Trump and his CPAC buddies are crumbling in the face of coronavirus stock market panic

The president's acolytes are now trying to pin it all on the Democrats, bizarrely claiming that impeachment made Covid-19 into an epidemic

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
Friday 28 February 2020 17:17 GMT
Picture: (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

American presidents, for better or worse, are more often than not prisoners of fate. Their fortunes are tied less to their ability to prevent bad things from happening than to how they respond when bad things happen.

It's why perhaps the most indelible images of our chief executives' ability to lead have come at the lowest moments in our country's history. Whether it's George W Bush atop the wreckage of the World Trade Center with a bullhorn, Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office quoting John Gillespie Magee's “High Flight” in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, or Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” from the pulpit of Charleston, South Carolina's Mother Emmanuel church, just 10 days after a white supremacist gunman had murdered nine people who'd been there for a bible study session, those images stay with us.

But images of presidents' leadership failures can be equally indelible upon Americans' collective memory. Examples of those include George W Bush looking at the flooded streets of New Orleans through the window of Air Force One, Jimmy Carter's now-infamous “malaise” speech during the 1979 energy crisis, and our current president, Donald Trump, tossing rolls of paper towels like basketballs to residents of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

It has been the latter of those two categories which Trump sought to avoid Wednesday evening when, for the first time, he took questions from reporters in the White House briefing room. With his Coronavirus Task Force stood behind him, the president attempted to calm the fear and uncertainty over the growing danger posed by Covid-19, which had that day spooked stock markets into one of their worst-performing days since the 2008 financial crisis.

But it was an attempt that completely failed after the president literally put himself front and center amid some of the nation's foremost public health experts, announced that VP Mike Pence would lead the government's response, and contradicted many of the things his own experts said about the crisis.

Having tried and failed to calm the nation, and looking down the barrel of an economic crisis which could derail his chances of remaining in the White House after January 20, 2021, Trump and his allies have returned to the tried-and-true method they've perfected over five years of campaigning and governing: bluster and grievance. After the stock markets closed on another of their worst days since 2008 on Thursday, Trump summoned reporters to the Cabinet Room for an impromptu media availability with a host of Trumpworld characters who'd been invited to an African-American History Month summit later that day.

Though White House officials have forbidden public health experts from speaking publicly without permission from Vice President Pence's office, Trump, despite his total lack of medical training, chose to deliver his own predictions about what healthcare professionals fear will be a growing pandemic.

“It's going to disappear. One day it's like a miracle, it will disappear,” he said, adding that his administration had done an “incredible job” because the US has only 15 reported cases of coronavirus so far, “instead of thousands of people.“

But he immediately contradicted himself by adding that “maybe” the virus would “go away.”

“We'll see what happens. Nobody really knows,” he said.

Trump says that coronavirus is 'just like flu' but it's a 'little bit different'

Asked about the stock markets' precipitous slide, Trump blamed Democrats in Congress and the press (surprise!) for the awful performance of the one economic indicator to which he has seemingly tied his electoral fortunes.

“I think the press has been really out of line,” he said. “We're almost all better, but we just think it would be really nice if we could be recognized by the press fairly.”

He then offered the preposterous suggestion that the stock market slide could be the result of markets pricing in the possibility that he will lose in November.

“I think the markets are also putting that into the equation,” he suggested. At one point, he turned his ire on a obviously pregnant reporter who quietly slipped out of the room after standing for approximately 90 minutes, calling that reporter's network “racist” and adding that it was “pretty pathetic” that the reporter had left.

Trump's aggrieved sensibility was echoed by other prominent figures in the epistemically closed universe of conservative media personalities from whom he draws adulation and advice.

While interviewing John Ratcliffe, the resumé-inflating Texas GOP congressman who Trump had briefly tried to nominate as Director of National Intelligence, Washington Times columnist Charlie Hurt told audience members at the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference that coronavirus was just another example of Democrats “weaponizing” something “very important to national security” against Trump. It is Democrats, he said, who were to blame for anything bad that happens from the pandemic because it first began spreading during the president's impeachment trial.

“To me, one of the most absurd examples is the thing that's happened the last couple of days where you have Chuck Schumer, you have Nancy Pelosi, going after President Trump, claiming that he's not taking the coronavirus seriously because of how much money he asked for from Congress. These are people who have spent three years lying about making up fantasies about Russia and hookers and hotel rooms. and they spent the last six months impeaching a president,” he said. “All the while this pandemic was growing in the middle of all of the impeachment, and then they're going to stop and accuse the president of not taking coronavirus seriously enough, and then the press writes it and they have headlines about this? It's lunacy.”

Hurt's sentiments were echoed by Trump later that night when he took to Twitter to quote a Fox News host who criticized her competitor CNN “for irresponsibly politicizing what should be a unifying battle against a virus that doesn’t choose sides.”

In another tweet quoting the same Fox Host, Trump opined that the press is refusing “to discuss the great job our professionals are doing”. The actual healthcare professionals, however, have been effectively muzzled while Vice President Pence is put in charge; a man who, as governor of Indiana, infamously presided over a 2015 HIV outbreak because he refused to heed the advice of his own public health experts to allow needle exchanges in his state.

Continuing the trend on Friday morning was one of Trump's outside TV advisers, Fox & Friends weekend host Pete Hegseth, who predicted that Democrats will try to “pin [coronavirus] to him like his Katrina moment and make it political.”

Though Carter never uttered the word “malaise” in his infamous 1979 energy crisis speech, that word came to be associated with the speech, and his administration as a whole.

And while Trump and his acolytes may continue to reflexively blame Democrats and the press for the growing feeling of discomfort which the markets — and the American people — are beginning to show over his administration's response to the first real externally induced crisis of his presidency, it is they who are the only ones having difficulty identifying the exact cause.

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