In the past three years, it has so often felt like things were reaching the breaking point. But the image of Trump on the balcony of the White House after leaving Walter Reed Hospital, defiantly taking off his mask as he gasped for breath, looked like the beginning of the final chapter.
All weeek, COVID-19 infections have continued to mount in the vicinity of the Oval Office. At least 34 people near Trump have tested positive for the virus in the past few days. The White House press corps is down to a skeleton crew as Press Secretary, Kayleigh McEnany and four press aides have tested positive: so have top presidential aide Stephen Miller and Admiral Charles Ray, the vice commandant of the Coast Guard.
Along with other military leaders, Ray attended an event celebrating Gold Star families last Sunday at the White House. That event included some of the same people who had been at the event the previous day in honor of Amy Coney Barrett, who Trump has nominated to take the seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. Those who attended both events included Trump and the First Lady.
Senior military leaders attended meetings with Ray last week in a secure room at the Pentagon, and are now self-quarantining. They include Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley; the vice chairman; the Army chief of staff; the Naval operations chief; the Air Force chief of staff; the CyberCom commander; the SpaceForce operations chief; the director of the U.S. National Security Agency, Gen. Paul Nakasone; the chief of the National Guard, Gen. Daniel Hokanson; and the deputy commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Gary Thomas.
The White House has apparently not done any contact tracing, and it declined the help of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do it.
The administration appears to be committed, not just to rejecting the use of masks and of distancing, but also to a strategy of community spread. Deputy press secretary Brian Morganstern told NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly that the White House still does not require masks because “everyone needs to take personal responsibility.”
That the White House appears to be the center of a coronavirus hotspot, and the possibility that he is a superspreader, has hurt Trump’s reelection campaign. The fact that the administration refused to take the virus seriously, the ride around the hospital to wave at supporters from a closed car (while endangering Secret Service agents), and the president’s physical struggle to the balcony (wher he saluted a bank of camras) in imitation of a political strongman, all appear to have demonstrated not Trump’s strength, but his weakness.
Trump’s behavior since his return to the private quartrs of the White House has reinforced that sense of uncertainty about the future. Trump returned to a locked-down White House. The few aides who met with him were dressed in PPE, and the West Wing is virtually abandoned as uninfected and quarantined staff have decamped to work from home like much of the rst of America. Trump went on a Twitter spree, tweeting and retweeting old material: “the Russia Hoax” and Hillary Clinton’s emails, both of which now feel like ancient history and utterly disconnected from the pressing political and public health crisis. In a “Back to the Future” moment, he tweeted: “I have fully authorized the total Declassification of any & all documents pertaining to the single greatest political CRIME in American History, the Russia Hoax. Likewise, the Hillary Clinton Email Scandal. No redactions!” He hit the same points again in another tweet: “All Russia Hoax Scandal information was Declassified by me long ago. Unfortunately for our Country, people have acted very slowly, especially since it is perhaps the biggest political crime in the history of our Country. Act!!!”
This return to what rallied his supporters four years ago makes Trump sounds desperate. His supporters in Congress sound similarly frantic to rturn to solid populist ground before election day. On the heels of Trump’s tweets, Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) tweeted to the Justice Department, “Per the President’s orders, can you please provide the [House Judiciary] Committee the full unredacted Mueller Report immediately? Thank you.”
Other stories this week also make it look like the tide is turning on Trump.
Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the St. Louis, Missouri, couple who held guns on protesters in June, were indicted by a grand jury on charges of exhibiting guns and tampering with evidence. “What you are witnessing here is just an opportunity for the government, the leftist, Democrat government of the city of St. Louis to persecute us for doing no more than exercising our Second Amendment rights,” the Mark McCloskey said. Trump, you may recall, invited the McCloskeys to speak at the Republican National Convention.
Health officials are also openly defying the President. Two weeks ago, the administration blocked strict guidelines for a coronavirus vaccine, but this week the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released those guidelines over White House objections. Trump tweeted: “New F.D.A. Rules make it more difficult for them to speed up vaccines for approval before Election Day. Just another political hit job!” But the fact remains that this will make a vaccine before the election unlikely.
And the news keeps getting worse. The New York Times revealed the findings of an internal investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general Michael Horowitz into the policy of separating children from their parents at the southern border of the United States. The policy was engineered by Stephen Miller, but the Justice Department has tended to blame former Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen for the policy. Horowitz’s investigation has established that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein were far keener on the policy than Nielsen was. In a sign of changing times, a 32-page response to the Horowitz’s investigation, written by Miller’s ally Gene Hamilton, said that Justice Department officials had simply followed orders from the president.
Facebook, too, sees the writing on the wall, and has announced that it will ban all QAnon conspiracy theory accounts. These accounts spread disinformation, including the idea that a heroic Trump is secretly leading an effort to round up a ring of pedophiles and cannibals based in the nation’s entertainment and political elites. The ban is one of the broadest Facebook has ever enacted.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has announced that a new coronavirus relief bill is imperative, but just hours later, Trump announced on Twitter that he was cancelling further talks between the White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pop go the finacial markets! Stocks dropped 600 points, and vulnerable Republican senators panicked.
Joe Biden released a statement that included a pithy condemnation of a president willing to see Americans become jobless, homeless, and hungry. “Make no mistake,” he said, “If you are out of work, if your business is closed, if your child’s school is shut down, if you are seeing layoffs in your community, Donald Trump decided today that none of that — none of it — matters to him. There will be no help from Washington for the foreseeable future. Instead, he wants the Senate to use its time to confirm his Supreme Court Justice nominee before the election, in a mad dash to make sure that the Court takes away your health care coverage as quickly as possible.”
A few hours later, Trump changed his tune.
Meanwhile, this week’s endorsements continue to tip the election away from Trump. Both the New York Times and the Boston Globe endorsed Biden. General Michael Hayden, the retired four-star general who served as the Director of the CIA under President George W. Bush, released a video not just endorsing Biden, but also warning that “If there is another term for Trump, I don’t know what happens to America.” With characteristically blunt fashion, Hayden skteched the bottom line. “Biden is a good man. Trump is not.”
Biden is starting to look like a winner, although most of us are afraid to think that thought yet. Financial services company Goldman Sachs forecast that the Democrats will take both the White House and the Senate, and that a Democratic sweep would mean a faster recovery and thus would be good for the economy. Moody’s Analytics, a subsidiary of another financial services company, recently found that Biden’s economic plans would add 7.4 million more jobs to the economy than Trump’s would.
The former Vice President is also demonstrating Presidential chops. In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a town hallowed by history, Biden gave a blockbuster speech calling for the nation to put aside division and come together. He talked about race: “Think about what it takes for a Black person to love America,” Biden said. “That is a deep love for this country that for far too long we have never fully recognized.” He talked about disparities of wealth: “Working people and their kids deserve an opportunity.”
Biden talked about Lincoln, and how, at Gettysburg, a president who had personally viewed the carnage of a multi-day battle called for Americans to dedicate themselves to a “new birth of freedom” so that the men who had died for that cause “shall not have died in vain.”
“Today we are engaged once again in a battle for the soul of the nation,” Biden said. “After all that America has accomplished, after all the years we have stood as a beacon of light to the world, it cannot be that here and now, in 2020, we will allow government of the people, by the people, and for the people to perish from this earth.”
“You and I are part of a great covenant, a common story of divisions overcome and of hope renewed,” he said. “If we do our part, if we stand together, if we keep faith with the past and with each other, then the divisions of our time can give way to the dreams of a brighter, better, future.”
Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter: get your free subscription here.