President Trump has done everything he can to make the coronavirus epidemic seem less scary than stories like this one from ProPublica do. That’s not a bad impulse — a time-honored job of the commander in chief is to reassure Americans that they will get through whatever they’re in, and to prevent a mass panic. The issue with Trump, as ever, is whether he’s crossing the line at any given moment between calming people and misleading them.
On Sunday night, the president jumped boldly across that line with a tweet that blended a reasonable concern with a ridiculous suggestion.
WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2020
His first sentence encapsulates a worry that many of us have. The government-ordered or recommended shutdowns are choking the U.S. economy. We are almost certainly headed into a recession, although it may be a brief one. And the Dow Jones industrial average has already lost almost every penny it gained since Trump’s election, giving back nearly 40% of its value in about a month.
As The Times editorial board noted recently, however, it’s impossible to do a cost-benefit analysis on the mandates because the variables can’t be calculated. Because we’ve tested so few people, we have no idea what the real transmission rate of the virus is, or at what rate people become seriously or fatally ill. If Gov. Gavin Newsom’s worst-case estimate is correct and 56% of the state’s residents would have contracted COVID-19 without the shutdown, that’s more than 22 million people. At a morbidity rate of 1% (one of the lower estimates), that’s 220,000 deaths in this state alone.
It’s hard to weigh that kind of carnage against the serious but temporary disruption of millions of people’s livelihoods.
So Trump’s first point makes sense, but it puts an unsolvable equation on the table. And then he suggests that in a little more than two weeks, he will make a decision that could determine whether we all go back to work or stay huddled in our homes.
No, he will not.
The governmental power at issue here is the power to safeguard the public. In the United States, that power is held primarily by the officials closest to the people — the ones in local and state governments. It’s mayors like L.A.'s Eric Garcetti and governors like Newsom who are imposing the restrictions that are sending the economy into a free fall. And Trump can’t stop them.
The president could use his bully pulpit to call for an end to the social distancing mandates when the aforementioned 15 days are up, and heaven knows there are plenty of people eager to lift them. Some businesses continue to order their employees to come in to work, and others are teetering on the brink — or just folding.
But again, Trump can’t flip a switch and make the country go back to its pre-coronavirus routines. And considering how frequently Trump’s comments about the virus clash with what health officials have been saying about the disease, that’s probably a good thing, even if there’s no reliable way to measure the cost against the benefits.