President Trump delivered his first State of the Union before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. These addresses are typically opportunities for American presidents to highlight their achievements and provide a vision for the country going forward. To that end, Trump pitched a framework for immigration reform that was released by the White House last week and touted his recent record on trade, infrastructure, and the economy.
But the night was atypical in other ways. For one, Trump delivered the address under the shadow of the Russian investigation, and amid tensions over his administration’s relationship with the intelligence community—not to mention its relationship with Congress.
Follow along for live updates on the evening’s events. Also see our continuing coverage:
President Trump ended his speech with an homage not to any of his predecessors, but to none other than former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “As long as we are proud of who we are, and what we are fighting for, there is nothing we cannot achieve,” Trump said. “As long as we have confidence in our values, faith in our citizens, and trust in our God, we will never fail.”
Those lines seemed to deliberately echo Churchill’s famed “Masters of Our Fate” speech, which, like the State of the Union, was delivered to a joint session of Congress. “As long as we have faith in our cause and an unconquerable willpower, salvation will not be denied us,” Churchill told lawmakers in December 1941. “In the words of the Psalmist, ‘He shall not be afraid of evil tidings; his heart is fixed, trusting in the Lord.’”
There have been interesting parallels drawn between the two men. After viewing the film Darkest Hour, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said that the movie’s portrayal of Churchill reminded him deeply of Trump, a characterization that many criticized as blunting Churchill’s persona and legacy. But, as illustrated in his State of the Union address, Trump does resemble the late leader in a certain light. Churchill infamously agitated against immigration, and clearly extolled racist and imperialist values, often denigrating the citizens of developing nations. And as his “Masters” speech showed, Churchill’s main allure was authoritarian and martial, qualities that appealed to both Great Britain and the United States in the middle of World War II. In fighting his culture war and stoking fears against terrorism and immigrants, Trump seems to want to harness those same energies.
Well, it's over. President Trump loves setting records, and he nearly set one tonight—for length. His speech topped out at 1 hour and 20 minutes. That's longer than any of the eight addresses Barack Obama delivered to Congress, and just eight minutes shy of the State of the Union record Bill Clinton set during his final appearance in the Capitol in 2000, according to records kept by the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. But the duration of Trump's speech was due almost entirely to the president's unhurried delivery and his decision to milk the seemingly endless interruptions for applause (mainly from Republicans). Trump rarely deviated from his prepared remarks, which amounted to 5,190 words. Clinton's 2000 address lasted eight minutes longer but contained nearly twice as many words: 9,086. Trump’s full speech, as delivered, can be found here.
Trump Describes an Imminent and Immense Threat From North Korea
Donald Trump just made clear how pivotal a year 2018 will be for the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. “North Korea's reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland” and the “depraved” North Korean regime “threatens our world,” he said. Trump administration officials like to say that their predecessors kicked the can down the road on North Korea and that we’re now all out of road. It’s more accurate to say we’re fast-approaching a fork in the road.
The Trump administration is currently engaged in an international campaign to severely sanction North Korea in hopes of extracting concessions from Kim Jong Un and draining his government of the funds it needs to develop its nuclear arsenal. And there are signs that this effort is starting to succeed. The North’s winter military exercises, for example, haven’t been as robust as usual.
Yet there’s a fundamental time mismatch with the administration’s North Korea policy. Sanctions often take a while—sometimes years—to achieve results. And according to Trump’s CIA director, North Korea is only months away from achieving something administration officials have described as unacceptable: acquiring the capacity to place a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the United States. If North Korea conducts additional missile or nuclear tests that demonstrate its long-range nuclear capabilities, the Trump administration will find itself at a crossroads: Does it back down and focus on deterring North Korea from using its weapons? Does it buy time for the sanctions to work by modifying its definition of what North Korean actions are unacceptable? Or does it take more drastic action—like limited military strikes to intimidate Kim or all-out war to take out the North’s nuclear weapons? Just before Trump’s State of the Union address, news broke that the administration’s plans to nominate an ambassador to South Korea had fallen apart. The candidate, Victor Cha, explained that he had argued against taking preventive military action against North Korea. This view apparently proved disqualifying.
Trump Follows Through on His Guantanamo Campaign Pledge
A decade ago, both presidential nominees, Barack Obama and John McCain, pledged to close the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. During his two terms in office, Obama was never able to do so; Congress continually blocked his efforts over concerns that suspected terrorists would be brought to domestic soil. On Tuesday night, Trump confirmed that he would follow through on his own, opposite campaign pledge: He announced that he had signed an executive order officially keeping Gitmo open and directing Defense Secretary James Mattis to review the nation's terrorist-detention policies. "We must be clear," he said. "Terrorists are not merely criminals. They are unlawful enemy combatants. And when captured overseas, they should be treated like the terrorists they are."
President Trump renewed his pledge to combat the ongoing opioid crisis, committing the White House to "fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need." But he used much more punitive language tonight than he has in the past. In an October speech on drugs, he characterized the nation as a "national family" and seemed to present the crisis—at least in part—as a public-health issue. By contrast, this was his main opioid-related sound bite tonight: "We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge."
Trump Has Made Big Gains Against ISIS—but at a Cost
The Trump administration has, as the president boasted, presided over the retaking of nearly all ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq, including the Islamic State’s former strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul. A U.S.-led air and ground coalition has made remarkable progress in wiping out a globe-spanning terrorist group that just a few years ago looked unstoppable. Just this week, the head of U.S. Central Command said the “military defeat of ISIS” is just weeks away.
But there are some critical caveats to keep in mind. First, as Trump himself noted, the effort to “extinguish ISIS from the face of the earth” is far from over; ISIS’s inspirational power remains potent and ISIS affiliates remain active from Niger to Afghanistan. Second, the Trump administration has largely stuck with and built on the military campaign that the Obama administration began. And third, while the crippling of ISIS has saved countless lives, it has also come at a steep human cost. In part because the fight against ISIS accelerated and moved to urban centers, in part because Trump loosened Barack Obama’s rules of military engagement, civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria have soared. Roughly three-fourths of acknowledgedcivilian deaths during the anti-ISIS military campaign have occurred since Trump took office.
But the Trump administration can nevertheless claim credit for seeing this fight through, and for the success it has achieved.
Can Trump Take Credit for America's Energy Economy?
“In our drive to make Washington accountable, we have eliminated more regulations in our first year than any administration in the history of our country,” President Trump said. “We have ended the war on American energy—and we have ended the war on beautiful clean coal. We are now very proudly an exporter of energy to the world.”
This is one of the few nods in the speech to the Trump administration’s expansive regulatory agenda. Repealing regulations—or making them more friendly to business and energy interests—has united the Trump administration and congressional Republicans like almost nothing else. His administration has withdrawn or slow-rolled dozens of regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency and elsewhere across the federal government. Most prominently, it’s repealed the Clean Power Plan, a trademark Obama rule that would have reduced carbon-dioxide pollution from the power sector. The Department of Interior has slashed the size of Bears Ears National Monument, making some of it open to uranium mining. Trump claims his agenda has cut the private costs of regulation by $8.1 billion—though most of those savings came through the cancellation of a single rule governing federal contractors.
It makes sense that Trump will link this to the new U.S. energy economy. America is energy dominant now in ways that it has never been before. In 2016, for instance, U.S. oil companies defied an OPEC attempt to raise global oil prices. Within the next few years, the United States may even export more energy than it imports.
But little of that supremacy is due to Trump. Decades of innovation and exploratory policy—going back to the Carter administration—got the U.S. to this point. The fracking boom changed the U.S. electricity sector. And America exports oil now thanks to the bipartisan repeal of a longstanding oil-export ban in 2015. Those forces are what’s making America energy dominant—and ironically, they’re also putting the domestic coal industry out of business.
How Can We Really Lift Citizens 'From Welfare to Work?'
“We can lift our citizens from welfare to work, from dependence to independence, and from poverty to prosperity.” President Trump didn’t spare too many words for his ideas on welfare and welfare reform tonight, but it’s likely those reforms will be major policy issues in the upcoming year, with the White House sending signals to states that it will advance a conservative reform agenda on anti-poverty programs. That includes revisions to the federal food-stamp program (SNAP) and to Medicaid, the federal health-insurance program for low-income people.
With respect to SNAP, USDA chief Sonny Perdue—who happens to be tonight’s designated survivor—recently stated that the next Farm Bill should “support work as the pathway to self-sufficiency,” which likely signals support for a strong work requirement in the program. The Department of Health and Human Services has already moved in this direction with Medicaid, with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services approving for the first time state waivers for requirements that some recipients work in order to receive benefits.
It’s unclear if that rationale will have measurable effects other than simply moving people off federal programs, though. The example often touted as the model for these work requirements is the TANF program, which was created out of Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform and required many people receiving cash benefits to work. But over its two decades of full implementation, the program has likely done most of its work not by ensuring that people on welfare work, but by kicking off those who don’t. Employment for people on TANF is still well below the national average, and follows unemployment closely.
President Trump just called for more vocational schools, “so our future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential.” But in his proposed budget for 2018, he sent a different message: The president requested cuts to career and technical education, including $166 million in cuts to grants that fund those programs. While the proposed grant reductions are relatively small, amounting to 15 percent of current levels, advocates say they’d significantly undermine efforts to expand vocational opportunities despite ever-growing demand.
"Americans are dreamers, too." With those four words, Trump summed up his worldview on immigration and his "America First" slogan. Seeking to reframe the debate over young undocumented immigrants at risk for deportation, the president said his "greatest compassion" was for American citizens, and he spotlighted ICE agents and victims of crimes by the MS-13 gang he so frequently targets. Then Trump segued into his four-part immigration plan, which would provide a path to citizenship for 1.8 million “Dreamers” brought illegally to the U.S. by their parents. In exchange, Trump wants $25 billion for border security, including his signature wall, an end to the diversity visa lottery, and significant reductions to longterm legal immigration through family sponsorship. That's too much for Democrats, and even many Republicans have blanched at the proposed cuts to immigrant entries over the next few decades. His call to end "chain migration" even drew a few boos in the House chamber.
It’s odd to cite open borders as the cause of gangs taking over our communities, as President Trump just did, when gang violence has fallen across the United States; when the unusual cities that remain high-crime are not that way because of immigrant gangs; and when our border is far from “open.” Claims of this sort might have been plausible in 1995. Today, they are a decade or two out of date, as a matter of substance. Unfortunately, they retain effectiveness as political rhetoric out of all proportion to their rootedness in reality.
One year into his tenure, the president's ambitions for a long-delayed infrastructure program have expanded. Last year, he called for a $1 trillion bill; this year, it's 50 percent higher. "Tonight," Trump said, "I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need."
But the price tag is misleading. Democrats would love legislation that invests that much money into rebuilding the nation's roads, bridges, and railways. Barack Obama called for it repeatedly. But Trump isn't proposing to spend that amount, only to "generate" that much investment. His proposal relies on states, cities, and private companies to shoulder the bulk of the cost—and that's where his plan has already run into stiff opposition in Congress.
Although, as my colleague Russell Berman wrote below, Trump has not detailed further plans for health-care policy from the White House for the upcoming year, it is clear that the repeal of the individual mandate will have large enough effects on health-care costs and coverage in 2018 to be considered as a stand-alone policy regime in its own regard.
The Trump administration branch has done everything within its power to weaken Obamacare’s provisions and to slough more Americans off coverage, including by slashing open-enrollment times and budgets. While it’s unclear just how deeply those actions have affected health care, a Gallup poll suggests 2017 was the first time since the Affordable Care Act was passed that the rate of the uninsured went up, with about 3 million more Americans lacking insurance.
Repealing the individual mandate will likely make 2018 the second straight year of an increased uninsured rate. While the Congressional Budget Office has recently said it will reduce its prediction of the impact of a repeal on uninsured rates (down from its initial estimate of 15 million more uninsured people in 10 years), it still expects an increase of some magnitude. In all, millions more Americans are projected to lack affordable health care at the end of 2018 than did at the start of Trump’s term.
How Democrats Responded to Trump's National Anthem Comment
President Trump’s tribute to the flag and the national anthem presented a tricky choice for Democrats in the House chamber, who largely supported the NFL players who chose to protest police brutality and systemic racism by not standing for the anthem during games. They appeared to be split. A number of them, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, joined Republicans who rose in a standing ovation. But the majority of them stayed seated, including the second-ranking House Democrat, Steny Hoyer.
Trump's Fight With Colin Kaepernick Still Isn't Over
It's really remarkable that a year and a half after he first attacked former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for his decision to kneel during the national anthem in protest of police violence, Trump is still—in a sense—campaigning on the same issue. He just made reference to standing for the anthem in his speech.
The football season is almost over now. Kaepernick hasn't played in a year. Mass protests from players in solidarity seem to have receded from public view. Yet the president, apparently, still sees in the issue an easy way to get his base riled up and to draw clear lines in the sand in an ongoing culture war—one that sees him on the side of unquestioning loyalty to law enforcement, and sees anyone else as anti-American.
Tump’s disdain for America’s trade agreements have been evident since the campaign. That sentiment was on display during Trump’s speech. “The era of economic surrender is over,” the president said. “From now on, we expect trading relationships to be fair and to be reciprocal.”
During his first year in office he pulled the country out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which he says he would be willing to renegotiate if terms are more favorable to the U.S.) and criticized NAFTA. Just last week, Trump offered a somewhat confusing message about the country’s place in a globalized world. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Trump said, “America is open for business.” He also said that he “will always put America first,” then adding “America first does not mean America alone. When the U.S grows, so does the world.” All in all, Trump’s actual strategy on how America fits into the global economy—and whether or not that strategy will hurt or help the economy—remains murky.
On Tuesday night, Trump’s speech offered little additional detail on how he might actually alter trade positions. “We will protect American workers and American intellectual property, through strong enforcement of our trade rules,” the president said. But notably, he did not single out any nations, or name any specific agreements he wishes to revise.
Trump Addresses High Prescription Drug Prices, a Democratic Priority—to a Lukewarm Response
Trump devoted a large chunk in the middle of the speech to tackling the high price of prescription drugs, calling it "one of my greatest priorities." This is a topic he has talked about repeatedly, but so far done little to address. And it's one that has the potential for bipartisanship, since it's been a top priority for many Democrats for years. Acknowledging this, Trump actually gestured to their side of the aisle after urging Congress to take action, as if to encourage their applause. The response was mixed, however, in an indication of how little trust exists between the president and the opposition party.
President Trump’s rhetoric about America as “one team” with “one destiny” is vexing. That’s partly because of the divisiveness that he deliberately stokes many days on Twitter, but also because a core part of what makes America great is that it accommodates people with very different notions of what their destiny holds. It’s been that way from the start, when the country’s unprecedented guarantees of religious freedom and a separation of church and state allowed people with deep differences on the biggest questions to coexist in relative peace and attain theretofore unknown prosperity.
That isn’t to say that Americans share nothing in common with one another, or that no project at all ought to unite them. Indeed, at a polarized moment, an effective leader would certainly work to help Americans achieve common projects in spite of their differences. But Trump is not up to that task, so he simply speaks as if the divisions do not exist, as if he represents the consensus voice of a country where a majority of people disapprove of the job that he is doing.
Trump Says He 'Ended the War' on Clean Coal—but He Repeatedly Tried to Slash Its Funding
On Tuesday night, President Trump announced he had “ended the war on beautiful, clean coal.” It’s an odd claim, given that his administration has repeatedly tried to cut the federal programs that support clean coal.
The truth of the president’s claim partly depends on what he means by “clean coal.” If he means just, you know, regular coal, he has a leg to stand on. The Trump administration has withdrawn the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era rule meant to fight climate change that would have led to more coal plant closings through 2030. It also proposed a plan that would have forced electricity customers to directly subsidize coal mining—though that plan has since been nixed.
But that’s not “clean coal.” If the president is referring to what energy scientists, economists, and executives mean by “clean coal”—that is, new coal power plants with reduced emissions of greenhouse gasses and conventional pollution—then he’s been the warlike one. The Trump administration has repeatedlyproposed slashing the budget of the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Research, which studies clean coal. Rick Perry’s most recent budget proposal bumped the clean-coal budget from more than $200 million to $35 million. This funding proposal, if adopted by Congress, would be well below Obama administration levels.
Trump's claim that in his first year as president the economy added around 2.4 million jobs is correct. And unemployment has tipped down, hovering around 4 percent, which is low by any standard. Unemployment for black Americans has also hit a record low of 6.8 percent—a fact Trump has touted again and again in recent weeks.
But as he touts these numbers, Trump is leaving some information out. That 2.4 million is actually a decrease from annual job growth during the final term of the Obama presidency. Black Americans’ unemployment rate is still nearly double that of white Americans. Wages have begun to tick up, but not nearly as fast as economists say would be healthy for an economy that is so strong.
While Trump has claimed credit for the strong job market, the performance is largely the result of policies enacted by the Federal Reserve and its current chair Janet Yellen—who Trump declined to reappoint.
“Our massive tax cuts provide tremendous relief for the middle class and small businesses, to lower tax rates for hard-working Americans,” Trump said. The president’s claims about which Americans will benefit from his new tax policies have been almost universally rejected by independent analysts. Experts at the Tax Policy Center who examined several Republican tax plans found that the cuts implemented by the Trump administration benefit America’s wealthiest families and companies the most—with companies benefitting from trillions of dollars in tax relief.
The president’s references to the 3 million Americans who have gotten benefits from tax cuts includes a wave of employees who were offered bonuses at the end of 2017, after Republicans successfully passed their $1.5 billion tax cut plan. Companies including AT&T, Boeing, Washington Federal, Wells Fargo, Fifth Third Bancorp, and Comcast pledged to give workers holiday-season bonuses due to the tax cuts. Other companies said that the tax cuts would result in new jobs, business expansion, higher pay. But as my colleague Annie Lowrey wrote, many of those bonuses and pay increases were likely already in the works—the results of an economy that has been steadily improving now for several years. The choice to try to tether these bonuses to the tax plan is in many ways an attempt to sell the American public on the idea that tax cuts and increasing profits for the wealthy will trickle down to the masses, a strategy that has failed many times before.
Why Trump Isn't Calling for Obamacare Repeal Anymore
Congress and President Trump failed at their first and biggest legislative task last year: fully repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, as lawmakers promised voters they would do for seven years. But in a brief reference to health care, Trump seized on a partial victory Republicans scored in their tax bill, which eliminated the ACA’s penalty for people who do not buy health insurance. "We repealed the core of disastrous Obamacare—the individual mandate is now gone," the president said, drawing a rapturous ovation from Republicans and silence from Democrats. Notably, however, Trump did not renew his pledge to fully scrap Obamacare—a nod to the fact that Republicans have neither the votes nor the political will to do so.
President Trump says “the state of our union is strong because our people are strong.” But that isn’t right. Americans are not magically stronger than the people of other countries. Our advantage, insofar as we thrive, is rooted in our liberty, our institutions, and the ideas that animate them.
And how is the "State of the Union"—the question at the ostensible center of this annual speech? In his official assessment to Congress, Trump says: "So let us begin tonight by recognizing that the state of our Union is strong because our people are strong."
'We Have Made Great Progress and Achieved Extraordinary Success'
“Over the last year, we have made great progress and achieved extraordinary success.” President Trump is now live, delivering his first State of the Union address in front of a packed House chamber. The president’s remarks will span important news events and policy decisions over his first year in office, but he started with a nod to the natural disasters that often dominated the front pages in 2017, from Hurricane Harvey’s devastation on the Gulf Coast to the wildfires in California.
Following the lead of Hollywood actresses at the Golden Globes, many Democratic women in the House and Senate on Tuesday are wearing black in a show of solidarity with the #MeToo and Times Up movements. African American members of the caucus are also wearing a button in honor of Recy Taylor, whose rape at the hands of six white men in 1944 was an early spark for the civil-rights movement. Taylor died late last year at the age of 98.
The display of black was easily noticeable as cameras panned over the Democratic side of the House chamber. And it provided a stark contrast to the fashion choice Democratic women made during Trump’s speech to Congress last year, when many of them wore white as a tribute to Hillary Clinton and the suffragettes. This year, it is First Lady Melania Trump who is wearing an all-white pantsuit.
As in Hollywood, accusations of sexual harassment have swept across the Capitol, forcing the resignations and retirements of several members of both parties in recent months. Lawmakers have introduced bipartisan legislation to overhaul the process of investigating harassment claims against members of Congress; among other changes, it would force lawmakers to pay any settlements themselves, instead of using taxpayer dollars as they currently can do.
President Trump’s critics often accuse him of destroying norms, and whether that is true or not, his presidency has ended one notable long-running State of the Union tradition. Every year for 28 years, Representative Eliot Engel, a Democrat who represents the Bronx, has famously staked out the entrance route into the House to make sure that he can get a handshake from the commander-in-chief. Engel’s Cal Ripken-esque eagerness became a stock trope for reporters covering of the speech, but not this year: He decided that due to his dissatisfaction with Trump, he would not camp out for a prime spot. Actually, Engel sat out last year too, but since that wasn’t technically a State of the Union, it’s 2018 that breaks the streak.
A Republican Congressman Wants 'Dreamer' SOTU Guests Arrested
Dozens of Democrats are bringing young immigrants known as “Dreamers” as their guests to the State of the Union, hoping to highlight the urgency of extending special deportation protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that President Trump plans to end in March.
That caught the attention of one of the House’s most conservative immigration hawks, Republican Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, who suggested on Twitter that federal authorities should check the IDs of those entering the Capitol Tuesday night and arrest any who are in the country illegally.
Today, Congressman Paul Gosar contacted the U.S. Capitol Police, as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, asking they consider checking identification of all attending the State of the Union address and arresting any illegal aliens in attendance.
“Of all the places where the Rule of Law needs to be enforced, it should be in the hallowed halls of Congress. Any illegal aliens attempting to go through security, under any pretext of invitation or otherwise, should be arrested and deported," said Congressman Gosar.
Since Trump took office, agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been aggressive about detaining undocumented immigrants, making arrests outside churches, schools, and inside courthouses where people have attended hearings unrelated to their immigration status. But the administration has said DACA recipients are not a priority for deportation as long as they don’t pose a criminal threat, and Republican leaders—including Trump—have voiced support for granting them permanent legal status and a path to citizenship.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan quickly shot down the idea. “The speaker clearly does not agree,” spokeswoman AshLee Strong told CNN. Nonetheless, Gosar’s suggestion may have had one desired effect: The congressman was invited to appear on Fox News during its coverage of the lead-up to Trump’s speech.
Designated Survivor: It’s not just a Kiefer Sutherland vehicle. It’s also a real assignment for a Cabinet member, someone who skips attending the State of the Union. Sort of like the sergeant-at-arms’s introduction, it feels like a bit of a vestigial ceremony, but it comes from the sobering possibility that a disaster could wipe out the rest of the government, vaulting an often-obscure public official to the presidency. Tonight’s designated survivor is Sonny Perdue, the secretary of agriculture. (If the worst happened, he’d the first president from Georgia since Jimmy Carter.) NBC News talked to a few designated survivors from past years, who described an evening of high-quality steak in a mystery location, paired with watching the speech on TV. "You kind of drill it and role-play ahead of time," said Jim Nicholson, George W. Bush’s veterans-affairs secretary. "They call you ‘Mr. President.’" Perdue’s experience is likely to be similar, and highly controlled—there’s little to no chance that he can ask to hit the mall instead.
Widespread social-distancing measures have produced some jarring effects across land, air, and sea.
From inside her living room in London, Paula Koelemeijer can feel the world around her growing quieter.
Koelemeijer, a seismologist, has a miniature seismometer sitting on a concrete slab at the base of her first-floor fireplace. The apparatus, though smaller than a box of tissues, can sense all kinds of movement, from the rattle of trains on the tracks near Koelemeijer’s home to the waves of earthquakes rolling in from afar. Since the United Kingdom announced stricter social-distancing rules last month, telling residents not to leave their home except for essential reasons, the seismometer has registered a sharp decrease in the vibrations produced by human activity.
With fewer trains, buses, and people pounding the pavement, the usual hum of public life has vanished, and so has its dependable rhythms: Before the spread of COVID-19 shut down the city, Koelemeijer could plot the seismometer’s data and see the train schedule reflected in the spikes, down to the minute. Now, with fewer trains running, the spikes seem to come at random.
Critics are letting their disdain for the president blind them to geopolitical realities.
When a new coronavirus emerged in China and began spreading around the world, including in the United States, President Donald Trump’s many critics in the American foreign-policy establishment were quick to identify him as part of the problem. Trump had campaigned on an “America first” foreign policy, which after his victory was enshrined in the official National Security Strategy that his administration published in 2017. At the time, I served in the administration and orchestrated the writing of that document. In the years since, Trump has been criticized for supposedly overturning the post–World War II order and rejecting the role the United States has long played in the world. Amid a global pandemic, he’s being accused—on this site and elsewhere—of alienating allies, undercutting multinational cooperation, and causing America to fight the coronavirus alone.
The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.
Three months ago, no one knew that SARS-CoV-2 existed. Now the virus has spread to almost every country, infecting at least 446,000 people whom we know about, and many more whom we do not. It has crashed economies and broken health-care systems, filled hospitals and emptied public spaces. It has separated people from their workplaces and their friends. It has disrupted modern society on a scale that most living people have never witnessed. Soon, most everyone in the United States will know someone who has been infected. Like World War II or the 9/11 attacks, this pandemic has already imprinted itself upon the nation’s psyche.
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”
Far from making Americans crave stability, the pandemic underscores how everything is up for grabs.
Fear sweeps the land. Many businesses collapse. Some huge fortunes are made. Panicked consumers stockpile paper, food, and weapons. The government’s reaction is inconsistent and ineffectual. Ordinary commerce grinds to a halt; investors can find no safe assets. Political factionalism grows more intense. Everything falls apart.
This was all as true of revolutionary France in 1789 and 1790 as it is of the United States today. Are we at the beginning of a revolution that has yet to be named? Do we want to be? That we are on the verge of a major transformation seems obvious. The onset of the next Depression, a challenge akin to World War II, a national midlife crisis—these comparisons have been offered and many more. But few are calling our current moment a revolution, and some have suggested that the coronavirus pandemic—coinciding as it has with the surge in Joe Biden’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and the decline of Bernie Sanders’s—marks the end of any such possibility. “The Coronavirus Killed the Revolution,” declared the headline of a recent essay in The Atlantic by Shadi Hamid, who argued that the COVID-19 crisis makes people crave “normalcy” over deep structural change. As a historian of 18th- and 19th-century France, I think claims like these are mistaken.
How the coronavirus travels through the air has become one of the most divisive debates in this pandemic.
Updated at 7:22 p.m. ET on April 4, 2020.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many people are now overthinking things they never used to think about at all. Can you go outside? What if you’re walking downwind of another person? What if you’re stuck waiting at a crosswalk and someone is there? What if you’re going for a run, and another runner is heading toward you, and the sidewalk is narrow? Suddenly, daily mundanities seem to demand strategy.
Much of this confusion stems from the shifting conversation around the pandemic. Thus far, the official line has been that the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, could be transmitted only through close contact with infected people or contaminated surfaces. But recently, news reports have suggested that the coronavirus can spread through the air. After 60 choir members in Washington State rehearsed together, 45 fell sick, even though no one seemed symptomatic at the time. Now people who were already feeling cooped up are worrying about going outside. Many state guidelines are ambiguous, and medical advice can muddy matters further. When the writer Deborah Copaken came down with COVID-19 symptoms, her doctor chided her for riding her bike through New York City a week earlier. Going outside in the city wasn’t safe, the physician implied, with “viral load everywhere.”
More young people in the South seem to be dying from COVID-19. Why?
In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has gone from a novel, distant threat to an enemy besieging cities and towns across the world. The burden of COVID-19 and the economic upheaval wrought by the measures to contain it feel epochal. Humanity now has a common foe, and we will grow increasingly familiar with its face.
Yet plenty of this virus’s aspects remain unknown. The developing wisdom—earned the hard way in Wuhan, Washington, and Italy—has been that older people and sicker people are substantially more likely to suffer severe illness or die from COVID-19 than their younger, healthier counterparts. Older people are much more likely than young people to have lung disease, kidney disease, hypertension, or heart disease, and those conditions are more likely to transform a coronavirus infection into something nastier. But what happens when these assumptions don’t hold up, and the young people battling the pandemic share the same risks?
The Trump administration has just released the model for the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic in America. We can expect a lot of back-and-forth about whether its mortality estimates are too high or low. And its wide range of possible outcomes is certainly confusing: What’s the right number? The answer is both difficult and simple. Here’s the difficult part: There is no right answer. But here’s the simple part: Right answers are not what epidemiological models are for.
Epidemiologists routinely turn to models to predict the progression of an infectious disease. Fighting public suspicion of these models is as old as modern epidemiology, which traces its origins back to John Snow’s famous cholera maps in 1854. Those maps proved, for the first time, that London’s terrible affliction was spreading through crystal-clear fresh water that came out of pumps, not the city’s foul-smelling air. Many people didn’t believe Snow, because they lived in a world without a clear understanding of germ theory and only the most rudimentary microscopes.
Trump is utterly unsuited to deal with this crisis, either intellectually or temperamentally.
For his entire adult life, and for his entire presidency, Donald Trump has created his own alternate reality, complete with his own alternate set of facts. He has shown himself to be erratic, impulsive, narcissistic, vindictive, cruel, mendacious, and devoid of empathy. None of that is new.
But we’re now entering the most dangerous phase of the Trump presidency. The pain and hardship that the United States is only beginning to experience stem from a crisis that the president is utterly unsuited to deal with, either intellectually or temperamentally. When things were going relatively well, the nation could more easily absorb the costs of Trump’s psychological and moral distortions and disfigurements. But those days are behind us. The coronavirus pandemic has created the conditions that can catalyze a destructive set of responses from an individual with Trump’s characterological defects and disordered personality.
The shutdowns happened remarkably quickly, but the process of resuming our lives will be far more muddled.
Get your battle rhythm, I keep telling myself, as I put on my oversize sweatpants for the third day in a row. Staying inside, away from our offices, routines, and community, feels jarring even for those who, on a rational level, understand the need for extreme social distancing. The good side is having more family time. But everything seems upended, even to homeland-security professionals who argued for upending everything to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Just as seasickness abates once you can see the shore, the disruptions that the country is now experiencing would be easier to manage if we knew they would end soon. The community-isolation effort happened remarkably fast—within days, whole communities all but closed down, and earlier this week the federal government finally recommended the same. On Thursday, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the entire state of California to stay home “until further notice.” But the way the crisis ends will be far more muddled. There isn’t going to be one all-clear signal—and certainly not one anytime soon.
The coronavirus outbreak may last for a year or two, but some elements of pre-pandemic life will likely be won back in the meantime.
Updated at 4:40 ET on March 30, 2020.
The new coronavirus has brought American life to a near standstill, closing businesses, canceling large gatherings, and keeping people at home. All of those people must surely be wondering: When will things return to normal?
The answer is simple, if not exactly satisfying: when enough of the population—possibly 60 or 80 percent of people—is resistant to COVID-19 to stifle the disease’s spread from person to person. That is the end goal, although no one knows exactly how long it will take to get there.
There are two realistic paths to achieving this “population-level immunity.” One is the development of a vaccine. The other is for the disease to work its way through the population, surely killing many, but also leaving many others—those who contract the disease and then recover—immune. “They’re just Teflon at that point,” meaning they can’t get infected again and they won’t pass on the disease, explains Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at UC Irvine. Once enough people reach Teflon status—though we don’t yet know if recovering from the disease confers any immunity at all, let alone lifelong immunity—normalcy will be restored. (It may also turn out to be the case that people who are immune to the disease can still pass it on under certain circumstances.)*