At the Podium, Trump Campaigns … for Joe Biden

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President Trump is loving his response to the pandemic sweeping across the country. You may have heard he gives himself top grades at briefings where all sorts of disinformation, petty attacks, contradictions, blame, self-praise, and confusion are served up almost daily. Yes, read the transcripts. It's not clear yet, but soon will be, just how much time in a critical window the U.S. government lost in protecting its citizens from devastating illness, death and economic destruction. But one American Trump is helping a lot is former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Forget all the wacky stuff Trump said before last week -- when he finally “got serious” – such comments as how he didn’t want anyone tested on the marooned cruise ship because he didn’t want “the numbers to go up,” but “everyone can get tested” who wants to; it’s all gonna disappear like a miracle; President Xi of China was doing a great job handling it there; and “we have tremendous control over it.” Trump denied knowing he had dismantled the pandemic team within the National Security Agency, while less than a month before he admitted he hadn’t needed them and you can get people back quickly when you do need them. He has said a vaccine is coming “soon” several times despite experts repeatedly insisting approval of one wouldn’t happen before 12 to 18 months. Doozies, all.

But ever since last Monday, the one day Trump rose to the tone his staff and allies and fellow Republicans had been hoping for, when he called the virus “very bad” and admitted it could be a danger until August or beyond, he has reverted back to attacks and disinformation and blame or unrealistic rosy assessments that belie the damage his initial denial will cost the country. 

Someone wrote a very unifying script for Sunday evening’s briefing, but as tradition would hold, Trump still managed a dig at Sen. Mitt Romney, a lie about how he didn’t know what was happening in China despite his intelligence briefings on the outbreak in Wuhan, and a snap at a reporter who asked about potential Trump family stock trades related to the outbreak, calling it “a nasty question.”

This past week brought awful news about how administration officials were tracking, and warning about, the virus throughout January and February and recommending action that wasn’t taken. A New York Times report showed the administration had simulated a pandemic similar in scope last year in an exercise titled “Crimson contagion,” in which experts “understood its potential trajectory” and learned from its results “just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.” While South Korea had its first diagnosis of a person infected by COVID-19 the same day the United States did, that nation escalated testing immediately and contained the spread. Meanwhile, Americans’ nightmare has only begun and we await peak infection that could come as late as May. 

Tom Bossert, Trump’s former homeland security adviser, on Sunday described the damage caused by the delay, saying on ABC’s “This Week”: “We needed more case ascertainment in the beginning. Because the plan, going into this, was to target these clampdowns into places that need to be clamped down. Because we didn't have that testing capacity, and because it came on us quickly, we ended up shutting down the entire country, economically but through social distancing, all at once.”

That’s not the same pandemic President Trump describes. In the last week he has said:

  • “We’ve done a fantastic job from just about every standpoint.” 
  • “We have tremendous testing capacity.”
  • “You have some smart leaders in the world and everybody’s doing it the way we’re doing it.”
  • “We have now a great system and it’s almost fully in gear, but it’s able to test millions of people. But we inherited a broken old, frankly, a terrible system. We fixed it and we’ve done a great job and we haven’t been given the credit that we deserve, that I can tell you.”
  • “First of all, governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work, and they are doing a lot of this work.  The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.  The governors are supposed to be — as with testing, the governors are supposed — are supposed to be doing it.”
  • And the virus: “Could have — could have been stopped — could have been stopped pretty easily if we had known — if everybody had known about it a number of months before people started reading about it.”  When a reporter followed up: “You did say a few days ago, though, you did have a sense that this was a pandemic, that it was coming. So why was the United States not prepared with more testing and supplies?” Trump then reversed: “We were very prepared.  The only thing we weren’t prepared for was the media. The media has not treated it fairly.”

Trump also spoke of an order of “massive amounts of ventilators” that no one can locate. Biden, whose team has publicly pondered the difficulty of campaigning, let alone fundraising, without human contact, has already released at least two powerful ads illustrating Trump’s failure to meet the moment.  He will have plenty of new material as things deteriorate in the weeks to come. Why? Because Trump won’t stop stepping on rakes at the podium, his happy place.  

Without rallies, Trump can no longer carry on his televised TV shows featuring adoring throngs cheering him in gigantic arena as he rails against enemies real and perceived and boasts about his accomplishments -- also real and perceived. So the podium is where Trump now thrives, and campaigns, issuing official proclamations and announcements of action -- or rambling on about his business acumen, which would recommend health care workers reuse masks by cleaning them with liquid sanitizer. It’s the only show Trump now has to star in, replacing not only rallies but chopper talk outside Marine One and those Oval Office monologues he indulges in when a foreign leader is held hostage in the seat next to him.  Like death and taxes, the only certainty is that the man needs a microphone on a daily basis and cannot step away and let Vice President Mike Pence and the experts speak to us instead. 

No matter what happens in the days and weeks to come in this crisis, Trump’s staying at the podium. And the Joe Biden ads are going to write themselves. 

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 



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