For a brief moment during Saturday’s White House coronavirus briefing, Donald Trump almost—not quite, but almost—sounded like a normal president. He opened the briefing by noting that “governors, mayors, the businesses, charities, and citizens are all working with urgency and speed toward one common goal, which is saving American lives.” He praised “national solidarity.” He thanked federal and state officials who were “working hard.” He even talked about international cooperation with Canada and Mexico. He described what the administration is doing and praised legislative efforts to pass relief bills and gubernatorial efforts, including those of Democratic governors, to manage the crisis in the states.
It didn’t last. By the end of the briefing, Trump’s imperfect imitation of a typical president had slipped: Asked about a potential new drug cocktail that he had tweeted about earlier in the day, Trump declared, “I feel very good about it”—leaving Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has become the public face of the administration’s pandemic response, to diplomatically acknowledge that the president was engaging in magical thinking. Trump had a moment during which—if you ignored the distinctive sound of his voice, you could almost imagine that you were listening to someone other than Trump.
By Monday, Trump had lurched away from his own administration’s messaging on the coronavirus, writing on Twitter, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF” and insisting during a disjointed evening press conference that most people should soon go back to work in order to prevent economic damage—even though public- health experts warn that this would dramatically worsen the pandemic and cause a wave of preventable deaths.
The whiplash of the past few days is a vivid example of the Trump administration’s struggle to manage its first true crisis that was not generated by the president himself. The coronavirus has, in some ways, led to Trump erratically playing the part of a more normal president—at least sometimes. This isn’t because the mythical “pivot” toward presidential behavior—much heralded by political pundits—is finally upon us. (Indeed, Trump’s behavior on Monday shows that it very much isn’t.) It’s not because Trump is growing into the office. It’s because the nature of the crisis so restricts options that he is being forced, when he allows himself to be, onto a more traditional path.
Yet Trump’s extreme eccentricity has not gone away. It’s still there, constantly vying for supremacy—which is how bizarre ideas such as trading off continued economic activity in exchange for hundreds of thousands of lives make their way into the Oval Office. What’s more, when Trump isn’t spouting proposals for monstrous calculations such as this one, he is singularly lousy at playing the traditional, managerial president. The result is a weird kind of vacillation between the Trumpian presidency and the more traditional one.
This erratic and half-hearted reaction isn’t the response one might have expected from the Trump administration, with its belligerent assertions of executive power, when faced with a global pandemic. Civil libertarians have voiced concerns about the immense authority available to the president in combatting a public-health emergency. Writing in The Atlantic, Elizabeth Goitein recently noted that Trump’s declaration of an emergency regarding the coronavirus, though reasonable so far, could theoretically empower him to seize control of sources of communication such as radio stations and, possibly, the internet. After the president limited some travel from China in early February, the American Civil Liberties Union warned that it would be “watching closely to make sure that the government’s response is scientifically justified and no more intrusive on civil liberties than absolutely necessary”—hinting at the dangers of further interventions. And The Washington Post reported on privacy advocates worried by a potential program to provide the government with smartphone location data to combat the virus.
In light of the Trump administration’s track record of aggressive assertions of presidential power, such concerns aren’t misplaced. It’s not hard to imagine how an energetic president with authoritarian instincts might be able to turn this crisis to his advantage in carrying out a Trumpian policy agenda—sharply limiting travel across the country’s borders or even between states; placing blame for the virus on immigrants and nonwhite Americans to inflame popular sentiment in favor of further immigration restrictions; implementing an invasive surveillance regime in the name of public health, but one that could be kept in place indefinitely.
Yet the administration has been comparatively restrained in its response to the virus—in fact, if you ask most public-health experts, far too much so. Instead of springing into action with worrying zeal, Trump has waffled since the beginning. In January, he denied that the virus posed a problem at all, insisting that “we have it very well under control” and that “we pretty much shut it down coming from China.” By early March, he was still declaring that the pandemic would miraculously dissipate—not the language of a would-be dictator in search of a Reichstag fire to use as an excuse to consolidate power. Authoritarians tend to want to prolong emergencies, not deny their existence or wish them away.
Indeed, Trump’s actual assertions of power in response to the crisis have been so anemic that the law professor Steve Vladeck—speaking on The Lawfare Podcast recently—warned that the president’s underdeployment of national-emergency authorities might allow the virus to spread. Likewise, the president’s scheme to end social distancing and reopen the economy would hinge on rolling back what few measures the federal government has put in place, not exerting new authorities. The irony is that Trump actually has very little power to kick-start “opening up our country,” as he put it: Governor after governor has issued orders for state residents to shelter in place and for nonessential businesses to close, and the president has no ability to force the states to “open up.” In other words, his most aggressive proposal yet would probably involve him doing nothing.
The trouble for Trump is that once he acknowledges the premise that the virus is a real threat, there are only two paths for him to take—the two approaches between which he has bounced. The first is traditional presidential management. The federal government has genuine capacities. Wielding them requires a lot of work: untangling the actions of various agencies, ensuring that the government is working as quickly as possible, coordinating with states, and rallying the country. These are the things normal presidents do. And the nature of the crisis necessarily changes and narrows the choices before him, pushing Trump toward more managerial questions. He can get only so far with jingoistic baiting about the “Chinese virus” and actions at the border that map onto his preexisting worldview. Eventually, the options before him will turn out to be more technocratic: Is a hospital ship available to send to New York? What can the administration do to best help an economy shut down by people engaged in social distancing? Should the Army Corps of Engineers be deployed to construct hospitals? The big problem with this approach for Trump is that he’s bad at it. He plainly doesn’t enjoy it. Management is not his jam.
The second path is Trumpian magical thinking—the belief that the problem will go away as a function of Trump’s own personality and will. He has lapsed into this kind of thinking repeatedly throughout this crisis—in his denial of the problem, in his assertions that the problem will take care of itself, in his tossing off of theories about new therapeutic possibilities for treating the virus, and now in his promotion of the idea that sacrificing Americans to feed the economy will somehow make things better, instead of dramatically worse.
So the old Trump has not gone away. He still praises himself, attacks his critics, announces outcomes, harangues the press, eschews responsibility for anything that has gone wrong, and lies about his prior posture with respect to the crisis. He does these things daily, apparently still believing—as he once said on Fox News—that “the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters.”
But there’s a problem with this style of presidency too: It doesn’t work, because magic isn’t real. It can appear to work when the stock market is rising and the economy is humming along and it doesn’t matter that much what the government does. But when people are getting sick and losing their jobs in droves and the economy is in free fall—or when people return to work only to become gravely ill and spread the virus further—magical thinking is not going to cut it.
The result of this battle within the Trump White House has been an occasional glimpse of a more normal presidency—but one in which the normalcy is incompetent and grudging and occasional and consequently ineffective. The Trump administration has taken some of the steps that a more normal presidential administration might have taken to deal with the virus, but it has done so haltingly and weeks late. It’s trying to mobilize the federal government to deal with a national crisis, but without any apparent interest or insight into how the government actually works. This is how the country ends up with a president who trumpets the fact that he has invoked the Defense Production Act to assist in the manufacturing of ventilators and surgical masks, but who fails to take any action under the relevant executive order to actually trigger that surge in production. Trump is like a bad actor trying to play the role of a normal president—a role he hates and so misunderstands that he just can’t do it, and instead resorts to hamming it up onstage.
The result is a remarkable feat: Trump has stoked concerns about executive overreach and executive underreach simultaneously; he has at once promised everything and acknowledged accountability for nothing; and he has found that magic—so endlessly enticing as an alternative to failure when the cameras are rolling—doesn’t slow the spread of a pandemic. Backed into a real crisis, one that requires the steady hand of a more traditional president, Trump is suddenly finding that genuine governance is hard.