It’s hard to remember a more damaging Sunday morning interview than Chris Wallace’s sit-down with President Trump over the weekend.
Wallace, the host of Fox News Sunday, is always tough and well-prepared, but it wasn’t his insistent questioning that tripped up Trump. It was the president himself.
His responses on COVID in particular were characteristic of his posture through much of the crisis. He blamed testing for the recent increase in cases — partly true, but positivity rates have soared in the states with major spikes in cases. He claimed, falsely, that other countries don’t do tests. He complained that no one talks about Mexico and Brazil, which aren’t really material to what’s happening in, say, Florida. He argued over our mortality rate, not quite accurately. And so on.
The overall sense was of the president trying to litigate his way out of admitting any U.S. failures or the seriousness of the crisis (although he did at one point say, in the midst of all the fog, “I take responsibility always for everything”).
Given that the virus had reached our shores and begun spreading in communities earlier than first thought, and given the understandable hesitation of authorities around the country to take the extreme step of locking down, it was inevitable that we would get hit hard like many other advanced Western countries. After initial stumbles on testing, the administration’s substantive response has often been adept and energetic; any fair-minded observer should admire, for example, Admiral Brett Giroir’s work supporting the testing supply chain.
The administration is often criticized for not nationalizing the overall response, but this would have required more in-depth knowledge of on-the-ground conditions in various localities than the federal government is ever going to have. As for pushing for reopening, the president was right to want to do it — lockdowns are a blunt-force instrument that have considerable downsides — but the way he went about expressing that view contributed to the unsteadiness of his leadership.
But he clearly believed — understandably enough, given the trajectory at the time and the prospect of warmer weather — that we were past the worst of the pandemic, and it was time to focus on other things. And he hasn’t changed his view now, even as the facts have changed. The outbreaks in the Sunbelt and the South may well never produce the kind of death rates we saw in the spring in the Northeast, but they are alarming and have rightly led to the reversal of parts of reopening.
The president should have realized by now that he can’t look past or talk by the virus, and as long as it is spreading in a significant way his (hugely important) priorities of jump-starting the economy and seeing schools reopen around the country are going to falter.
The administration needs to re-engage on the testing effort. Even though the number of daily tests has radically increased from all but nothing to roughly 750,000 a day, results can take days to get back, a delay that renders them of limited utility. It should support even more spending on testing and tracing in the next stimulus bill. The president should reinforce the administration’s official message on the importance of masks, by routinely wearing one in settings where it’s called for. And the administration should obviously continue its excellent work supporting vaccine research and development, since an effective vaccine could be the king’s cure for this crisis.
Yet none of this will have much of a political impact in the short term unless the president can bring himself to express seriousness of purpose regarding the virus (his briefing Tuesday was a step in this direction). There was a time when he spoke of being on a war footing against COVID. That feels like a long time ago. Given how he’s conducted himself, much of the public isn’t looking to him for wartime leadership, or even wants to be in a foxhole with him.