Read: A devastating new stage of the pandemic
One demonstration of the contradictory approach came Friday afternoon when Vice President Mike Pence held the first briefing of the White House task force on the coronavirus in two months. Pence is a flawed messenger: Just last week, he wrote an embarrassingly shoddy column in The Wall Street Journal, insisting that “panic is overblown,” and writing, “Thanks to the leadership of President Trump and the courage and compassion of the American people, our public health system is far stronger than it was four months ago, and we are winning the fight against the invisible enemy.”
Yet even as Pence resuscitates the task force, Anthony Fauci has barely been speaking with Trump, though the president has found time to misrepresent him on Twitter. Notably, the press conference wasn’t at the White House, and it didn’t include Trump. (Instead, he was speaking at a workforce-advisory-board meeting at the White House.)
The president is more interested in declaring victory (over and over again), declining to wear a mask, and hosting campaign rallies that are likely to spread the virus. Trump’s presence might signal White House recognition of the resurgent pandemic, but that wouldn’t necessarily help things. When he held briefings, the president tended to turn them into a substitute for his campaign rallies, with political asides and awful medical advice.
That is because the president has never fully understood the pandemic or its repercussions. In his public comments, from his February claim that cases would go to zero to his April suggestion of using bleach and UV light to treat COVID-19 patients, Trump showed he had no grasp on the science of the disease. Though he initially dismissed the threat from the virus, the administration eventually recognized a need to at least attempt to show its seriousness as the virus spread. Daily task-force briefings provided a focal point, but it soon became clear that the White House was not prepared to take serious action to fight the pandemic, and preferred to delegate that work to states. (Though not without some armchair sniping from the Oval Office.)
Having passed the buck to governors, Trump moved on to a new strategy: pushing to reopen the country as soon as possible. But having flunked the science, the president never understood why the economy was reeling, either. He grasped the grave damage to the economy, and also the danger it poses to his reelection, and concluded that those problems could be solved by getting businesses back open and lockdowns loosened. This didn’t work, because the biggest reason for the economic shutdown was not that governors and mayors were forcing people to stay home—it was that people were choosing to stay home. As long as the pandemic was ravaging the country, there could be no real economic rebound, as my colleague Derek Thompson has written.