As a growing number of states issue “shelter in place” orders, businesses shutter and Americans everywhere are told to limit outings and practise social distancing, Donald Trump may be having second thoughts.
For more than a week, Trump administration officials and state leaders have been talking of the need to “bend the curve” of the coronavirus outbreak, limiting the spread of the illness to prevent the American healthcare system from being overwhelmed. The steep economic toll, however, is becoming increasingly apparent.
Last week Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin predicted that US unemployment could reach 20%. On Thursday the Treasury Department will release last week’s new jobless claims, and the numbers are sure to be in the millions. A Goldman Sachs report estimated that the nation’s gross domestic product in the second quarter could shrink by 24%, dwarfing the previous 10% record decline in 1958.
In the late hours of Sunday night, the president tweeted – in all caps – that he has some concerns.
“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” Trump wrote, using the all-caps he reserves for matters of apparent urgency. “AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
The 15-day period the president referenced began on 16 March, when the White House announced new Centers for Disease Control guidelines encouraging all Americans to work from home when possible and limit gatherings of more than 10 people.
As is often the case, the president’s tweet may have been prompted by watching a segment on Fox News. On Sunday evening, host (and former advisor to then-British PM David Cameron) Steve Hilton warned that an economic collapse would itself result in avoidable deaths and other hardships – that the “cure” could be worse than the “disease”.
“Our ruling class and their TV mouthpieces whipping up fear over this virus, they can afford an indefinite shutdown,” Hilton said. “Working Americans can’t. They’ll be crushed by it.”
Trump’s faithful may be inching back to the view they held a few weeks ago, that the virus is being used by the president’s political enemies to damage his political standing by damaging the economy.
On Monday morning the president continued on this theme, with a flurry of retweets of accounts (some with only a few hundred followers) who were calling for Americans to be allowed to return to work after the 15-day period ended.
Former top Trump economic advisor Gary Cohn also joined the chorus, albeit somewhat obliquely.
“Is it time to start discussing the need for a date when the economy can turn back on?” he asked on Twitter. “Policymakers have taken bold public health and economic actions to address the coronavirus, but businesses need clarity. Otherwise they will assume the worst and make decisions to survive.”
This conclusion among conservatives is not universal, however. On Sunday Steve Bannon, a former senior Trump campaign and White House staffer who has repeatedly fallen in and out of favour with the president, advocated for a “hammer” style imposition of rigorous separation.
“Drop the hammer, don’t mitigate the virus, don’t spread the curve, shatter the curve,” he said during a Fox News morning interview. “Go full hammer on the virus right now with a full shutdown, use the stimulus to bridge the economic crisis.”
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who frequently has the president’s ear, issued his own warning, garnished with a bit of praise.
“President Trump’s best decision was stopping travel from China early on,” he writes. “I hope we will not undercut that decision by suggesting we back off aggressive containment policies within the United States.”
Graham somewhat misrepresented the administration’s 31 January order that only limited entry by non-US-resident foreign nationals who had been in China in the previous two weeks, but the move has been touted by the president as evidence that he acted early to deal with the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, others in the Trump administration continue to stress the need for rigorous social distancing – which suggests that there could be growing divisions between medical professionals in the administration and those whose focus on the economic impact.
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On Monday morning, for instance, Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned that the worst was yet to come.
“I want America to understand, this week, it’s going to get bad,” he said in a television interview. “And right now there are not enough people out there who are taking this seriously.”
Any move by the administration to ease guidelines could also set up a clash with state governors, a growing number of whom are moving toward greater, not lesser, restrictions on movement and gatherings.
One of the much-touted strengths of the US federalist system of government is it allows states – the so-called “laboratories of democracy” – freedom to devise their own policies and solutions to pressing political concerns. That system has never been tested quite like this, however, as some governors warn of the risks of a patchwork response to a national health crisis
The president underlined this potential for conflict in a tweet on Sunday afternoon swiping at Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, who had earlier criticised the administration’s coronavirus response.
@JBPritzker, Governor of Illinois, and a very small group of certain other Governors, together with Fake News @CNN & Concast (MSDNC), shouldn’t be blaming the Federal Government for their own shortcomings,” he wrote. “We are there to back you up should you fail, and always will be!”
The president, it appears, is being pulled in multiple directions and, as he often does, is airing his internal dialogue on Twitter.
At his press conference on Monday, he seemed to be tilting away from his medical advisers.
“If it were up to the doctors, they may say let’s keep it shut down – let’s shut down the entire world,” he said.
“You can’t do that with a country – especially the No. 1 economy anywhere in the world.”
He has described himself as a “wartime president” doing battle against the spread of this virus, but he’s also spent much of the past year building a November re-election campaign around the claim that he has presided over record economic growth and low unemployment – both of which seem to be evaporating.
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And not only is Trump looking at this as a president whose re-election could hinge on an economic rebound, he is also a businessman watching his life’s work – his empire of resorts, hotels and golf courses, some of which were reportedly already in financial trouble – face an existential crisis.
“At a certain point, we have to get open and have to get moving,” Trump said on Monday, referring to the US economy.
“We don’t want to lose these companies, we don’t want to lose these workers, we want to take care of our workers, so we’ll be doing something I think relatively quickly.”
The three-plus years of Trump’s administration have already had enough turmoil and drama – much of it self-created – to fill an entire two terms.
The coronavirus outbreak is a presidency-defining crisis, however – one that, barring the kind of miracle treatment Trump has at times hoped for, appears to offer options that range from bad to worse.