Trump's coronavirus response answers 2016 questions on handling crisis

Analysis: President has instincts of a 'salesman' and has shown little interest in being a 'sober truth-teller' amid virus fears

Trump brags about his 'natural ability' for science

The coronavirus outbreak has provided an answer to a question that was a giant question mark during the 2016 presidential campaign: How would Donald Trump respond in a bona fide crisis?

His words and actions over the last few days show a president most interested in body counts and his own re-election, rejecting science and dismissing sober and serious warnings from his own public health advisers.

From his wild Friday afternoon gaggle with reporters at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta to his two rounds at one of his south Florida golf clubs as Vice President Mike Pence led the federal government's response to his posing for selfies during dinners at his Mar-a-Lago resort to his dismissive Monday morning tweet storm brushing off both the virus and a related stock market drop, Mr Trump is redefining presidential crisis management.

Rather than providing advice on how Americans might avoid contracting or spreading the virus, Mr Trump has suggested coronavirus patients go to work despite the risk to their coworkers and others. Rather than provide his fellow citizens with data from typically trusted sources like the World Health organisation, he has rejected its mortality rate estimates.

In a Monday morning tweet storm from Florida, the president again contradicted his public health team's messages on the Sunday morning political shows and Monday's news programs that coronavirus is a serious ailment even if the overall risk to Americans is relatively "low."

"So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on," Mr Trump wrote before all but rejecting his team's warnings: "At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!"

That came three days after his performance at CDC headquarters, during which he was at times nonchalant with his hands in the pockets of the khaki slacks he had worn to tour tornado damage in Tennessee and aggressive in rejecting reporters' questions at other times.

He openly contradicted senior CDC and other officials who also spoke to reporters there, and referred to Washington state Governor Jay Inslee, who had criticised the federal virus response, as a "snake." As reporters inquired about the availability of testing kits and work on a potential vaccine, he touted the television ratings for his re-election town hall last Thursday night.

"And how was the show last night? Did it get good ratings, by the way?" he snapped at a reporter who had asked about possible steps he might take to ward off a virus-triggered economic slowdown. "I heard it broke all ratings records, but maybe that's wrong. That's what they told me. I don't know. I can't imagine that."

Such self-promotion and biting sarcasm would have been avoided by his predecessors. But the actions now merely fall into his unprecedented "modern-day presidential" approach to the job.

"He has the instincts of a salesman and cheerleader, not a sober truth-teller, and he regards (or regarded) the stock market as the best indicator of his job performance – whence the happy-talk that has characterised his response up to now," said Bill Galston, a former Clinton White House aide.

But does Mr Trump possess the skills and mindset necessary to calm worried citizens and markets?

"He cannot spin his way out of this crisis; he must manage the country's way out. This will call for dimensions of skill and character that he has never displayed, and probably lacks," said Mr Galston, now with the nonpartisan Brookings Institution.

At the White House, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar contended the economy's fundamentals are strong enough to ward off a slowdown while Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham accused Democrats and media outlets of "using this as a tool to politicize things and to scare people. It's not responsible. This is not the time for this."

At one point in Atlanta, a reporter challenged his contention that estimates like the expected US mortality rate actually is lower than publicly released because many virus victims will get better on their own without ever seeing a doctor and being added to the number of confirmed cases. Mr Trump responded by declaring himself the country's scientist in chief.

"I like this stuff. I really get it," he bragged, offering as his lone evidence a "great, super-genius uncle" who was a professor as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "People are really surprised I understand this stuff. ... Every one of these doctors said, 'How do you know so much about this?' Maybe I have a natural ability."

With the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 indexes losing over 4 per cent of their respective values before the lunch hour on Monday, Mr Trump again showed his natural ability of trying to avert political damage by simply finding someone else to blame.

Trump says he'd like passengers to stay on cruise ship

"Saudi Arabia and Russia are arguing over the price and flow of oil. That, and the Fake News, is the reason for the market drop!" the president tweeted.

With that post, Mr Trump was looking for scapegoats rather than solutions. And Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics, said Monday there are "plenty of things" he could do to try and avoid an election-year recession. One would be to "call [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and say, 'What can we do?'"

Only that Mr Trump and Ms Pelosi are not on speaking terms. The White House announced on Sunday he is skipping the annual St Patrick's Day luncheon because, in a spokesman's words, the California Democrat "has chosen to tear this nation apart with her actions and her rhetoric."

Only that those country's tussle began in recent days; US and global stock markets began to tumble days before.

Jittery investors and others will be closely looking for any indication out of a Monday afternoon White House meeting between Trump and his economic team of whether Mr Trump believes the fears from the virus -- if not the sickness itself -- are serious enough to warrant a government stimulus of some sort. With no stock bounce back in sight, anything Mr Trump might propose or implement would "go a long way to stimulate the economy," Mr Zandi of Moody's said.

That session comes three days after the president essentially told all Americans to consider his words the only ones that matter on the outbreak, declaring of his self-proclaimed scientific prowess: "Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president."

Voters will decide that in just over eight months – and with the coronavirus outbreak showing no signs of slowing, his management of the federal response seems a big part of the decision they will make on whether to give him a second term.

If the general election comes down to, in large part, a referendum on the incumbent's virus response, it could boost former Vice President Joe Biden, now the Democratic presidential frontrunner whom former President Barack Obama deployed to quell a number of domestic and global crises.

"The country is watching, the general election is looming," said Brookings' Mr Galston, "and [Mr Trump] is likely to face a man known for his decency and experience."

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