Reporter's Notebook

2020 Time Capsule
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2020 Time Capsule #15: ‘Liberate’

Protesters in Michigan Jeff Kowalsky /AFP / Getty

On Friday, April 17—yesterday, as I write—Donald Trump sent out three tweets that were unusual even for him. They followed angry protests by groups objecting to the shut-down orders in several states; news photos showed many of the protesters wearing Trump hats, many carrying weapons, and some with Confederate flags.

Why is this spate of tweeting notable?

  1. As so often with Trump, because of its mere existence. Of course there have been clashes between federal and state policies through U.S. history. In post-World War II America, the clearest cases are from the Civil Rights era. For instance, in 1957, Dwight Eisenhower ordered troops from the 101st Airborne to Little Rock, Arkansas, to overcome resistance to school-integration orders, led by the governor, Orval Faubus. In the 1960s, both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson directed federal efforts to enforce civil-rights orders in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South.

    But these were efforts to bring local practice into accord with nationwide policy. Trump was doing the reverse: implicitly encouraging local resistance to the very strategies his administration is recommending for the country as a whole. Nothing like this has happened since at least the time of Reconstruction, and probably not since before the Civil War.

  2. Because of its partisanship in a time of national emergency. One state that moved even earlier toward shutdowns than Michigan, Minnesota, or Virginia was Ohio. And in Ohio as in the other three states, there were angry “open things up!” protests at the state capital this week. But the governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, is a Republican, while the governors of the other three states are all Democrats. (Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Tim Walz in Minnesota, and Ralph Northam in Virginia. Also, all six U.S. Senators from these states are Democrats.)

    So at a time when his own White House task force has been trying to work with governors of both parties, Trump was notably singling out “opposition” governors. Also, as reported in The New York Times and The Guardian, many of the protests were planned and financed by partisan conservative organizations.  

  3. Because of its crudeness and incoherence. As for crudeness: An invocation to “your great 2nd Amendment” being “under siege” is not subtle enough to qualify as a dog whistle. Chris Murphy, a U.S. Senator from Connecticut (and a Democrat), spelled it out:
    Twitter
    And, incoherence: The entire premise of the administration’s “mitigation” strategy is to encourage people not to congregate, so as to reduce the ultimate death toll from the pandemic. The head of that administration was cheering on those defying the strategy.
      
  4. Because of the sharpness of the reaction. A few hours before the statement from Chris Murphy, above, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, gave an extended, mocking retort to Trump at his daily briefing yesterday. You can see it on this C-SPAN video, starting at around time 1:05. “Thank you, Mr. President,” Cuomo said, recounting how often Trump had asked governors for their support. “Thank you for doing your job.” And he was just getting started, as you can see.

    Through these past weeks of pandemic crisis, Cuomo and other governors have been notably collegial and respectful toward Trump and his administration in their public presentations. Like other leaders during other crises, they set aside, for the time being, their personal and partisan differences. But yesterday it was No More Mister Nice Guy from Cuomo.

All this during the week when total U.S. deaths from the coronavirus crossed the 35,000 line, and, for the first time in U.S. history, every state in the nation was officially subject to a federal “major disaster” declaration.  

Dr. Deborah Birx listens as President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus on April 23.
Dr. Deborah Birx listens as President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus on April 23. Associated Press

On the day when the Access Hollywood tape came out, one month before the 2016 election, I wrote a “Trump Time Capsule” item whose first paragraph, in its entirety, was:

“Good God.”

That tape, of course, was the one on which a vintage-2005 Donald Trump was recorded, in his always-recognizable voice, saying that “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Leading up, of course, to “Grab ‘em by the pussy, you can do anything.” Then, as captured on tape, Trump swallowed some Tic Tacs, stepped off a bus, and smilingly greeted and embraced the female TV host he had been ogling and talking about while aboard the bus.

“Good God,” because personal crudeness of this scale was far beyond revelations that had stopped pre-Trump political campaigns. Edmund Muskie early in 1972, Thomas Eagleton later in 1972, Gary Hart in 1988, Howard Dean in 2004—I won’t go into details, but by the standard of “Grab ’em by ...” these previous political storms would qualify as minor showers. (Actually, I encourage you to look into the possibility that the “embarrassments” that stopped Gary Hart’s campaign in 1988 could have been the result of a political setup, as I wrote in 2018.)

But of course Trump’s campaign was not derailed, by this or anything else. Recall what happened next:

  • Trump initially dismissed the comments as “locker room talk.”
  • The next day he released a video in which he said, for one of the few times ever, that he “regretted” his remarks on tape. He read the following while looking straight at the camera: “Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am [sic]. I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.”
  • On the same afternoon that The Washington Post broke news of the recording, WikiLeaks began releasing hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. (A witness for the Mueller report later said that Trump’s advisor Roger Stone coordinated this timing with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. Stone denied being involved but last year was found guilty and sentenced to prison for lying about the case.) As was apparently intended, this immediately competed with the “grab ‘em” story for news coverage.
  • Some elected GOP officials criticized Trump—including, amazingly, his running mate Mike Pence, and then-Senator John McCain, who called on Trump to drop out.
  • But within a week, most Republicans were aboard again, and for Trump, a potentially campaign-ending event became just another bump in the road. His party, and his voters, would stick with him.

What’s the connection to current events? These past few days have been another “Good God” moment, even by the standards of the past few years.

At his multi-hour rally/”briefing” on Thursday evening, Trump speculated that heavy external (or internal) exposure to ultraviolet light, or perhaps drinking or injecting disinfectants, could be a solution to the virus.

Because Trump later falsely claimed that he had been quoted out of context, or had just been joking, it’s important to observe what he looked and sounded like when saying these (preposterous) things. Starting at time 26:00 of this C-SPAN video, you can see that he was in dead earnest—and acting as if he was offering a great insight, which had escaped the detail-minded professionals—when he said the following words:

Here’s a question that some of you [the press] are probably thinking of, if you’re totally into that world [of science], which I find to be very interesting.

Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light … Supposing you brought the light inside the body [sic], either through the skin or some other way.

And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute — one minute — and is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.

While Trump was saying these words, one of his scientific advisers, Dr. Deborah Birx, was captured on film as her face went ashen at the idiocy of his comments. But she was then called to the microphone, and as she has done several times before, she pointedly avoided saying that Trump’s comments were not just ignorant but actively dangerous, especially if anyone was considering drinking disinfectant. As noted earlier, her medical colleague Anthony Fauci has continued to pull off the remarkable (and public-spirited) trick of maintaining his long-earned reputation for honesty, while retaining a position in Trump’s retinue. Fauci is unique in that status. Everyone else who has entered Trump’s service has fallen into the pit of reputational destruction.

The next day, Trump claimed that he was being “sarcastic” and only joking with the comments. This is his standard last line of defense when caught in a particularly egregious statement. For instance, he says his public call on “Russia” to release Hillary Clinton’s emails had just been a joke. That excuse was a lie, and anyone who saw the “disinfectant” video knows he is lying about this now.

Almost immediately, the manufacturers of Lysol and other disinfectants, along with numerous public health agencies, put out statements warning against drinking these products. Reporters from the Washington Post quoted Dara Kass, of Columbia University Medical Center, on the difference between this and Trump’s previous, now-discredited advice that people start taking a certain kind of pill:

   “The difference between this and the chloroquine [pills] is that somebody could go right away to their pantry and start swallowing bleach. They could go to their medicine cabinet and swallow isopropyl alcohol,” Kass said. “A lot of people have that in their homes. There’s an immediate opportunity to react.”

Kass explained to the Post that people who ingest such chemicals often die, and those “who survive usually end up with feeding tubes because their mouth and esophagus were eroded by the cleaning agents.”

“It’s horrific,” she said.”


And of the 53 Republicans who make up Mitch McConnell’s Senate majority? How many have spoken up to criticize the president—on the specifics of this new “plan,” or on what the comments reveal about his approach to reality in general—or to warn the public against his advice?

As best I can determine, two days after Trump’s comments, that number is zero. This is the Vichy Republican bargain they made after the Access Hollywood tapes. It is the bargain that keeps an obviously unwell man in power now. It is the bargain for which they should be remembered.

Reuters / Pool

As the past week began, the Unites States was crossing 50,000 reported deaths from the coronavirus pandemic. As the new week arrives, the U.S. death total is 70,000.

Of the countless extraordinary events in these seven days, a few that are worth noting:

1) “Empathy and Simple Kindness.” This past Saturday, former President George W. Bush released a brief video whose subtweeted message was unmistakable. It recognized the suffering of those who had lost family members, or economic prospects, or hope itself; it emphasized the all of us rather than the us and them response to national crisis; and it appealed to the generous rather than the resentful in human nature.

In short, it was the kind of message that leaders of any nation have been expected to transmit, as part of their duty, in time of national hardship. And it highlighted by contrast the signals of “empathy and simple kindness” that Donald Trump himself had never managed to convey or even feign.

I have been as harsh as anyone on George W. Bush’s responsibility, in his time in office, for America’s foreign-policy and economic travails. (For more, see this, this, this, and this.) But it would be wrong not to recognize the way he was trying, 11 years after leaving office, to express the thoughts a nation expects from its leaders.

The video raised a further possibility and question for this former president: What will he say as the next election draws near? The three other living former presidents—Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama—are all Democrats. So for them, there will be no conflict between policy goals and party loyalty. All will, of course, try to help Joe Biden beat Donald Trump.

In the 2016 election, the extended Bush family made no secret of its distaste for Donald Trump, who had after all ridiculed “Low Energy Jeb” Bush in the primaries. This new video suggests that George W. Bush’s estimation of Trump has not gone up. (For the record, two years ago, during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight, Bush did his best to persuade Republican senators to stick with Kavanaugh—who had been a White House staffer for Bush.)

But would a former Republican president dare go public with a plea to save the country, and what he thinks of as his party’s principles, by voting for the opposition? The logic of this video suggests that Bush should. Could he actually do so? I’m not holding my breath, but Bush loyalists should be raising the question with him.

2) “A great success story.” This past Wednesday, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, went on the First Family’s favorite TV program, Fox and Friends. He told the hosts that the federal government “rose to the challenge” and “this is a great success story.” You can listen to him yourself, starting 9:00 minutes into this clip.

The day before Kushner spoke, the confirmed U.S. death toll from the pandemic exceeded the 58,000-plus U.S. fatalities inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the famous black granite wall in Washington. Since then, they have increased by about 2,000 per day.

It is conceivable that selected parts of the federal response will eventually be seen as successes, though overall they appear to be catastrophic now.

It is inconceivable that a favored in-law’s cheery declaration of a “great success story,” as tens of millions of people are losing their jobs and tens of thousands have lost their lives, will stand up well.

3) “I will never lie to you.” I noted last month that the new White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, differed from her immediate predecessor in planning to hold press briefings at all. But she differed from past administrations’ press secretaries in that her history as a public figure was entirely in the role of cable-news partisan advocate.

At her first press briefing, this past week, she told the assembled reporters:

“I will never lie to you. You have my pledge on that.”

You see her saying so 8 minutes into this C-SPAN video. Then she proceeded to … lie, on matters ranging from the Mueller investigation, to the prosecution of Michael Flynn, to the history of sexual-assault allegations against Donald Trump, to a range of others. Dan Froomkin set out the details in Salon and Annie Karni did so in the New York Times.

My earlier argument was: The best press secretaries have recognized the fundamental torment of the job. The good ones are torn day-by-day between their assignment to put the best face on the administration’s policies, and their desire to stick as close as possible to the truth.

Like Trump himself, Kayleigh McEnany seemed in her debut to be unconflicted. Her duty is only to the administration.

4) “The plague should never have happened.” Back in March I noted Donald Trump’s penchant for “projection”: that is, attacking others for the failings that seem most evident in himself.

Bear that in mind, in considering Trump’s comments at a White House event this past week—and comparing them with the verdict likely to be rendered upon his administration. Trump said (as shown in this C-SPAN video):

This plague should have never happened.

It could have been stopped, but people chose not to stop it, and it's a very sad thing for the world

Indeed.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Nearly every day of the past two weeks has brought a development that, by itself, would have been a major substantive and political event in other times. As a benchmark and reminder, a reckless move by a Democratic president after he had left office, and a glib off-hand comment by a Republican president while he was still serving, remain vivid, years after they happened, as axes of political, legal, and press consequences.

For the Democrats, the instance was the decision by Bill Clinton, then 16 years out of office and husband of the Democratic candidate, to walk across the tarmac at the Phoenix airport in June, 2016, and talk with Loretta Lynch, who was Barack Obama’s attorney general. From that encounter grew Republican complaints that Clinton was “interfering” with the Justice Department’s investigation of the Hillary Clinton email “scandal,” then Lynch’s recusal from the case, then its effective transfer to James Comey, the FBI director, and then—you know the rest.

For the Republicans, the moment came three days into the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, in 2005. On a visit to the drowning city, George W. Bush told Michael Brown, then head of FEMA, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”

Four years after the Lynch episode, anyone involved in politics remembers its role in making the phrase “But, her emails...” central to a presidential election. Fifteen years after Katrina, “Heckuva job” remains a part of the standard mocking vocabulary of public life.

But almost every 24-hour span in public life, circa 2020, brings comparable developments. They risk being lost to memory, because of the Iguazu Falls-scale torrent of shocking-but-not-surprising assaults on civic, logical, and governing norms.

Just as an unelaborated list, here are a few of the things that occurred over the days when the U.S. death toll from the pandemic was rising from nearly 70,000 to nearly 90,000. At least half-a-dozen of these would, in normal times, be front-page developments on their own.

Starting two weeks ago, we have:

  • May 6: Trump and his administration essentially declared “Mission Accomplished” about the pandemic, and shifted from an emphasis on public-health effects to saying that the economy should be the real focus.
  • May 7: Trump’s complaisant attorney general, William Barr, had his Justice Department drop charges against Trump’s first national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had already pleaded guilty to two counts of lying to federal agents.
  • May 8: Unemployment claims increased by 20 million, and the unemployment rate reached the highest level since the 1930s.
  • May 11: Trump told a Chinese American CBS News reporter that she should “Ask China” about why the pandemic has done so much damage. More here.
  • May 12: Anthony Fauci (described one month ago here) offered downbeat testimony about the pandemic to a Senate committee, at odds with Trump’s own “We’ve done great!” statement the previous day.
  • May 12: The Supreme Court, in a phone-based remote session, heard arguments on whether Donald Trump had absolute immunity from congressional scrutiny into his tax records from before he ran for office.
  • May 13: Trump criticized Fauci, saying that his answer about a timetable for opening schools was “not acceptable.”
  • May 14: Richard Burr, a senator from North Carolina who has been chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, resigned from that committee post (but not from the Senate) after the FBI seized his phone and other documents, in an investigation on whether had traded on inside information about the pandemic.
  • May 14: Rick Bright, formerly a senior vaccine-development official and now a whistleblower, testified on why he had been pushed out of his job for insisting that scientific standards be applied to some of Donald Trump’s drug recommendations.
  • May 15: Late on Friday night, the administration announced that it had fired the State Department inspector general who had been looking into possible financial irregularities involving Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, and his wife. This was the latest in a long series of internal watchdogs whom Trump and his associates had removed.
  • May 16: Trump tweeted out his support for people in New York who were badgering and harassing local reporters. “People can’t get enough of this,” Trump wrote. “Great people!”
  • Also on the evening of May 16, Barack Obama delivered his video message to the graduating class of 2020. Obama was deliberate in not criticizing Trump directly—in contrast to his notorious ridicule of Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011, which arguably humiliated Trump so comprehensively that it fueled his desire to run for office. But Obama’s implicit message could not have been clearer.
      As a speechwriting note: Every time a leader addresses a community in time of trouble, the message needs to include these three elements, in order. First, empathy: I know this is hard, I know that you have suffered and are afraid. Second, confidence: We’ve been through tough times before, we will come out of this ahead. Third, a plan: Here are the next specific things we are going to do. You can look at any effective “time of trouble” speech, from Lincoln to FDR and onward, and see just this approach. Obama applied it in his brief address. Trump never does, since his messages always are: 1) I am doing such a great job, and 2) Everyone else is so unfair to me.

Not every one of these items would qualify as a standalone, discussion-focusing, campaign-shifting, reputation-changing event, in normal times. But most of them would.


On May 14, The Financial Times published a long, reported piece by its correspondent Edward Luce, about the character of the man leading the federal effort. Its closing words, quoting the lawyer (and Trump critic) George Conway, were:

Without exception, everyone I interviewed, including the most ardent Trump loyalists, made a similar point to Conway. Trump is deaf to advice, said one. He is his own worst enemy, said another. He only listens to family, said a third. He is mentally imbalanced, said a fourth. America, in other words, should brace itself for a turbulent six months ahead—with no assurance of a safe landing.

On May 17, Lachlan Cartwright, Asawin Suebaeng, and Lachlan Markay of the Daily Beast published another long, reported piece saying that Peter Thiel—Facebook board member, and co-founder of PayPal, who had given a nominating speech for Trump at the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland—was souring on Trump. It included this quote, parallel to what Luce had reporterd:

“Everybody goes into the Trump relationship woodchipper,” said Trump’s former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who worked on the Trump presidential transition team with Thiel and who had his own falling-out with the president. “You either come out on the other side with your dignity and your personal story intact or you’re reformed as Trump compost and you’re fertilizer under his shoe. You have to make a decision and it happens to everyone.”

These were the realities of two weeks in May, five-and-a-half months before the election.

And for the future of the republic, the most important reality may be the continued silence of the congressional Republicans. A few of them spoke up after the Friday-night firing of the State Department inspector general. Mitt Romney, notably, wrote that it was “ a threat to accountable democracy.” Susan Collins, as if immune to self-parody, tweeted out her concern. But as a group, they are silent. They know, and they choose not to speak.