Coronavirus Shifts Trump to a 'Wartime' Footing
The World Health Organization declared a global health pandemic and Tom Hanks announced he is sick and the NBA suspended its season. And then the president, from behind the Resolute Desk, delivered a somber, measured speech filled with significant steps the nation will take in response.
The world, at the current moment, has turned a bit upside down. It is all a stark reversal of where things were just weeks, even days, ago, including how Trump now talks about the coronavirus.
Bombast was not on the teleprompter Wednesday night, and the president stuck to his script.
“From the beginning of time, nations and people have faced unforeseen challenges, including large-scale and very dangerous health threats,” he said. “This is the way it always was and always will be. It only matters how you respond, and we are responding with great speed and professionalism.”
That the president would categorize the coronavirus as one of those “very dangerous health threats” is in itself a significant change. He tweeted on Feb. 24 that “the Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.” The elevated tone caught at least one senior White House staffer by surprise.
The aide went to dinner before the president started talking. “I come out” after eating, the staffer texted RealClearPolitics, “and no one can go to Europe. What?”
It was a sharp pivot to a “wartime” footing, made evident in prime time.
Trump promised to suspend travel from Europe to the U.S., with the exception of the United Kingdom, effective at midnight on Friday.
He said that he would take emergency action to provide compensation for hourly workers who either cannot go to work or are caring for the sick.
He ordered the Small Business Administration to provide loans for companies affected by the virus, and called on Congress to make an additional $50 billion available.
He instructed the Treasury Department to extend tax deadlines for those affected by the illness.
He lobbied lawmakers, again, to cut payroll taxes.
The president was far less concerned not so long ago. He told a crowd in Charleston, S.C., toward the end of February that the hysteria around the virus was a “hoax” whipped up by his opposition to hurt his reelection.
And he continued on that theme, tweeting Monday that “the Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.”
Then his coronavirus task force said publicly that things were going to get worse before they got better. The United States has moved from a containment to a mitigation phase, an attempt not to stop the illness but to lessen its casualties. The number of cases will not go down like the president promised, the surgeon general said. “Unfortunately, you're going to see more deaths,” Dr. Jerome Adams told reporters. “But that doesn't mean that we should panic.”
Vice President Pence, who oversees the task force, has briefed the press almost daily, itself another change after the daily briefing from the White House went extinct. The group’s assessment has been that this is different from the flu and that Americans need to take precautions immediately. And so also says the president.
Throughout his time in office, Trump has battled man-made challenges. He struggled to repeal Obamacare and fought against the special investigation and weathered impeachment. All three had known opposition that could be belittled and battled against. Not so with a virus. This, one of his former top advisers told RCP, has altered the course of his presidency.
Trump is now a wartime president, said Jason Miller, who served as communications director during the last general election. Pathogens are unlike partisans, and the response will define his presidency.
“This is a war unlike anything we’ve faced in American history,” Miller told RCP, “and it’s going to take an unconventional President who isn’t trapped by preconceived notions of doing things the way they’ve always been done to lead us through this.”
A president who keeps partisanship at the top of his mind and who seemed incapable of abandoning that predisposition, said Wednesday night it is time to “put politics aside.”
“Our future remains brighter than anyone can imagine,” Trump said before closing. “Acting with compassion and love, we will heal the sick, care for those in need, help our fellow citizens, and emerge from this challenge stronger and more unified than ever before.”