Trump’s coronavirus gamble


Even as President Trump announced new guidelines for states to decide when to start reopening their economies, contrasting statements between the president and his top advisors revealed how far they remained from consensus.

The clearest evidence came at Thursday evening’s news conference after Dr. Deborah Birx, the director of the White House’s coronavirus task force, outlined what she described as the “new normal” — Phase 3, with the least restrictive guidelines, which states can reach if they experience no new outbreaks of disease after two earlier gradual reopening phases.

Even at that point, the guidelines say, restaurants, sporting events and other large gatherings would remain restricted, with limited seating to maintain social distancing, as Birx noted.

A few minutes later, a reporter asked Trump about that.

“There’s not going to be a ‘new normal’ where somebody has been having for 25 years 158 seats in a restaurant, and now he’s got 30, or he’s got 60, because that wouldn’t work,” Trump declared. “That’s not normal.”

“No, normal will be if he has the 158 ... and that’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen relatively quickly, we hope,” Trump said. Then he continued, portraying a scene that few public-health experts expect to see this year, and maybe not next year, either:

“Our normal is if you have 100,000 people in an Alabama football game — or 110,000, to be exact — we want 110,000 people. We want every seat occupied. Normal is not going to be where you have a game with 50,000 people.”


Trump’s gamble

Trump’s stressing of a return to full normality was telling — so was his use of Alabama college football as his touchstone.

Birx and her medical colleagues have made it clear that they don’t expect the country to return to true normal until a vaccine against the coronavirus — or an effective therapy — becomes widely available. That could still be a year to 18 months away.

Until then, the country needs to remain on guard because “this virus wants to come back to us,” as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said.

Trump has a very different timeline: He desperately wants to believe that normal can be restored — at least in the parts of the country that support him, like Alabama — by election day. That would allow him to campaign as a president who successfully defended his people against a foreign invader, the virus, and repaired the economic damage it caused.

Currently, that’s not happening. The small bump in support Trump gained after he first began to focus on the virus has disappeared. His standing with the public has returned largely to his status quo.

How to get to his goal has divided Trump’s advisors and flummoxed the president, who has publicly veered from one track to another for the past two weeks, asserting his “authority is total” one day, largely abdicating authority to the nation’s governors the next.


The White House guidelines leave most decisions up to the governors, as Chris Megerian, Noah Bierman and Eli Stokols write. That puts governors on the hook for potential unpopular decisions while giving Trump the hope of claiming credit if things go well.

Trump’s public comments about the virus have frequently highlighted a critical geographic — and political — divide. He has emphasized that while the virus has killed thousands of people in some parts of the country, including New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major cities, large stretches of the land remain pretty much unscathed.

It’s a fateful coincidence that the map of illness largely follows the pattern of the 2016 election.

Trump’s a Manhattan real estate promoter, but he won election with support of a predominantly rural, overwhelmingly white constituency. Trump-ism is, in part, a rural, white populist revolt against the influence and values of America’s big, racially and ethnically diverse cities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the divide between those parts of the country.

Because the virus began overseas, it naturally began its spread in the U.S. in cities with major ports of entry, most catastrophically in New York. To date, COVID-19 illness remains concentrated in large urban counties.

As political analyst Ron Brownstein wrote this week, across a wide range of states, the “largest metro counties are experiencing seven times as many cases per person as the midsize metros, and more than eight times as many as the non-metro counties.”

The political consequences of that have been increasingly obvious. Conservative groups organized demonstrations this week in Michigan attacking the stay-at-home orders issued by that state’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat and possible ticket mate for Joe Biden. Republican legislative leaders in Wisconsin called on Gov. Tony Evers, also a Democrat, to loosen restrictions he’d ordered.

In those key swing states, the illness has fallen heavily on African American residents of two big cities — Detroit and Milwaukee. At least some white rural residents resent economic losses imposed to stem an illness that has largely not hit their communities.

The gamble Trump has made is that he can turn that urban/rural divide to his advantage. The guidelines allow governors of some states to please non-urban constituents by reopening commercial activity. They could also arm his supporters to press Democratic governors elsewhere to loosen restrictions on rural counties with few cases — a cause Trump egged on with tweets Friday.

The risk for Trump? The policy could backfire.

Public opinion nationwide heavily leans toward maintaining restrictions, even if that hurts the economy. By roughly 2-1, Americans say they worry more that governments will lift restrictions too quickly, rather than too slowly, according to a new survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Self-described conservative Republicans — Trump’s electoral base — divide closely on that question; most other groups in the country do not.

The question for the next couple of months will be how experience changes those opinions. As states begin to lift restrictions, if all goes well, public support for further loosening could rise — and lift Trump’s prospects.

But already, outbreaks have occurred in places including Sioux Falls, S.D., and confirmed cases have increased in Nebraska and Utah, among other mostly rural states.

By advocating looser restrictions, Trump has sown the wind. If the virus begins a rapid spread in red states, he will have difficulty avoiding the whirlwind.

The big question mark: Testing

The White House guidelines — and all other plans for reopening the economy — depend heavily on having rapid and widespread testing for the coronavirus available.

Without sufficient tests, when a state or a region within a state begins loosening restrictions, the virus could start to spread rapidly without detection. Health officials would not know they had a problem on their hands until a flood of sick people hit hospitals. By then, it’s too late to head off a full-scale outbreak.

Two different types of testing are both important: tests to see whether ill people have COVID-19 or some other disease, and tests to see how widespread the virus is among people who show no symptoms of the illness.

On both scores, the U.S. still isn’t close to what’s needed for testing, as Noam Levey writes. Although big commercial labs say they have spare capacity, the increase in testing nationwide has stalled in the last couple of weeks. Shortages of key equipment — as mundane as cotton swabs or as complex as chemical reagents — continue to cause bottlenecks.

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Democrats close ranks

As Janet Hook wrote this week, Democrats are about three months ahead of their 2016 pace in uniting their party behind its presumptive nominee.

Last time around, Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t endorse Hillary Clinton until mid-July. Sanders’ endorsement of Biden came this week. It was swiftly followed by endorsements from former President Obama and Biden’s other main rival on the party’s left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

That’s not to say everyone is on board. Some of Sanders’ prominent backers, including his former campaign press secretary, said they were not endorsing Biden. The former vice president has tacked left on some issues but still hasn’t convinced some progressives. His ability to spur a big turnout among younger voters also remains unknown.

But the extra time Biden will have, compared with what Clinton had, will clearly help.

Meantime, Biden increasingly is turning to his next task — choosing a running mate. Former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams of Georgia is openly campaigning for the job, as Seema Mehta writes.

White House plan helps favored firms

The administration’s Project Air Bridge has brought millions of masks and other protective equipment to the U.S. from China and other parts of Asia.

In the process, it has provided what could add up to a multimillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy for some of the country’s largest businesses.

Levy and Anna Phillips examine how Air Bridge works and the secrecy around it.

Global impact

The Trump administration has never been a fan of international organizations. In the current pandemic, Trump has loudly condemned the World Health Organization, and his administration has largely left big multilateral groups on the sideline.

Tracy Wilkinson looks at how the global response to the coronavirus has been stymied by the U.S. approach.

Congress deadlocks on expanded aid

Aid to small business — a key part of the huge economic rescue package that Congress passed last month — has been in huge demand, enough so that the program has already run through its allotted funds, nearly $350 billion, as Jennifer Haberkorn writes.

Republicans have pushed for adding another $250 billion to the pot. Democrats have held out for adding more money for hospitals and state governments. They also want to make sure that the smallest businesses aren’t being squeezed out of the program.

The result this week was a stalemate. Some Republicans have argued for hanging tough, but the administration wants a deal.

So House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer will try to break the deadlock over the weekend in negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

Meantime, the first round of $1,200 stimulus payments have begun to land in people’s bank accounts. And the IRS has launched a new website, as Sarah Wire writes, which is designed to help people get the money.

And three weeks after Congress passed the massive rescue package and Trump signed it into law, the Congressional Budget Office has now come up with a full estimate of the price tag: $1.8 trillion.

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