The escalating coronavirus crisis is presenting President Donald Trump
with a challenge for which he appears ill-equipped, his favorite
political tactics ineffective and his reelection chances in jeopardy.
A rare crisis battering the White House that is not of the president’s
own making, the spreading coronavirus has panicked global financial
markets and alarmed Americans, many of whom have turned to the Oval
Office for guidance and reassurances.
But what they have found is a president struggling for a solution,
unable to settle Wall Street and proving particularly vulnerable to a
threat that is out of his control.
In an address to the nation Wednesday night, Trump announced a
sweeping travel ban for much of Europe as well as a package of
proposals to help steady the teetering economy.
But he continued to play down the severity of the situation, painting
it as a foreign threat that soon will be banished rather than focusing
on managing the growing number of cases at home.
“This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a
foreign virus in modern history,” Trump declared.
Addressing the economic costs, he added, “This is not a financial
crisis, this is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome
together as a nation and as a world.”
But the virus has appeared impervious to the Republican president’s bluster.
The virus does not have a Twitter account and, unlike so many previous
Trump foes, is resistant to political bullying or Republican Party
It has preyed on his lack of curiosity and fears of germs while
exposing divides and inadequacies within senior levels of his
It has taken away Trump’s favorite political tool, his rallies, from
which he draws energy and coveted voter information.
And eight months from Election Day, it has endangered his best
reelection argument — a strong economy — just as Joe Biden, the
candidate emerging from the Democratic field, seems poised to take
advantage of a political landscape upended by the virus.
“Crises of varying degrees produce fascinating and often consequential
elections: Think 1860, 1932, 1968, 2008. Such races turn on questions
of chaos versus order and favor the candidate who seems to offer the
best chance of bringing order to the country in times of uncertainty,”
presidential historian Jon Meacham said.
“What’s interesting about those examples is that incumbents, or
candidates of the incumbent party, lost all of them.”
One of Trump’s most potent political assets is his ability to read a
room, or a moment, often eschewing long-term planning for
But he was slow to come to grips with the threat posed by the
coronavirus as it exploded in China, distracted by impeachment and
unwilling to scare the markets by stirring panic or upsetting his
trading partner in Beijing, Xi Jinping.
The virus first spooked Trump while he was in India two weeks ago, as
a 1,000-point drop on Wall Street caused him to pepper aides with
questions about the markets even as he was feted in New Delhi.
But after he returned to the states, Trump continued to play down the
virus, lashing into officials, including Health and Human Services
Secretary Alex Azar, for talking up the possible severity of the
He urged other aides, including Kellyanne Conway and senior economic
adviser Larry Kudlow, to go on television and preach confidence,
according to five White House officials and Republicans close to the
They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not
authorized to discuss private conversations.
And as he has so often done before, Trump believed that through his
force of will and ability to dominate a news cycle, he could alleviate
the crisis, taking to both Twitter and the White House briefing room
podium to dismiss the threat.
“It will go away, just stay calm,” Trump said Tuesday after visiting
Capitol Hill. “Be calm. It’s really working out. And a lot of good
things are going to happen.”
The markets, unlike traditional political foes, have not listened.
And while Trump deemed the media coverage of the virus “a hoax” meant
to create hysteria and tank his poll numbers, it is a harder sell to
ask his supporters to dismiss media reports when they see people in
their own communities getting sick, schools closing and local
drugstores unable to keep hand sanitizer on the shelves.
Infighting erupted within the administration, as Trump blamed and then
sidelined Azar, relegating the health secretary to a secondary role
behind Vice President Mike Pence on the coronavirus task force.
But while Trump empowered Pence and respected medical professionals to
take the lead on briefings, he ignored his advisers’ advice to let the
vice president be the public face of the administration’s response,
according to the officials.
Unable to cede the spotlight, Trump spoke extemporaneously to
reporters at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta
on Friday, requiring the vice president, who addressed the media in
Washington moments later, to correct the president’s misstatements
about the availability of testing kits and the fate of a cruise ship
filled with coronavirus patients.
It was only on Monday, as he was flying from Florida back to
Washington, that the economic severity of the crisis hit home for
Trump, according to three of the officials and advisers.
In one cabin on Air Force One, Matt Gaetz, a Florida GOP congressman
who had accompanied Trump to a series of Orlando fundraisers, had
isolated himself after learning he’d come into contact with someone
infected by the virus.
And on the TV in Trump’s aircraft office, Fox News was broadcasting
dire graphics illustrating the single worst day for stock markets
since the 2008 financial crisis.
By the time the plane touched down at Joint Base Andrews, Trump told
aides he would change tactics and propose a broad economic stimulus to
But the fate of his plan, which included a suspension of the payroll
tax, remained unclear as the week went on and the markets’ roller
coaster ride continued.
“I think that in many ways this has made Trump a wartime president,”
said former campaign communications director Jason Miller.
“This virus has no borders, doesn’t discern between allies and foes
and attacked the nation’s health security and economic security. It is
going to take continued bold action from the president.”
After surviving impeachment, Trump has in earnest remade his White
House staff to focus on reelection, prioritizing loyalty over
Increasingly focused on his campaign, Trump pushed aides to continue
scheduling massive rallies, even as his Democratic foes had begun
But late Wednesday, the White House announced that a trip to Colorado
and Nevada had been cancelled.
At least for now, no rallies were scheduled as a means to blunt the
momentum of his likely general election foe, Biden, who offers himself
as someone uniquely positioned to respond to the coronavirus.
As vice president, Biden helped manage the Ebola outbreak and has long
shown an ability to comfort rattled voters.
Moreover, the Trump campaign believes that scuttling normal political
activity benefits Biden, who tends to draw small rally crowds and has
had some eyebrow-raising moments when interacting with voters.
“This is something that doesn’t hurt and probably actually helps Joe
Biden,” said Eric Trump, the president’s son and frequent campaign
surrogate. “This works for him on all fronts.”
Biden, now in command of the Democratic race after a series of primary
wins Tuesday, has drawn a clear comparison between how he would handle
the crisis and the president’s scattershot approach from the Oval
“At this moment, when there’s so much fear in the country and so much
fear across the world, we need American leadership,” Biden said. “We
need presidential leadership that’s honest, trusted, truthful and
steady, reassuring leadership.”