“Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won,” President Trump said on March 29. It was a moment of clarity and wisdom, the sort of sober leadership the nation seeks from a president in times of crisis.
And it was swiftly forgotten. A month later, Trump and his aides were ready to hang Mission Accomplished banners from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
“The worst of the pain and suffering is going to be behind us,” Trump said Wednesday. “We think we really have passed a big boundary. Much better days are ahead.”
During the same press availability, he boasted, “We did all the right moves … If we didn’t do what we did, you would’ve had a million people die, maybe more. Maybe 2 million people die. And if you think that we’d be at 65 or 70 or 60 or whatever the final number will be—one is too many. I always say it: One is far too many.”
The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, was even more triumphal. “We’re on the other side of the medical aspect of this, and I think that we’ve achieved all the different milestones that are needed,” he said on Fox & Friends Wednesday. “So the government—federal government—rose to the challenge, and this is a great success story and I think that that’s really what needs to be told.”
The comments were astonishing at a time when the death toll continues to pass ever more dizzying milestones, and at the end of one of the deadliest months in American history. Yet when Trump was asked about Kushner’s remarks on Thursday, he endorsed them and argued that the White House’s only failure was in communicating its success.
“I don’t think anybody has done the job that we’ve done, other than at public relations, because the press just won’t talk about the facts,” he said. “You know, we’re the leader of the world. We’re really the leader. In this case, the leader of the world. And we’ve done better. If you look at our deaths, if you look at mortality rates, if you look at the things, we’re—in fact, I’m going to get a chart, because it’s maybe the most impressive thing—right?—how we’ve done.”
The U.S. is indeed the leader of the world—in total COVID-19 deaths, to choose one metric. It also leads other developed nations in the growth of its death rate. Trump is not responsible for all of those deaths, no matter how shaky the federal response has been, but his premature declarations of victory at a time when the situation is manifestly dire are jarring. They demonstrate a lack of empathy that has dogged Trump in past crises.
This empathy gap is not a problem merely of political fortunes, but of material results. For leaders to solve a problem, they have to convince people they understand it. Trump’s inability to understand the depth of human suffering in the pandemic has slowed his response at every turn and hobbled his ability to rally the resources needed to address the crisis.
Trump likes to say that one death is too many, but his seeming indifference to growing death tolls is reminiscent of the quip, sometimes attributed to Stalin, that one death is a tragedy and 1 million deaths is a statistic. For Trump, one death is a tragedy and 60,000 are a victory.
As Steve Benen has chronicled, Trump has curiously kept touting the low death toll, but keeps having to adjust up the number as the count rises.
“We did the right thing, because if we didn’t do it, you would have had a million people, a million and a half people, maybe 2 million people dead,” Trump said on April 20. “Now, we’re going toward 50, I’m hearing, or 60,000 people. One is too many. I always say it: One is too many. But we’re going toward 50 or 60,000 people.”
Four days later, the estimated death toll exceeded 50,000, though it is probably higher. On April 27, Trump said the toll was “probably heading to 60,000, 70,000.” A couple of days later, the U.S. crossed the 60,000 milestone. So on April 29, Trump readjusted.
“What we did is a great tribute to this country. But if we lost—so if we lose 65,000 people—it’s so crazy to say it. It’s just so horrible. But if we lose 65,000 people, and instead of that going the other route, we would have lost a million or a million and a half or 2 million. It’s possible. It’s possible that you lost more. But could you imagine? Look how horrible it is to lose 65 and then multiply that times many, many times. That would not be sustainable.”
Within the next few days, that, too, will be obsolete. As heartfelt responses in the face of crisis go, “That would not be sustainable” doesn’t exactly radiate warmth. Trump seldom speaks of victims as individuals, and then only in stiff tones—even when discussing friends of his who have died. Grief simply isn’t a mode that suits him, and the absence is exacerbated by his focus on economic statistics and his tendency to engage in petty fights amid the crisis.
Trump’s struggles to convey any emotion but anger have been foretold in past crises. Consider the first great external disaster to strike the Trump administration, the 2017 hurricane season. Visiting Texas, the president seemed unable to relate to anything other than the massive size of Hurricane Harvey. And despite fitful attempts to telegraph that he cared, he stumbled even worse in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Trump argued that the storm was not a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina and callously tossed rolls of paper towels to desperate aid-seekers.
Trump’s inability to register the suffering may have played into the disastrous federal response to the storm. Eventual estimates placed the death toll from Maria at about 3,000 people, making it far more lethal than Katrina, and among the worst natural disasters in American history.
It is sometimes said that wars make presidents great; tragedies and disasters can at the very least make their greatest moments. The enduring images of many presidencies came when the commander in chief had to rally and console the nation.
After the Challenger explosion, Ronald Reagan said of the crew members who had perished, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’” Barack Obama’s finest moment may have come as he eulogized the victims massacred at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. George W. Bush was never more popular or unifying than after his improvised “I can hear you!” at the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center.
The pattern extends back through history: Think of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “date which will live in infamy” speech after Pearl Harbor, or Abraham Lincoln’s plea in his second inaugural address for Americans to “bind up the nation’s wounds” “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”
These moments do make presidents popular, at least temporarily, and it’s a testament to Trump’s poor handling of the crisis that his approval hasn’t budged beyond the narrow range in which it has resided for most of his presidency.
But the unity these presidents summon also helps rally the nation to a greater cause. For Roosevelt, that was fighting the Second World War; for Lincoln, it was looking ahead to the end of the Civil War. Trump has adopted the language of war, but he has not taken the example of his predecessors. As Mark Leibovich recently noted, Trump has all but abolished the shared American experience, recasting even something as universal as social distancing into an “us-versus-them.”
As the United States faces the greatest crisis since World War II, armed protesters are running amok in state legislatures, the president is feuding with governors, and public-health measures have become political footballs. It didn’t have to be this way. Americans are willing—desperate, even—to be inspired. A steady leader could bring the nation together to face the immense challenge ahead. But Trump is too busy taking a victory lap. One might even say that nothing could be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won.