Reporter's Notebook

2020 Time Capsule
Carlos Barria / Reuters
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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

During press questioning at the White House today, Donald Trump was asked whether his tone about the coronavirus challenge had suddenly changed. For weeks, he’d been mocking the virus threat—at rallies, in tweets, and in press remarks. But both yesterday and today, he’d suddenly shifted to warning that the public-health and economic problems were real, and would remain so for a long time.

What changed?

Trump denied there had been any shift in tone, and said (as you can see here):

“I have always known. This is a real pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic....

“I’ve always viewed it as very serious.”

This is a flat-out lie.

Setting the lead for many Republican politicians and for most coverage on Fox News, Trump had for many weeks pooh-poohed the idea that the virus should be taken seriously.

  • He has said it was “contained” and “under control” (as McKay Coppins pointed out).
  • He has said “It’s going to disappear” and, “We have very little problem in this country” (as David Leonhardt pointed out).
  • He said three weeks ago that the U.S. had “15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” (as the White House briefing transcript shows).
  • He tweeted just eight days ago that “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation” (as The Hill pointed out).
From Twitter.

From growing global awareness of the disease in January, until his press conference yesterday, March 16, Trump had consistently minimized the medical and economic danger. He frequently likened the virus to the seasonal flu, and at a rally said that criticism of his administration’s virus responses was “a hoax”—indeed, a continuation of the impeachment “hoax” by other means.


That Trump has shifted his tone so dramatically says something about the scale of the disease and its impacts. I hope it says something positive about the upcoming federal commitments to join the effort against it, so far led by governors and mayors.

But that he believes he can baldly zap away all memory of his words and deeds and reinvent himself as the man saving his country from pandemic—another Anthony Fauci, but with executive powers—reveals something  about Trump’s mind and character, and something about his assessment of public life.

  • About his mind it suggests: He lives in the moment, and whatever he wants to be true at this instant, is “true” for him, at least while he’s saying it.
  • About his assessment of others it indicates: He is betting he can get away with it. At some level he must know that half the press is weary of writing the 900th story pointing out his falsehoods. The other half is hungry for some way to show its “balance,” and to avoid using the plain word “lie.” And meanwhile the constituency Trump said would stay with him if he “shot someone on Fifth Avenue” may still be aboard.

An assessment on CNN just after the press conference indicated the kind of response Trump might be betting on. The estimable Dana Bash said of Trump’s comments, “He is being the kind of leader that people need, at least in tone, today and yesterday.” We’ll see what the online stories tonight and the print headlines tomorrow morning say about Trump’s shift.

Will “today and yesterday”—the subdued tone yesterday, the “I have always viewed it as very serious” Orwellian big-lie today—enter public consciousness as the time when Trump “got serious” and “became a leader”? Or as the time when he finally went too far with a blatant lie?

As I write this, in real time, we can’t be sure. I have my own guess, which I hope proves wrong.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

This afternoon, on the heels of a widely panned formal Oval Office address, Donald Trump assembled a group of scientific and corporate leaders to talk about dealing with the coronavirus. You can watch the whole thing on the White House YouTube channel.

I suspect that we’ll see one line from this conference played frequently in the months ahead. You can watch it starting at around 1:22:00, when reporter Kristen Welker of NBC asks Trump whether he takes responsibility for the lag in making test kits available.

Trump’s reply:

No.

I don’t take responsibility at all.

Narrowly parsed, and in full context, Trump was referring only to the test kits — and was continuing his (fantasized) complaint that rules left over from 2016, under the Obama administration, are the real reason the U.S. has been so slow to respond to this pandemic.

But filmable moments in politics are not always taken in full context, and at their most narrowly parsed logical reading:

All of these—in full context, and most-sympathetically read—had a meaning you could understand and perhaps defend. None of that context or meaning survived, as those went from being phrases to weaponized symbols.

Will that happen to “I don’t take responsibility at all”? We will soon see.


Other stage business points:

  • A series of CEOs came to the microphone to describe what their companies were doing to speed testing or help out in other ways. Trump caught the first three or four of them unawares, by shaking their hands as they moved away from the lectern. All seemed startled, as you can see in the video.

    Then the other CEOs began to catch on, and a following group of them scuttled away from the microphone before Trump could grab them for a handshake, or held their own hands clenched together, in a protective prayer-style grasp.

    Finally, (at 1:06 in the video) you can see Bruce Greenstein, of the LHC group, surprise Trump with an elbow-bump rather than a hand shake. Trump himself seemed completely oblivious to the idea of social distancing. It was also notable that one speaker after another touched and moved around the same microphone, and put his her hands on the sides of the same lectern.
  • I mentioned earlier today the uneasy and evolving position of Anthony Fauci, who has been the “voice of science” through this episode as he has during previous medical emergencies. The uneasiness lies in the tension between his decades as a respected scientist, and his current role as a prominent member of Team Trump. Can he retain his long reputation as a straight shooter? While maintaining any influence with Trump?

    Make what you will of his body language through the events today. (He is at far left in the picture below.)
  • White House

  • Also today, I mentioned the inevitable-for-Trump, though inconceivable-in-other-administrations, ritual of Trump subordinates limitlessly praising the goodness and wisdom of their leader. It was striking to see all the CEOs skipping right past that formality.

    But if you felt a phantom-limb twinge in the absence of these comments, all you had to do was wait for Mike Pence. You can hear him starting at around 1:07, with comments that began “This day should be an inspiration to every American” and built in earnestness from there.

There was much more from the question-and-answer session, but I don’t want to spoil the experience of discovery for anyone who has not seen it yet.

Two hundred and thirty-five days until the election.

Leah Millis / Reuters

As of today, March 13, 2020—three-plus years into the current administration, three months into public awareness of the coronavirus spread, seven-plus months until before the next election—Anthony Fauci is playing a role in which no previous Trump-era figure has survived.

One other person has been in the spot Fauci now occupies. That is, of course, James Mattis, the retired four-star Marine Corps general and former secretary of defense for Trump. Former is the key word here, and the question is whether the change in circumstances between Mattis’s time and Fauci’s—the public nature of this emergency, the greater proximity of upcoming elections, the apparent verdict from financial markets and both international and domestic leaders that Donald Trump is in deep over his head—will give Fauci the greater leverage he needs, not just to stay at work but also to steer policy away from the abyss.


Why is Anthony Fauci now, even more than James Mattis before him, in a different position from any other publicly visible associate of Trump’s?

  1. Pre-Trump credibility, connections, and respect. Fauci has been head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at the National Institutes of Health, since Ronald Reagan’s first term, in 1984. (How can he have held the post so long? Although nothing in his look or bearing would suggest it, Fauci is older than either Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden. He recently turned 79.)

    Through his long tenure at NIH, which spanned the early days of the HIV/AIDS devastation and later experience with the SARS and H1N1 epidemics, Fauci has become a very familiar “public face of science,” explaining at congressional hearings and in TV and radio interviews how Americans should think about the latest threat. He has managed to stay apart from any era’s partisan-political death struggles. He has received a raft of scientific and civic honors, from the Lasker Award for health leadership, to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by George W. Bush.

    Thus, in contrast to virtually all the other figures with whom Trump has surrounded himself, Fauci is by any objective standard the best person for the job — and is universally seen as such. This distinguishes him from people Trump has favored in his own coterie, from longtime consigliere Michael Cohen to longtime ally Roger Stone to longtime personal physician Harold Bornstein; and from past and present members of his White House staff, like the departed Michael Flynn and the returned Hope Hicks and the sempiternal Jared Kushner; and fish-out-of-water Cabinet appointees, like (to pick one) the neurosurgeon Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

    Put another way: Very plainly, Trump needs Fauci more than Fauci needs Trump. This is not a position Donald Trump has ever felt comfortable in— witness the denouement with Mattis.
      
  2. The ability not to abase himself before Trump. The first Cabinet meeting Donald Trump held, nearly three years ago, was unlike any other conducted in U.S. history, and very much like subsequent public appearance of Trump in company with his appointees.

    In that meeting, on June 12, 2017, as TV cameras were rolling, Trump went around the table and one-by-one had his appointees gush about how kind, wise, and far-sighted he was—failing only to compliment him on his humility. (Tina Nguyen described the meeting at the time in Vanity Fair.) After praising himself, Trump called on others to praise him, starting with the reliable Mike Pence. “It is the greatest privilege of my life to serve as the vice president to a president who is keeping his word to the American people,” Pence began. All the others followed his example—with the prominent exception of Mattis. He spent his “praise” time instead complimenting the men and women in uniform he led.

    No public event like that Cabinet meeting had happened before in the United States, simply because no other president has been as needy for in-public adulation as Trump is. Of course most politicians and all presidents are needy; you could not run for the presidency if you had a normal temperament. (Background reading on this point, while you’re “socially isolating”: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.) Every political leader eats up the praise in private—“Wonderful job today, Mr. President—you were really connecting!”, not to mention Veep—but all the rest of them have been savvy enough to know how tacky this looks in public. The modern exception-illustrating-the-rule might have been Lyndon Johnson, with enough of the Sun King in his makeup to enjoy having people humble themselves before him. But holding a public adulation-fest? If George W. Bush had heard, say, Karl Rove start in that way, he would likely have said, “OK, Turd Blossom, what are you angling for?” Barack Obama—or John F. Kennedy, or Jimmy Carter— would have arched an eyebrow as if to ask, “Hey, did you think you were still playing in the minors?”

    But what we saw in that Cabinet meeting, we have seen again and again from those around Trump. The most humiliating recent examples come from the people in charge of the coronavirus response: Pence again; Alex Azar, head of Health and Human Services; Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control; and Seema Verma, in charge of Medicare and Medicaid. The beginnings and endings of their public statements, and the answers to many questions, are larded with praise for Trump and his “decisive and visionary action.” (For the latest example, see Verma under questioning from Martha MacCallum of Fox News. Verma repeatedly dodges MacCallum’s direct question about whether hospitals have enough ventilators and other supplies (as Fred Barbash laid out in the Washington Post. MacCallum makes one last try—and Verma seeks refuge in saying, “And that’s why the president has taken such a bold and decisive action.” That claim made no logical sense to MacCallum or the listeners, but it reflected the inescapable logic of what is expected from members of the Court of Trump.)

    There is one exception: Anthony Fauci. He has occasionally said that he agrees with aspects of the administration’s or the president’s policies, but he has avoided the ritual self-abnegation. Of course Fauci held his job long before Trump came to town, and is not part of the normal round of high-level appointments each new administration makes. (To the best of my knowledge, though, directors of NIH institutes, like Fauci, serve “at the pleasure of the president” and so could be removed. If I’m wrong on that, will update. Update: Several NIH veterans have written in to say that Fauci’s position is officially different from that of the NIH director, and is not directly a presidential-political appointment. Recent history teaches that a vindictive president can make things difficult even for career civil servants. But I am grateful for the clarification. )

    But Fauci’s polite but consistent reluctance to grovel cannot have gone unnoticed by the audience-of-one for all the other appointees: Trump himself.
      
  3. Daring to contradict Trump, in public. This is a step beyond anything Mattis attempted. Through the first two years of the administration, background-sourced stories and reports based on “those in a position to know the Secretary’s thinking” laid out the increasing distance between Mattis’s view of American interests and what Trump was saying and doing.

    But there is no precedent, from Mattis or anyone else, for what we have seen these past few weeks from Fauci at the podium. Is the coronavirus problem just going to go away (as Trump had claimed)? No, from Fauci. It is serious, and it is going to get worse. Is the testing system “perfect” (as Trump had claimed)? No, it is not working as it should. Is the U.S. once again the greatest of all nations in its response to the threat? No, it is behind in crucial aspects, and has much to learn from others.

    Fauci is saying all these things politely and respectfully. As an experienced Washington operator he knows that there is no reason to begin an answer with, “The president is wrong.” You just skip to the next sentence, “The reality is...” But his meaning—“the president is wrong”—is unmistakable.

    Anthony Fauci has earned the presumption-of-credibility for his comments. Donald Trump has earned the presumption that he is lying or confused. A year ago that standoff—the realities, versus Trump-world obeisance—worked out against James Mattis. Will the balance of forces be different for Fauci? As of this writing, no one can know.
Tom Brenner / Reuters

Four years ago, when Donald Trump was on his rise—from apparent-joke candidate, to long-shot, to front-runner, to nominee, and on to electoral winner—I wrote in this space a series of “Trump Time Capsules.”

They started with #1, back in May, 2016, when a Paris-bound airliner plunged into the Mediterranean and Trump immediately declared that the cause must have been terrorism. “What just happened?” he shouted to a rally crowd before wreckage had even been found. “A plane got blown out of the sky. And if anybody thinks it wasn’t blown out of the sky, you’re 100 percent wrong, folks, OK? You’re 100 percent wrong.” (Naturally, French authorities later determined that the crash arose from a mechanical problem.)

They ended with installment #152, just before the election, at the time when James Comey’s last-minute reopening of the Hillary Clinton email case was dominating headlines. In between there were installments about Paul Manafort’s fishy-looking role, the “grab ‘em by...” moment, Trump’s comments about theMexican judge,” and the shift of one-time Trump ridiculers like Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell into a Vichy Republican coalition.

Through all the posts, the idea was to record in real time what people knew about Donald Trump, about the country, and about the issues and stakes in the election, before any of us knew how the contest was going to turn out. As I wrote in introducing the very first installment four years ago:

People will wonder about America in our time. It can be engrossing to look back on dramatic, high-stakes periods in which people were not yet sure where things would lead, to see how they assessed the odds before knowing the outcome. The last few months of the 1968 presidential campaign: would it be Humphrey, Nixon, or conceivably even George Wallace? Or 1964: was there a chance that Goldwater might win? The impeachment countdown for Richard Nixon, in 1974? The Bush-Gore recount watch in 2000?

The Trump campaign this year will probably join that list. The odds are still against his becoming president, but no one can be sure what the next five-plus months will bring. Thus for time-capsule purposes, and not with the idea that this would change a single voter’s mind, I kick off what I intend as a regular feature. Its purpose is to catalogue some of the things Donald Trump says and does that no real president would do.