A Changed Trump Declares War on Coronavirus

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Donald Trump declared war on Wednesday and then declared himself a war-time president in the last year of his first term in office. The opposition? The COVID-19 pandemic that has killed at least 8,900 worldwide, including 135 Americans.

“It is the invisible enemy,” Trump said of the coronavirus, before pledging to defeat it and predicting that “we are going to do it even faster than we thought.”

The United States is adopting an aggressive footing to match, Trump made clear, saying he has invoked the Defense Production Act to manufacture necessary supplies. The federal government will soon rush production of masks, ventilators and other medical equipment that health professionals worry has been in short supply.

Trump also promised to “very soon” invoke another measure, 42 US Code 265, that grants the surgeon general the authority to prohibit migration into the United States from certain countries deemed medically dangerous. The order could be used to prohibit asylum-seekers and migrants from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, though Trump insisted that “No, we’re not going to close it.”

Another dramatic measure: Military hospital ships. Trump announced that he had dispatched one to the coast of New York and another to California.

All of it comes at the direction of a president who, not too long ago, seemed to downplay the coronavirus as it swept through China. He told reporters on Jan. 22 that “we have it under control.” He tweeted on Jan. 24 that “it will all work out well.” He told his supporters at a Michigan rally on Jan. 30 that “we have very little problem in this country at this moment — five. And those people are all recuperating successfully.”

The World Health Organization, that same day, declared “a public-health emergency of international concern.” On March 11, WHO upgraded its assessment to a global pandemic.

But something has undoubtedly changed in the administration and in Trump himself.

His incoming chief of staff, Mark Meadows, temporarily self-quarantined after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. The president made a rare Oval Office address. He called a national emergency. He has shut down non-essential travel, first between the United States and China, and more recently to and from Europe. Now, he has declared a war.

It was a long time coming.

Jason Miller, a communications adviser on the president’s 2016 campaign, began calling for Trump to take a more aggressive footing on Jan 31. The global health crisis, he warned later in February, “is what makes a wartime president. We’re now in a 21st century war.”

And that battle won’t happen in a vacuum. Miller predicted that “the November 2020 election could be a decision on who is best to keep us safe in the face of this coronavirus.” This much has proven true. Current Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden criticized the administration’s response to the outbreak last week and laid out in a speech his vision for how a president ought to handle a pandemic.

The crisis has continued to batter the economy.

As the number of infected and dead increases, fear has rippled through global markets. Talk of a possible recession is so rampant that Trump had to address the worries of his own treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, who recently told lawmakers that 20% unemployment could be on the horizon. “That’s an absolute total worst-case scenario,” he said. “We’re nowhere near it.”

Investors didn’t listen. As haggling on Capitol Hill continued over a relief package that could inject as much as $1 trillion into the markets, Wall Street tumbled. Shortly after the president concluded his remarks, the S&P 500 dropped another 7% and triggered another temporary halt to trading.

While Trump wages war on the faceless pandemic, his rhetoric toward China has gotten increasingly aggressive. Vice President Pence refers to the illness as coronavirus, but the president has started calling it “the Chinese virus.”

The term hasn’t gone over well with his critics, who accuse him of racist rhetoric. But for Trump, it is just another way to push back against a regime he has long considered an economic enemy. “China was putting out information, which was false, that our military gave this to them,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “That was false,” he continued. “And rather than having an argument, I said I have to call it where it came from. It did come from China, so I think it's a very accurate term.”

Still, a reporter pushed, isn’t the term racist? “It’s not racist, not at all. It comes from China,” he replied, referencing the fact the illness originated in Wuhan, China.

Even in a crisis, this president doesn’t often pull his punches. Critics complain. Trump doubles down. Norms change, but the brash New Yorker continues his old ways. The wartime rhetoric flows naturally from an executive who likes big, bold proclamations.

But his pivot to a more aggressive stand against COVID-19 is welcomed.

“I think the last day or so has seen a more intense focus by the president on the problems we face, but he has not been willing to speak to the public about the nature of the threat to the capacity of our health system,” said Yuval Levin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“He has focused his rhetoric where he is comfortable: on the borders, and on asserting he has always been on top of things and everything will be fine,” Levin added. But something had to change, and he told RCP, “the language of mobilization (like wartime footing) is right. I hope it comes to be backed by action, and that the White House arranges its own decision-making process accordingly.”

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