“So now it is reported,” tweeted President Donald Trump Sunday afternoon, “that, after destroying his life & the life of his wonderful family (and many others also), the FBI, working in conjunction with the Justice Department, has ‘lost’ the records of General Michael Flynn. How convenient. I am strongly considering a Full Pardon!”
The president’s tweet came as the coronavirus was running riot across Europe, and a mounting wave of cases in the United States was threatening to overwhelm American hospitals. It came as the administration’s own efforts to mitigate the effects of the virus have faltered, and as federal public-health officials have struggled to explain the lack of testing and the country’s ill-preparedness for the disease in comparison with nations that had less time to brace themselves. It came as some Americans were making runs on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, while other Americans were at bars in large groups despite exhortations to remain at home, and still others were stuck at airports in even larger crowds, potentially exposed to the virus because of the administration’s own travel restrictions. In short, almost nobody—except the president—woke up in the United States on Sunday thinking about the case of Michael Flynn, Trump’s one-time national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
The tweet seemed like a bizarre non sequitur. Why would the president, in the midst of an enormous public-health crisis—the handling of which he is catastrophically botching—want to reignite the scandal that dominated his first two years in office?
A Flynn pardon would be a genuine scandal. Yes, it’s within Trump’s power. As he frequently reminds people, he has the “absolute right” to pardon people, even people who have pleaded guilty in investigations that directly involved himself, and in which he serially sought to interfere. But pardoning Flynn for lies he told the FBI would be a transparent reward to someone Trump himself fired for telling the same lies to the vice president. It would be a reward for loyalty and for participating as a willing prop in the president’s disinformation campaign about the Russia investigation. It would be a gross abuse of power, and it would garner the president harsh criticism at a time when he is already in political trouble.
That’s how a normal politician would see the matter, at least. But Trump is different—and his flirtation with the idea of pardoning Flynn, along with some other things he has done over the past week, may actually be a harbinger of how he means to play the coronavirus crisis.
Two weeks ago, we noted that Trump’s typical playbook of lies and insults is ill-suited to combat a virus. The president’s latest enemy can’t be mowed over like a Republican senator or turned into a punching bag like House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff or Special Counsel Robert Mueller. After three years of wriggling unharmed out of confrontations with other politicians or government officials, we argued, Trump now finds himself helpless.
The past two weeks have borne out this hypothesis. Trump has stubbornly refused to give up his old tricks, but as applied to the virus, they are not doing him much good. At first he denied the reality of the COVID-19 crisis, calling it a “hoax.” Then he denied that he had called it a hoax. He congratulated himself, insisting that the administration’s February decision to limit certain travel from China was a “lifesaving move,” and ignored other aspects of the federal government’s bumbling response to the virus. He declared, “The U.S. has done a very good job on testing. When people need a test they can get a test”—at the same time that people showing symptoms of COVID-19 across the country were unable to get tested. When unavoidably confronted with the test-kit debacle, he blamed the Obama administration.
To some extent, Trump has had success: Polling suggests that there is now a partisan split in how Americans view the virus, with more Democrats than Republicans worried about the pandemic. The trouble, though, is that a virus doesn’t care whether you take it seriously or not. Whatever the president’s supporters think now, they may change their views when, in two or three weeks, people they know begin suffering and dying because of COVID-19, to say nothing of the economic impact they will surely soon feel.
For that reason, the benefits of the president’s current strategy are likely to be extremely short-lived. The economy, which Trump has crowed about for the first three years of his presidency, is turning on him. And a virus’s exponential growth has a way of making itself known. Trump cannot lie his way out of the fact of death.
So what is Trump to do? In part, he seems to be shifting his tone in discussing the virus. He gave an unusually sober press conference about the crisis on Monday, sticking more or less to the facts about the scale of the present danger and giving up, at least temporarily, on his insistence that the virus had been contained—though he did announce that he would give the administration’s response a 10 out of 10, and hours later branded the pathogen the “Chinese Virus.”
But the president has tested another, more Trumplike response, too: passing over opportunities to comment on COVID-19 in favor of relitigating old battles. He seems to be trying to play on fields where he’s comfortable, where he believes he has won in the past. Trump, after all, survived the Russia investigation. It wasn’t pretty: A lot of Americans emerged from the Mueller probe believing that his and his campaign’s relationship with Russia and Russian actors harbored something untoward, and the evidence that Trump had obstructed justice was overpowering. But he survived it. His base stuck with him.
Since becoming president, Trump has had more than three years to condition the battlefield. When Trump talks about Flynn, everyone’s knees jerk in predictable ways. His allies become, once again, his allies. His opponents hate him for the familiar reasons, not these new reasons that make him look ineffectual and helpless. When he talks about Flynn, he has an enemy, and it is not an intangible, invisible virus. It is the so-called deep state, which he has already invested a great deal of time in getting his followers to hate and fear. When he talks about Flynn, in other words, he’s fighting a battle he knows how to fight.
Trump pulled a similar stunt when, on Thursday, seemingly out of nowhere, he tweeted, “Many Republican Senators want me to Veto the FISA Bill until we find out what led to, and happened with, the illegal attempted ‘coup’ of the duly elected President of the United States, and others!” The tweet was in response to a compromise bill to reauthorize three provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that Congress had hammered out, that the attorney general had publicly endorsed, and that had passed the House of Representatives on a strongly bipartisan vote. Why would the president want to pick a legislative fight over FISA’s technical provisions, blindsiding his own attorney general a few days before the law was set to expire and powers crucial to counterterrorism investigations go away? (The law, in fact, expired on Sunday, and the next day the Senate bought itself time by backing a 77-day extension.)
Again, the temper tantrum over FISA seems to be playing a role similar to that of the threat of a Flynn pardon. FISA is part of the president’s tale about a deep-state “coup” against him. If he can shift the discussion back to that, even to take criticism for depriving his own intelligence community of counterterrorism authorities, then he’s on familiar ground. It’s the terrain in which he has conditioned his audience to regard him as a victim.
Trump has also returned to another of his favorite themes: attacking the press. Most recently, he has complained that the “Fake and Corrupt News” are writing stories about a bizarre mix-up between the White House and Google: Despite a prominent announcement by the administration that Google would be developing a nationwide website to direct patients with virus symptoms to screening sites, the company has confirmed its plans are far more modest. When reporters covered the White House’s exaggeration, the president lied that the press had “never called Google,” and suggested he was owed an apology.
In criticizing the media’s coverage of his response to the virus, Trump can dodge addressing the virus itself. And he can rally his supporters around a familiar target of hate, reminding them of their alliance with him when that fealty might otherwise become shaky.
What unites these three examples is that they all involve a return to arenas in which Trump has successfully cast himself—at least to his own followers—as the target of malicious behavior by elites. In invoking Flynn and FISA, he spotlights his assailants as deep-state conspirators. When he alludes to the press, he bemoans powerful media actors who are piling on and attacking him, lying, making up sources, and not reporting his titanic greatness.
The coronavirus deprives him of this basic story line, insentient microbes being lousy enemies even when they present great challenges. His goal—perhaps conscious, perhaps not—is to return to stories in which, having portrayed himself as the victim, he gets to claim once again what he declared about the coronavirus-testing failures: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”