White House

When the Job Got Hard

President Donald Trump addresses the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, April 23, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The president, faced with a true crisis, got bored.

After nearly 150,000 deaths, the closure of the economy, the certainty of more closures and interruptions to come, after the lockdowns drove the population of his country into moral panics, madness, and, in some places, open rebellion, after the historic spike in violent crime, the economic slump, the record-long unemployment lines, and the slow-motion destruction of his presidency, Donald Trump is still just plain bored of coronavirus.

While he has gotten higher marks from some onlookers for his press conferences this week as compared to earlier in the pandemic, this only shows the steepness of the curve he’s being graded on.

“This could have been stopped quickly and easily,” said President Trump about the virus, speaking in the White House Rose Garden, “but for some reason it wasn’t, and we’ll figure out what that reason was.”

Trump was, in his roundabout way, pinning the blame on China. Consenting to anguished pleas from White House staff and his virus task force, Trump gave permission to get rid of certain obstacles to coping with the virus, but that’s a far cry from leadership. Much of the administration’s advertised response to COVID-19 has been vaporware. Testing facilities at Target and Walmart — nowhere to be found. A trace-and-inform system designed in consultation with the great minds, and using the technology, of Silicon Valley — it remains an idea that’s being beta-tested. Trump simply turns to Twitter to announce his wishes — schools should be opened — and then goes back to playing a made-for-TV role. He cannot really conceive of the job of president as anything beyond a persona he’s adapting and modeling.

At the Rose Garden this week we had “tough on China” Donald. Though if you look closely, the talons have been clipped.

But really, who knows what he was doing?

Trump had come to announce the passage of the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which seeks to punish Chinese leaders for traducing Hong Kong’s legal freedoms. But Trump suggested the destruction of Hong Kong was good, actually. “We’re going to do a lot more business because of it, because we just lost one competitor,” he said, before seeming to say that “the gift of freedom” for Hong Kongers was somehow unfair for everyone else.

But overall he was attempting to contrast himself with Joe Biden. Trump said that under President Obama and Vice President Biden, China was allowed “to pillage our factories, plunder our communities, and steal our most precious secrets.” Trump claimed, “And I’ve stopped it largely.”

Maybe people will buy this. But Trump’s trade war with China yielded no real concessions, basically ending with his pleading for China to buy more soybeans from swing states. That is, Trump’s deal with China was going to do nothing to reverse the direction in which industrial development is going. It was his pride in his China deal, and hopes for soybean purchases, that caused Trump to overpraise China’s efforts to contain the coronavirus. Eight separate times between January 30 and the end of February, Trump said that China or Chairman Xi was “working very hard” to contain the virus. Four times he said China was running things “professionally.”

Trump faced a real crisis this year, and the job of president got more difficult. He got bored of both. And now, belatedly recognizing that the crisis is destroying his reelection bid, he’s trying to rouse himself to get interested in the nation he leads, and the world it sits in. But to any clear-eyed observer, it’s obvious he’d rather be talking about the latest Morning Joe.

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