Read: The four possible timelines for life returning to normal
“If we were doing a bad job, we should also be criticized. But we have done an incredible job,” Trump said on February 27. “We’re doing a great job with it,” he told Republican senators on March 10. “I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning,” he tweeted on March 18.
For three-quarters of his presidency, Trump has taken credit for the economic expansion that began under President Barack Obama in 2010. That expansion accelerated in 2014, just in time to deliver real prosperity over the past three years. The harm done by Trump’s own initiatives, and especially his trade wars, was masked by that continued growth. The economy Trump inherited became his all-purpose answer to his critics. Did he break laws, corrupt the Treasury, appoint cronies, and tell lies? So what? Unemployment was down, the stock market up.
Suddenly, in 2020, the rooster that had taken credit for the sunrise faced the reality of sunset. He could not bear it.
Underneath all the denial and self-congratulation, Trump seems to have glimpsed the truth. The clearest statement of that knowledge was expressed on February 28. That day, Trump spoke at a rally in South Carolina—his penultimate rally before the pandemic forced him to stop. This was the rally at which Trump accused the Democrats of politicizing the coronavirus as “their new hoax.” That line was so shocking, it has crowded out awareness of everything else Trump said that day. Yet those other statements are, if possible, even more relevant to understanding the trouble he brought upon the country.
Read: The two states where Trump’s COVID-19 response could backfire
Trump does not speak clearly. His patterns of speech betray a man with guilty secrets to hide, and a beclouded mind. Yet we can discern, through the mental fog, that Trump had absorbed some crucial facts. By February 28, somebody in his orbit seemed to already be projecting 35,000 to 40,000 deaths from the coronavirus. Trump remembered the number, but refused to believe it. His remarks are worth revisiting at length:
Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus, you know that, right? Coronavirus, they’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs. You say, “How’s President Trump doing?” They go, “Oh, not good, not good.” They have no clue. They don’t have any clue. They can’t even count their votes in Iowa. They can’t even count. No, they can’t. They can’t count their votes.
One of my people came up to me and said, “Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.” That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything. They tried it over and over. They’d been doing it since you got in. It’s all turning. They lost. It’s all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax.
But we did something that’s been pretty amazing. We have 15 people [sick] in this massive country, and because of the fact that we went early. We went early; we could have had a lot more than that. We’re doing great. Our country is doing so great. We are so unified. We are so unified. The Republican Party has never ever been unified like it is now. There has never been a movement in the history of our country like we have now. Never been a movement.
So a statistic that we want to talk about—Go ahead: Say USA. It’s okay; USA. So a number that nobody heard of, that I heard of recently and I was shocked to hear it: 35,000 people on average die each year from the flu. Did anyone know that? Thirty-five thousand, that’s a lot of people. It could go to 100,000; it could be 27,000. They say usually a minimum of 27, goes up to 100,000 people a year die.
And so far, we have lost nobody to coronavirus in the United States. Nobody. And it doesn’t mean we won’t and we are totally prepared. It doesn’t mean we won’t, but think of it. You hear 35 and 40,000 people and we’ve lost nobody and you wonder, the press is in hysteria mode.
On February 28, very few Americans had heard of an estimated death toll of 35,000 to 40,000, but Trump had heard it. And his answer to that estimate was: “So far, we have lost nobody.” He conceded, “It doesn’t mean we won’t.” But he returned to his happy talk. “We are totally prepared.” And as always, it was the media's fault. “You hear 35 and 40,000 people and we’ve lost nobody and you wonder, the press is in hysteria mode.”