None of the crises surrounding President Donald Trump over the past three years has been as calamitous as the one he now faces. Impeachment was largely a political problem with a predictable end; the government shutdown wasn’t going to last indefinitely. But the coronavirus is something else entirely: a mortal siege. It could sink the economy and, under certain horrid scenarios, kill as many as 2 million Americans. It’s already made the country Trump leads in some ways unrecognizable.
A threat so grave handed Trump a history-making opportunity that eluded many of his predecessors. He’d become a wartime president, with a chance to refashion his legacy. That moment has come and is likely gone. For weeks, he downplayed the danger. He denied responsibility for a shortage of tests that are crucial to tracking the virus’s spread. Only in recent days did his administration begin exhorting Americans to avoid restaurants and stay home from school, steps that state and local officials have already been putting in place on their own.
“This is Trump’s Churchill moment,” Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, told me. “This time will define his presidency.”
Last month, I wrote that the crisis was one that Trump seemed ill-prepared to meet. At the time, 15 cases were reported in the United States. With the tally now at 6,500 and counting, the reasons he’s faltered have sharpened. He elevates hyperbole over fact, seldom admits a mistake, and practices zero-sum politics. Though useful in his political ascent, these same instincts undermine the necessary mission of unifying a shaken country and rallying Americans stuck in their homes. And they make it difficult to see how the federal government can effectively lead the country out of this bog.