Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN- CNN.COM
(CNN)Rarely has a president shown himself to be so unequal to a tragic national emergency.
Hundreds of Americans are dying daily and tens of thousands are getting infected from a once-in-a-century virus. States and cities are closing down again, threatening to trigger a ruinous new economic slump. Doctors and nurses lack sufficient protective gear as they battle the deadly pathogen. And with testing swamped by waves of disease, one top official is warning of the “the most difficult time” ever for US public health this winter.
Yet this is what is on Donald Trump’s mind: Joe Biden didn’t fix the country’s roads and bridges, crowds of bikers and boaters in MAGA hats prove that election polls are wrong, and the border wall is almost finished (except it isn’t). Oh, and by the way, where is Hunter Biden?
Trump struck all the wrong notes on Tuesday, a day when Florida, now the world’s coronavirus epicenter, recorded its highest-ever Covid-19 death toll, and Texas broke its record for single day infections. The President offered denial and delusion at a White House appearance that even by his standards was a rambling, grievance-fueled mess.
What is needed from Trump and his administration is a plan to tackle the most relentless national challenge since World War II, consoling words to memorialize the 136,000 Americans who are already dead and the thousands destined to follow, and the rhetoric to summon the will to triumph over this invisible enemy.
All Trump could offer on Tuesday was self-pity, incoherence and indifference. He came across as a leader living in a different dimension from his people and their fear and suffering and uncertainty about what the coming months will bring.
This is a President who has demonstrably failed to beat back the virus and has long since stopped trying to lead the country out of the darkness. He resorts to boasting about inconclusive steps he took months ago — like limiting travel from China — that have no relevance to the current moment, and he complains he’s not getting enough credit for his performance.
He’s also mining divisive political seams he thinks helped him in the past. In a CBS interview on Tuesday, he insisted that more White people than Black people are killed in police violence, dealing an insult to the national soul searching about race following the death of George Floyd.
“We could go on for days,” Trump said at one point in his Tuesday tirade and for a while it seemed that he might in the blasting July heat of the Rose Garden, where journalists sat wearing masks, socially distanced and in bemused silence.
Trump veers off his China script
The ostensible point of Trump’s Rose Garden appearance was to unveil a barrage of new measures to punish China for its suppression of freedoms in Hong Kong — which gave the President a new chance to fulminate against Beijing for sending a “plague” to the US despite his earlier fawning praise for how President Xi Jinping had handled the pandemic.
But it wasn’t long before the session turned into the kind of negative, rally-style performance that Trump pines for, with normal campaign events severely curtailed by the pandemic.
He slammed Biden for his record on crime, trade, China, infrastructure, the economy, the military, and at one point suggested that hundreds of thousands could be dead by now had the former vice president been in charge when the coronavirus struck. Bizarrely, Trump also slammed the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee for his role in the Obama administration’s mobilization against the H1N1 virus, which was far more efficient and cost tens of thousands fewer lives than Trump’s missteps over the past few months.
Trump has been charging that Biden is mentally impaired and is not fit for the Oval Office. But at times, it was the President who appeared to be veering into confusion and incoherence. At one point he appeared to argue that his rival’s vow to sign the Paris climate accord would lead to US office buildings being constructed without windows. And he suggested Biden wouldn’t even know how to define the word “carbon.”
In another extraordinary twist on Tuesday, the White House stepped up what is now a full frontal assault against the government’s top infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been telling the truth about the dire turn taken by a pandemic that is now infecting twice as many people per day as it was several months ago. In a USA Today op-ed, Trump’s top trade adviser and anti-China polemicist Peter Navarro wrote that the respected scientist “has a good bedside manner with the public, but he has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on.”
If nothing else, the President’s wild appearance gave a whole new meaning to the notion of incumbent presidents running for a second term on a Rose Garden strategy by staging a highly unusual campaign-style speech to rail against his opponent from the White House.
In recent days, whispers have emerged from inside Trump’s camp that aides are worried he is yet to settle on a strong campaign message and that his reelection effort is meandering. If there was a second term manifesto hidden in Trump’s digressions and bitterness on Tuesday, it was very well disguised.
The President had an uncanny feel for the resentment at the Washington establishment and the perceived indifference towards political elites and political correctness at a time of sometimes bewildering racial and social change in 2016. Perhaps that mix can carry him to a second term. But after Tuesday’s showing, it will be impossible to argue he won a second term based on a reasoned and orderly road map out of the crisis.
The mystery of Trump’s missing strategy
Trump’s unwillingness to face up to the coronavirus nightmare that is staring the rest of the nation in the face leaves the impression that the man who vowed in his 2016 Republican National Convention speech “I Alone Can Fix It” long ago ran out of ideas on the virus. That speech horrified Trump’s critics because of its dystopian vision. But at least Trump looked strong, and was dictating the political winds. In his wandering monologue on Tuesday, he looked lost, a shadow of the man who burned down the Republican Party and the Washington political establishment.
He appeared to be what he is — a president who is flailing after being cruelly overtaken by events. Such an image — that beset President Jimmy Carter in the last summer before his reelection bid amid the Iran hostage crisis — is a perilous one for first-term presidents.
The mystery of Trump’s behavior in recent months is that it seems unlikely he can come from behind against Biden unless he can find a way to suppress the virus, or at least give Americans hope that some semblance of normal life can resume soon.
But more and more, it seems like Trump has played his best card — his demand several months ago for states to open up and revive the economy — which has been exposed as a backfired gamble as the pandemic races across Southern and Western states. And his go-to strategies of inciting divisions, stirring cultural warfare and sowing confusion with misinformation don’t seem to be working — at least if the polls are right.
The President did his best to talk up his “transition to greatness,” but the idea is so divorced from the awful reality of the last few weeks — with the average daily rate of new infections hitting 60,000 — that his words only served to display his own considerable remove from reality.
“I think you’re going to have some good news very, very quickly having to do with the vaccines,” Trump said, at about the same time that Fauci said that it could take a year-to-a-year-and-a-half for the world to get a Covid-19 vaccine, that even then may not be completely effective.
Despite the rolling shutdowns in cities across the country, certain to throw many Americans who work in the service, tourism and transit industries out of work again, the President stuck by his predictions of a riotous return to economic growth.
But absent any credible plans to stem Covid-19’s march, all the President has to sell right now is hope.
“I think by Election Day you’re going to see some incredible numbers. The third quarter is going to be really good, the fourth quarter is going to be great, but next year is going to be one of the best economic years,” he insisted.
“So hopefully I’ll be able to be the President where we say, ‘Look at the great job I did.'”