”
This is the same man who said in his acceptance speech for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination: “I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
Yesterday, at 3:29, Trump held a press conference to announce that he was declaring a national emergency over the novel coronavirus. The national emergency declaration frees up $50 billion in federal resources to fight the novel coronavirus. Immediately after he gave the press conference announcing the designation, the stock market began to rise, and when it closed at 4:00, about a half-hour after he began speaking, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had gone up 1,985 points.
The president immediately sent to supporters—including some congresspeople– a note with a signed Dow Jones Industrial Average chart, along with screenshots of television coverage of the rising stock market, and a note saying “The President would like to share the attached image with you, and passes along the following message: ‘From opening of press conference, biggest day in stock market history!’” (The market’s 20% decline over the past couple of weeks is the fastest in history, and yesterday’s slide of 2,352 points was the worst day for stocks since the crash of 1987.)
In his press conference, Trump and his advisors also announced that Google had 1700 workers developing a website that would help Americans figure out if they needed a test and, if so, where to get one. His team was actually pretty specific about how that website would work. Unfortunately, the information was simply not true. The company Verily, which is under the same corporate umbrella as Google, is in the early stages of developing such a program for health care workers in the San Francisco Bay area. When New York Times writer Charlie Warzel asked a senior engineer at Google about the program this afternoon, the person answered: “No comment because there is nothing to comment on.”
An article today in The Atlantic, written by lifelong Republican Peter Wehner, who worked in three GOP administrations, summed up what some of this craziness means. The title is over-the-top (authors do not write the titles of their articles), but it reads “The Trump Presidency Is Over.” Wehner does not mean this literally, of course; he is arguing that the pandemic crisis has finally forced Americans to grapple with the fact that Trump is unfit to be president. They have, Wehner says, “seen the con-man behind the curtain.” Having recognized that he is worse than useless, he says, they are “treating him as a bystander.” Other community leaders are stepping into the place he should have occupied: governors and businessmen and university presidents and sports commissioners. The Trump presidency, he says, is effectively over, although the president, “enraged for having been unmasked, will become more desperate, more embittered, more unhinged.” The piece captures the feeling of this week remarkably well, well enough that lawyer and leader of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, George Conway, tweeted that the article is a must-read.
As I write this, at 12:54, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi marshaled a coronavirus bill through the House by a bipartisan vote of 363-40 (all 40 no votes were Republicans, and 9 Democrats and 17 Republicans did not vote. One Independent voted present). I have not seen the final bill, but its general outline would provide benefits to those at the bottom of the economy, suffering from the economic fallout from the pandemic as well as from Covid-19 itself.
Trump today said he would sign the bill, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not in Washington, D.C., (he’s at an event in Kentucky with Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh) so the Senate cannot take it up until Monday. Yesterday, McConnell disparaged the bill as “an ideological wish list” that added “various areas of policy that are barely related, if at all, to the issue before us.” He added: “As currently drafted, the proposal appears to impose permanent unfunded mandates on businesses that could cause massive job losses and put thousands of small businesses at risk.”
Certainly, the popular mood seems to be changing as hospitals are rushing to set up triage tents in their parking lots and recalling retired doctors, worried the healthcare system is going to be overwhelmed. On Monday, Fox News Channel personality Trish Regan said that Democrats’ focus on the coronavirus was “another attempt to impeach the president.” They were, she said, trying “to demonize and destroy the president.” Today the network announced she is going on hiatus.
One final note. It is my observation that there are two unfortunate things going on in the media right now. First of all, there is a ton of effort to get the administration officials, especially Trump, to admit they screwed up. It’s a waste of time: he is a classic narcissist, and he will never admit blame. Ever. We will certainly need to take stock in the future of what went wrong here, but right now this expenditure of energy ain’t gonna produce much of use. Better simply to pay attention to those leaders who are working to protect us.
Second, we have a weird cycle going on in which experts on just how bad this virus is are trying to convince unbelievers who have watched the president and the Fox News Channel personalities downplay this disease and now dismiss it. As the experts explain, the unbelievers pooh-pooh them. Then the media tries to show those people how really bad it is, and they push back. Caught in that push-pull are those who really do understand that this is bad and are already terribly worried, and find each warning ratcheting up their anxiety. If that is happening to you, do note that there is a tug-of-war going on in the public discussion, and you are not its target audience.
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter: subscribe for free here.