While Donald Trump has proudly declared that his response to the coronavirus pandemic rates a 10 out of 10, only he and his blindly devoted followers — and an increasingly smaller percentage of even those Fox News-injecting true believers, at that — would give him high marks for the swiftness and seriousness with which the president treated the threat of the COVID-19 invasion in the early months of the crisis when he could have done the most to prevent the disease from spreading to the extent that it has.
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Gabriel Sherman, Vanity Fair‘s special correspondent, did a deep dive into the early months of the outbreak and some of the events that triggered Trump’s thinking and response at the time in a new article based on interviews with White House insiders and people who know and are friends of the president.
The article demonstrates the role played by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner during what Sherman calls “two months of magical thinking.”
The account opens with a description of a call on March 19th between Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis just one day before New York Governor Mario Cuomo shut down his state and while DeSantis was still resisting calls to shut down Florida’s beaches as images of flocks of spring breakers partying in close proximity to each other flooded the airwaves, even when his Republican predecessor and current Senator representing the state were calling his position reckless.
“Trump’s view of the situation was complicated, though. For weeks, his top medical advisers, Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, had been hectoring him about the seriousness of the crisis and the necessity of swift action, testing, lockdowns. ‘We knew from the beginning…we were going to get cases in the United States,’ Fauci told me,” Sherman writes.
“’We knew we were in for a very serious problem.’”
“Sometimes, Trump listened. The disease was coming closer to his own circle—chief of staff Mark Meadows and communications director Stephanie Grisham were self-quarantining—and the number of cases in New York City had reached 4,000. But the substrate of his thinking hadn’t evolved, and it kept reappearing. He worried about the economy, which was crucial to his reelection. He vented to friends that the doctors were alarmist, and that the crisis was something Democrats and the media were doing to him. ‘Trump was obsessed with Pelosi, Schiff, the media, just obsessed. He would say, “They’re using it against me!”’ recalled a Republican in frequent contact with the White House. ‘It was unhinged.’”
By this point, Trump himself had already been downplaying the potential severity of the pandemic for weeks, saying that it was under control and that it would disappear in warm weather like “magic.” Still, at an advisor’s persistent recommendation, he agreed to call DeSantis to make him close the beaches.
Here’s Sherman’s recreation of the call:
“’Ron, what are you doing down there?’ Trump said, according to a person briefed on the call.”
“’I can’t ban people from going on the beach,’ DeSantis snapped, surprising Trump.”
“’These pictures look really bad to the rest of the country,’ Trump said.”
“”Listen, we’re doing it the right way,’ DeSantis said.”
“DeSantis’s intransigence backed Trump into a corner. The 41-year-old governor was a Trump protégé and a crucial ally in a must-win state. ‘Trump is worried about Florida, electorally,’ said a Republican who spoke with Trump around this time. Trump did something he rarely does: He caved. He told DeSantis the beaches could stay open.”
“’I understand what you’re saying,’ Trump said, and hung up.”
Political survival easily bested the health and safety of the people of Florida with a large population of high-risk retirees.
Sherman points out that Jared Kushner reinforced his father-in-law’s paranoia that “the media and Democrats were hyping the crisis for political purposes” and was more focused on the effects of any shutdown-related economic damage would have on Trump’s chances for a second term.
“’Jared kept saying the stock market would go down, and Trump wouldn’t get reelected,’ a Republican briefed on the internal debates said (a person close to Kushner denies this). Kushner’s position was supported by Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council chief Larry Kudlow. Trump sided with them. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Trump minimized the threat in his first public comments. ‘It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control,’ he told CNBC. (The White House and Treasury Department deny Mnuchin and Kudlow were against closing flights),” Sherman writes.
The real revelation in the Vanity Fair article, however, is how central a role the unelected — and unconfirmed by the Senate — Kushner has played in setting White House policy.
“’Jared is running everything. He’s the de facto president of the United States,’ a former White House official told me. The previous chief of staff John Kelly, who’d marginalized Kushner, was long gone, and Mick Mulvaney, a virtual lame duck by that point, let Kushner run free. ‘Jared treats Mick like the help,’ a prominent Republican said,” according to Sherman.
This from a man who needed his father-in-law to intervene just to get a security clearance waiver to work in the White House when his background check raised issues that would have prevented any mere mortal from receiving one.
Sherman details many other inside peeks at the behind-the-scenes workings at the White House in his article, which you can read in its entirety here.
Let’s skip ahead, however, to his closing paragraphs which present a portrait of a president caught between inaction and despair, in unfamiliar territory with no smartass nicknames with which to defeat an “invisible enemy,” as the president likes to call COVID-19.
“The virus was a threat Trump couldn’t bully, and his record of inaction something he couldn’t erase. Later in April, he tried to change the subject, announcing an immigration ban, with little detail about how it would work. Beaches in Florida, bowling alleys and nail salons in Georgia were reopened—magical thinking had reemerged. But beneath the bluster was a darker reality. ‘He’s paralyzed,’ a former official said. Trump reversed course and criticized Georgia’s move to reopen. ‘This is not what [Trump] likes to do,’ added a former West Wing official. ‘There’s no boogeyman he can attack.'”
“Trump clung to hope. ‘The economy will be back in two months, just wait,’ he told a friend. But the fall was still a long way away. ‘If I have any rallies at all, they won’t be until the convention,” he told another friend in mid-March.”
“The thought seemed to depress him. ‘The campaign doesn’t matter anymore,’ he recently told the friend. ‘What I do now will determine if I get reelected,'” Sherman concludes.
If that’s the standard, start your election day celebrations now and send our congratulations to President-elect Biden.
Original reporting by Gabriel Sherman at Vanity Fair.
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