White House

The Wrong Trump

President Donald Trump with Vice President Mike Pence and members of his coronavirus task force for a news conference at the White House, February 26, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
With the coronavirus in the air, we need the version who’s not afraid to attack the problem.

The wrong Donald Trump has shown up to deal with the coronavirus. One might have expected Donald Trump, a germophobe who spent much of his campaign lambasting the Chinese, to take an aggressive approach on the Wuhan virus. You’d expect the Trump who breaks taboos and shuts things down until “our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

As the spread of the new and still somewhat mysterious virus ramps up in Italy and Iran, and a few more cases emerge in the United States, maybe that’s the Trump we’ve needed. But we’re getting Trump the market whisperer. We’re getting a Trump who is obviously bothered by the drop in the Dow Jones. We’re getting a Trump who plans to campaign on the conventional measures of success favored by his predecessors. We’re getting a Trump who is downplaying the seriousness of this disease, who is probably acting too late, and who is making promises he can’t keep.

The pattern was established very early in his press conference when he vowed that the United States government was “totally prepared” and cited an already outdated study of pandemic readiness putting the United States as, Trump called it, the “best prepared people in the world.”

At that briefing, Trump seemed to make the same mistake the media did, in comparing the total deaths related to the flu to the comparably small numbers of those infected by the coronavirus from Wuhan. But this is silly. What we don’t want is for the Wuhan virus to spread as widely as the flu, or as persistently, because it is 20 times deadlier than the flu, and it may be easier to communicate. And because our medical system doesn’t have as much experience in dealing with its peculiar attack on human respiratory systems.

“It’s going to be under control,” Trump promised. Asked about the Centers for Disease Control’s prediction that an outbreak in the United States was a matter of “when, not if,” Trump contradicted the agency and said it wasn’t inevitable. “We’re going to be at five people, and we could be at just one or two people” in the near future, he said. He has no standing to say this and no reason to believe this is true.

It was an obvious and transparent attempt to downplay the problem, but currently the U.S. is far behind in testing people for the coronavirus. If the president is predicting that we’re likely to go down, then when the number of cases jumps by four- or fivefold, confidence in his administration’s ability to handle it will begin to deplete.

You know what Wall Street traders like: competence. They would prefer and respond positively to Trump taking the problem seriously, to the administration performing better than the expectations it set in the beginning. And in fact, the day after his press conference there already appeared reports of the executive branch bungling how it handled infected Americans coming back home from abroad, possibly spreading the disease from quarantined patients to the public.

Trump also announced a task force to deal with the Wuhan virus. A group like this in the United States would normally be tasked with coordinating federal health and service agencies that don’t have to work together in ordinary circumstances. It would facilitate exchanges of information. But Trump seems to have the market in mind.

Already the task force has brought on White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin. Trump seems to be signaling to Wall Street that he will protect them, but it doesn’t work like that.

No set of positive messages from the White House can just reverse the obvious supply-chain issues that major Chinese-dependent companies are facing. Apple is predicting disruptions that could not have been expected before, and markets must price those downward results in. No cheerleading from Trump can start the factories in Shanghai. Nothing that Larry Kudlow says is going to make people rebook their holiday vacation plans to northern Italy.

The only thing that will work to stop a society-wide loss of confidence in the ability to travel, the advisability of going to the airport, or keeping up with one’s vacation plans is a competent response focused on stopping the spread of the coronavirus and the efficient and effective treatment of those who contract it.

Trump’s late panicky response, his professed confidence in Chinese efforts to get the disease under control, and his flop sweat about the market are the exact opposite of what America needs in its president at a time when fear of a pandemic is finally settling on the broader public. Trump is afraid that a dip in the market can topple his presidency. In fact, a competent response could make markets soar again by the fall and guarantee his reelection. But a botched one could give Bernie Sanders the chance to say that Donald Trump not only favors Wall Street with his economic policy but that he favors Wall Street’s next quarter more than the lives of your parents and grandparents.

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