The Slow-Fingered President

Donald Trump has been eager to tweet on many subjects—but notably reticent to emphasize public health.

Donald Trump
Win McNamee / Getty

President Donald Trump has warned his Twitter followers six times as often about the threat from mail-in ballots as he has urged them to protect themselves from the threat of COVID-19. Since March, when the stay-at-home orders started, he has written a little over a dozen tweets encouraging mask wearing and social distancing, and warning about the virus. In April, he started tweeting about the danger of voting by mail, and he has now done so more than six dozen times. He may very well be doing so again as you read this.

When it is in his interest, Donald Trump is a virtuoso of the touch screen, sounding the alarm repeatedly and with escalating panic. When it is not in his interest, he is slow-fingered and tardy, even if quick action is in the public interest.

Bob Woodward revealed that the president knew privately about the dangers of the pandemic for weeks but sent the opposite message to the public, before finally stating the danger out loud. The president knew that the virus spread easily, admitting to bolting from the room when someone sneezed. In public, though, he charged Democrats and the media with hyping the threat to hurt his electoral chances. He didn’t just fail to warn; he told his followers that the warnings were a plot by his enemies.

Trump’s reluctance to embrace his public duty continues. Before Labor Day Weekend, administration public-health officials were united in pushing a simple message. “Labor Day is coming up, and we need to stress personal responsibility,” said Brett Giroir, who oversees coronavirus testing efforts. “Right now, we gain freedom through wearing our masks and socially distancing,” said Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus-response coordinator. Americans had heard this message over and over again, but the Belabor Day before Labor Day was necessary because repetition is the key to maintaining public health.

Labor Day was such a key test because many Americans ignored the health reminders before Memorial Day, and COVID-19 cases spiked. If people listened this time around, Americans might convince themselves they have the self-control to return to a more active life, which is the psychological precondition necessary to actually returning to a more active life.

More important, fall and winter are expected to see a natural rise in coronavirus cases as people spend more time inside, which can contribute to the disease’s spread. Public-health officials didn’t want to start a bad season in a bad place. “We don’t want to go into the fall with one hand tied behind our back because we have another surge that we have to deal with,” said Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Public-health officials could have used an assist from a high-profile figure who didn’t mind repeating the same thing again and again.

Of course, those officials did have such a voice. He’s their boss. And the president’s Twitter feed is just the channel designed to break through the noise. Plus, the president’s job compels him to do everything possible to help Americans stay safe. Nevertheless, while public-health officials were straining to remind people about mask wearing, social distancing, and the continued threat posed by the virus, the president’s Twitter account was silent.

During the Labor Day period, the president tweeted about the owner of Nancy Pelosi’s salon, critical race theory, Big Ten football, and many other things under the fading summer sun. He did not use his Twitter feed to warn about COVID-19 or encourage any of the personal practices that would keep people healthy and spur the economy.

The last time he used his account to encourage Americans in this direction was six weeks ago, on August 3. This presidential omission is not insignificant, like, say, forgetting to speak in iambic pentameter. Twitter is a key tool for Trump’s presidency. Trump boasts about its power to capture the public mind, and his staff rightfully brags that his use of Twitter is an innovation on par with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats. It is obvious to say this, but necessary: We expect the president to apply his tools to the most pressing challenges of the day.

The president’s Twitter feed is an EKG of his basic drives. When Donald Trump is passionate about an issue, his Twitter feed throbs with content. Violence in American cities is a favorite recent topic. Joe Biden’s energy level is another of the president’s top concerns. Past obsessions include the border wall and NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. The message is always that people should wake up to lurking danger—just the kind of message that public-health officials are trying to convey. As a private citizen, Trump spread the false claim that Barack Obama had been born in Kenya. He wrote more tweets about that imaginary issue than he has about promoting mask wearing or social distancing, which are necessary to battle something very real.

The president does not fear repetition. One morning, he shared more than 20 tweets and retweets about Fox’s Ed Henry in 21 minutes. His Twitter feed is like an album of vacation photographs. It's not the quality of a single picture that tells you how much Uncle Fred liked the Parthenon, but the number of pictures of it he includes.

When the president wants to convince people of something he knows to be untrue, he says it over and over again, relying on a version of the same power that public-health officials find in repetition when they try to spread information. But like Steph Curry refusing to deploy his jump shot in the playoffs, the president isn’t using the tool for which he’s best known at the important moment.

Trump does not want to come across as an unpleasant nag, and mask wearing and social distancing are a bummer. Reiterating public-health messages also reminds people that the virus is still here; the president would like to discourage that kind of thinking. From the start, he has repeatedly stressed that the coronavirus would go away. Recently that wish-casting has strayed into pretending it has actually done so. During the Republican National Convention, the administration economic adviser Larry Kudlow referred to the pandemic in the past tense, as if it were gone. On the day he did so, 1,147 new COVID-19 deaths were recorded.

America, with 4 percent of the world’s population, has 21 percent of the world’s COVID-19 deaths. This is a fact impervious to spin or denial. Even the most energetic and dazzling hand-waving cannot persuade people to return to “normal” if they are fearful. Though there is much talk of a vaccine, experts say the widespread distribution that would allow full activity won’t happen until the second half of next year. That’s why for the next nine months or so, economists believe the route to recovery goes through learning to manage the pandemic. “For us to engage in economic activity, I have to trust that you’re healthy,” Mohamed El-Erian, the chief economic adviser for the financial-services company Allianz, told me on Face the Nation. “You have to trust that I’m healthy. And until we have a clear way of doing that, people are going to pull back. So we’re not going to see the quick recovery in all sectors.” And this is why Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell sounded like a public-health official before Labor Day. “There’s actually enormous economic gains to be had nationwide from people wearing masks and keeping their distance,” he told NPR. By not backing up his public-health officials, the president is making an economic choice.

When the president has addressed the pandemic on Twitter over the past few months, the overwhelming number of messages have been different from the ones his public-health officials are trying to send. He has highlighted marginal or dangerous theories, explained why the U.S. caseload isn’t as bad as experts say, pointed toward rising caseloads in other countries, and belittled Biden for wearing a mask.

Sometimes, the president undermines his public-health officials more directly. August 3, the last time he encouraged people to wear masks and keep their distance, was the same day he called Birx “pathetic” for sounding the alarm about how bad things had gotten. He has also undermined Fauci at various stages, including retweeting the claim that Fauci had been “misleading the American public.” Additionally, he has criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA.

Tuesday night in an ABC town hall, when asked why he didn’t promote mask wearing, he did not echo his administration’s position, but instead said, “There are people that don’t think masks are good.” The next day, CDC Director Robert Redfield testified to Congress, “These face masks are the important, powerful public-health tool we have ... I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine.”

The president’s imbalanced COVID-19 messaging is another instance of the asymmetric concern that has been a hallmark of his presidency. His passions are deeply misaligned with the duties of his job.

After the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, for example, Trump was more passionate about counterprotester violence than he was about the fact that white supremacists and neo-Nazis were marching in America praising his name, and that one of them had killed a young woman. After Hurricane Maria, he was more passionate about defending his administration’s response than about demonstrating concern for the victims. And today, he boosts his public-health officials in small proportion to the needs of the moment and to the attention he blasts at inflammatory issues.

The president’s passions are supposed to be aligned with the most pressing questions facing the country. On COVID-19, Trump offers a trickling little with the tool it is easiest for him to deploy. A president ought to do everything within his power to fight a pandemic; this one can hardly be bothered to tap out a tweet.