Argument

How Trump Is Tanking His Own Presidency

His bumbling coronavirus response could well sink the economy—and his re-election chances.

U.S. President Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference about the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic in the Rose Garden of the White House on March 13. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Until now, none of U.S. President Donald Trump’s many narcissistic foibles and failures of understanding has seriously hurt him, for the simple reason that his mistakes never really caught up with him.

Trump could start a trade war based on silly, debunked 18th-century concepts of economics and get away with it, because the U.S. economy was strong. He could walk away from a critical climate pact, because global warming happens slowly. He could discard a denuclearization treaty with Iran with no backup plan, because nuclear threats take time to reemerge. Most people really didn’t notice or care.

But now, in the face of a global health threat that is immediate and all around us—and requires, more than anything, a coordinated global response—Trump finds that his errors are flying back in his face like clown pies almost every time he opens his mouth. All the defining attributes of his presidency—his “America First” arrogance, his us-versus-them pettiness toward the rest of the world, his obvious desire for American self-isolation—are suddenly working against him. Trump had very little credibility before; it appears to be all but shot now. The markets, seesawing wildly all week, are having trouble believing him. His own experts—even his own vice president—regularly contradict him. 

More than that, all those policies that he found he could fecklessly throw out with no consequence—all that hostile neo-isolationism and xenophobia—may well help sink his No. 1 argument for reelection: the treasured U.S. economy that Trump declared last month, in another error-filled performance at the State of the Union, to be “the best it has ever been.” His major policy response of the week, along with his declaration of a national emergency on Friday—the isolation of the United States from Europe and China—is likely to do serious economic damage on both sides of the Atlantic, further slowing an already stumbling world economy. On Friday, at a Rose Garden news conference, the president suggested that the United Kingdom could also be cut off.

And all this is happening, critically, when Trump has very little time left to set things right, with the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, Joe Biden, bearing down ahead of the Nov. 3 election and making the now-very-credible claim that he, a nice-guy middle-of-the-road former vice president, can show Americans how a president ought to handle a crisis. On Thursday, as Trump endured withering criticism over his disastrous speech to the nation the night before, Biden honed in, outlining specific steps he would take against the coronavirus. “Public fears are being compounded by a pervasive lack of trust in this president,” he said in a speech.

By the end of the week, Trump was in full damage control mode, declaring a state of emergency over a pandemic that he had only days before belittled as a minor annoyance even less damaging than the flu. But, strikingly, he announced no fiscal stimulus and made no mention of coordinating a response to a global threat with any other nation. Indeed, speaking in the Rose Garden, Trump actually said, “We’re not going to be talking about the world right now.” And as he has done since the start of his presidency, Trump blamed whatever might be wrong on his predecessor, Barack Obama—in this case, the devastating lack of coronavirus testing kits throughout the country, which has been holding back the U.S. response. “For decades the @CDCgov looked at, and studied, its testing system, but did nothing about it,” Trump tweeted earlier Friday, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under Obama. “President Obama made changes that only complicated things further.”

All this was an attempt to regain stature following his much-panned Wednesday night speech to the nation—clearly a panicky, ill-thought-out venture at which Trump announced a travel ban on Europe that he didn’t bother to alert the Europeans about. Trump made errors of fact that were mind-boggling for a national address from the Oval Office, a rarely used platform usually reserved for Cuban Missile Crisis-sized events. Although two esteemed health experts, Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, later backed Trump up on the travel ban, the president announced there would be insurance coverage for treatment, and there isn’t. He said there were coronavirus tests available, and there aren’t. He said goods from Europe would be prohibited when they weren’t. Nor did the president say anything about tests or federally directed efforts at containment. The speech set the stage for a record plunge in the Dow the next day. 

If it wasn’t clear then that Trump doesn’t grasp the concept of a coordinated international crisis response, it became so the day after his Oval Office address, when he casually allowed that he hadn’t bothered to talk to the Europeans because “when they raise taxes on us, they don’t consult us,” as if that situation could compare to a fast-spreading virus that has already jumped the Atlantic. He went on to invoke, once again, his neo-isolationist view of America: “Compared to other places, we are in really good shape, and we want to keep it that way,” he told reporters. 

And then the narcissistic kicker: The markets—the gold standard of Trumpian success—were “still higher than they were when I came in,” he said. The Dow promptly plummeted again, ending its worst day since Black Monday in 1987. On Friday the markets rebounded dramatically after Trump announced that billions of dollars in emergency aid was available and millions of new testing kits would be coming soon, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reportedly came close to cutting a deal for economic relief with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (though Trump later said he wasn’t on board). Even so, many more economic repercussions will follow as businesses start to close. As Fauci said Friday: “It’s certainly going to get worse before it gets better. … There’s no doubt we have not peaked yet.”

When the economic hits come, the Dow may be within striking distance of that Trump inauguration-day mark of 19,827. If it gets there before November rolls around, then Trump, using his own favorite measure, will no longer be able to say things are better now than they were four years ago.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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