WHO attack is yet more deflection by Trump

Rather than take responsibility, the US president has looked for scapegoats

There was one topic that did not feature in the hour-long tirade launched by President Donald Trump in the White House on Easter Monday: the 24,000 Americans who have lost their lives from coronavirus.

On Monday, Mr Trump used the forum of a press conference, billed as an information briefing on coronavirus, to present a campaign-style defence of his own performance and an attack on the media.

The daily briefings that now structure the day of many Americans who are now confined to their homes due to Covid-19 were one potential silver lining of the coronavirus crisis. Having overseen the demise of the daily White House press briefing, Trump and his team have returned to the press room to face questions from the much-reduced press corps who are subject to strict social distancing measures.

But as the weeks have gone on, the briefings have morphed into platforms for self-promotion by the president, a primetime substitute for the campaign rallies he thrives on but have been cancelled due to the pandemic.


Easter message

Monday’s press conference followed a particularly active day on Twitter by the president, who has been holed up in the White House for more than a month. In the morning, the president issued an Easter message: “Throughout this difficult period, we have witnessed the core tenets of Christianity – love, compassion, and kindness – reflected in the many acts of courage, generosity, and caring of the American people.” Within a few hours he was lashing out at the “corruption and dishonesty in the Lamestream media,” on Twitter, criticising in particular a New York Times article outlining his delayed response to the coronavirus threat.

By Monday, the president was clearly in combative mode as he entered the room. While previous briefings have begun with the president outlining the government’s measures as he reads from a prepared script, this time he began with off-the-cuff comments. Within minutes, Dr Anthony Fauci had been beckoned to the podium to clarify comments he had made on CNN suggesting that earlier action could have saved lives.

For almost an hour, the president sparred with media, claiming that “everything we did was right,” in handling the virus.

In an unusual move, he played a video montage of TV and audio clips extolling his virtues. Most cable networks in the US broke away from the coverage at this point, as the selectively edited clips were played. Not included in the montage were the many times he belittled the threat of the virus, or dismissed Democratic criticism of his handling of the pandemic as a “hoax”.

As the briefing continued he clashed with reporters. “You’re so disgraceful . . . You know you are a fake, you know that, your whole network, the way you cover it is fake,” he said in one altercation with a female CBS reporter.

“Enough,” he said to another, shutting her down.

Vintage Trump

In many respects, Monday’s performance by the president was vintage Trump. Some of his familiar characteristics were on display: his defensiveness, obsession with his media coverage, his narcissism.

While a public health crisis of this kind calls for compassion, consistency and leadership from political leaders, Trump has taken the opposite track. Rather than take responsibility for dismissing the threat of the virus in the early weeks, he has looked for scapegoats: first China, as he labelled Covid-19 the “Chinese virus”; this week, the media and the World Health Organization. While there are concerns about the efficacy of the organisation, his decision to halt funding for the body at a time when the world in the midst of a global pandemic is another example of Trump deflecting from his own shortcomings.

Trump has also introduced a new line of argument in recent days. He insisted that presidents have “ultimate authority,” ignoring the constitutional reality of America’s federal system that respects states’ rights.

“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s going to be.” Ultimately, legal experts agree that Trump does not have overall authority to reopen states as he has claimed.

Despite numerous examples showing that Mr Trump minimised the threat of coronavirus until mid-March, whether his delayed response will affect his showing in November’s presidential election is another question. Trump’s uncomfortable relationship with facts seems not to have perturbed the bulk of his supporters so far in his presidency. There is no evidence to suggest that this will change in the coming months. A Gallup poll showed that his ratings jumped to 49 per cent last month, the highest of his presidency, though has since slipped. Another factor that may be in his favour is that the areas of America most affected by coronavirus are urban areas that tend to vote Democrat, while rural, Republican-leaning states are affected less. The Republican mantra of individual rights and minimal government intervention may also fit with Trump’s strategy as he tries to reopen the country.

Seven months is a long time in politics, however, and there are some concerning signs for Trump. The frightening job numbers in recent weeks, for example, appear to be hitting states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio which swung for Trump in 2016.

Democratic candidates performed exceptionally well in Wisconsin’s state elections last week, despite widespread acceptance that the expectation of low Democrat turnout was one reason the Republican-controlled legislature held the election in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a worrying sign for Trump, Democrat Jill Karofsky defeated a Republican incumbent who had been backed by Trump for a seat on the state Supreme Court. With Joe Biden almost certain to face Mr Trump in November, the current crisis may play to the former vice-president’s strengths. His compassion and political experience may be enough to sway voters in November.

Suzanne Lynch is Washington Correspondent