The Atlantic Politics Daily: MAGA vs. the Coronavirus

Why the virus could bring out the worst in Trump.

It’s Tuesday, February 18. In today’s newsletter: Why the coronavirus outbreak could bring out the worst in Trump. Plus: Is Bernie Sanders as polarizing as elite Democrats claim he is?



The Trump administration isn’t ready for the coronavirus.

The outbreak of COVID-19, as the illness is now called, has thrown the world into panic. But if it spreads across the U.S., it could bring out the worst in President Donald Trump, who on top of a tendency to prefer his own instincts to the advice of experts, is famously a germaphobe.

Empathy may be a casualty of Trump’s own phobias: He is squeamish about contagion. A body man traveling with him would make sure that two implements were always in his possession: a Sharpie for autographs and hand sanitizer for germs, said a former White House official, who like others I talked with for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity. Aides would try to suppress coughs in his presence. If they couldn’t stifle repeated sneezes, Trump might order them to leave his presence. “He never said, ‘Go home.’ He just didn’t want them anywhere near him,” the ex-official told me.

When an Ebola epidemic struck in 2014, Trump was unnerved. For months, he sent dire messages with a common theme: Keep the virus out of the U.S. at all costs.

My colleague Peter Nicholas reports on the nightmare scenario of the outbreak reaching the U.S.

Would a quarantine of the scale China is implementing now—extended beyond the Wuhan epicenter to more than 50 million elsewhere in China—be possible in the U.S.?

A legal mess would certainly result, Polly Price, a global health professor, writes:

The average American may be surprised to learn who holds the authority to order such public-health measures. Except at the nation’s borders, the federal government, with the expertise of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is not in charge. America’s defense against epidemics is divided among 2,684 state, local, and tribal public-health departments. Each one is responsible for monitoring people within its jurisdiction, imposing isolation or quarantine as needed. CDC officials are “preparing as if [the new coronavirus] is the next pandemic,” but in reality, the laboring oar falls to state and local health departments.

Read the rest.

—Saahil Desai


1. “Indeed, given our national faith and trust in a rule of law no one can subvert, it is not too strong to say that Bill Barr is un-American.”

Attorney General Barr is placing the president above the law, the former deputy attorney general Donald Ayer, who preceded Barr in the George H. W. Bush administration, writes. His argument comes amid a forceful public letter signed by now more than 2,000 former Department of Justice officials (including Ayer) calling on Barr to resign.

Here’s why Ayer argues Bill Barr must step down.

2. “He sparks less opposition—in some cases far less—than his major competitors ... So why all the talk of civil war?”

“Nobody likes” him, Hillary Clinton even declared last month of her 2016 primary rival. But that’s true only among a certain stratum of Democrats, Peter Beinart argues: The Democratic elite are afraid of the party schism that a Bernie Sanders victory could cause, but Democratic voters are far less hesitant about the democratic-socialist candidate. In fact, Sanders may be one of the least polarizing among ordinary voters.

+ Our writer David A. Graham attended dueling rallies in North Carolina this weekend—one for the front-runner Sanders, the other for Mike Bloomberg. Those two already seem to be regarding the race as a two-person one, David writes.

3. “If past is prologue, Trump will say absolutely anything necessary to attract and maintain support, including patent untruths …. How can Democrats run against a candidate who will simply deny his unpopular positions and make up nonexistent accomplishments?”

The real electability challenge for the 2020 Democratic nominee is their ability to run against a president “seemingly prepared, and empowered, to lie and cheat his way to reelection,” Sarada Peri, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, argues. So what can the candidates going toe-to-toe with Trump do?



The New Cold War

If the Trump administration is truly going all-in on competition with Beijing, it’s not clear that Trump himself is fully on board. Nor, it’s now clear, are several of America’s closest friends. Uri Friedman writes:

In the contest between the United States and China over who gets to shape the world in the coming century, America seems to be playing to win. But it’s running into a big problem. Despite the global network of alliances Washington has built up, it’s been unable to convince those allies to hop aboard the “great-power-competition” express and leave China behind.

There’s a countermovement against a U.S.-China cold war brewing.


Today’s newsletter was written by Saahil Desai, an editor on the Politics desk, and edited by Shan Wang, who oversees newsletters.

You can reply directly to this newsletter with questions or comments, or send a note to

Your support makes our journalism possible. Subscribe here.