By Daniel W. Drezner / Special to The Washington Post
President Trump has given some very bad interviews as of late. His sit-down with Fox News’ Chris Wallace was bad. His follow-up with “Fox and Friends” produced the “Person, woman, man, camera, TV” meme.
His latest interview with Axios’ Jonathan Swan might be his worst yet, but not for the reasons that everyone is focusing on.
To be fair, there is a lot of material to work with. Trump’s arguments about testing data are ludicrous, and bravo to Swan for injecting the perfect amount of incredulity into his facial and vocal responses to Trump’s ramblings. Similarly, the president’s petulant responses to questions about the late Rep. John Lewis reveal the president to possess the emotional maturity of — surprise! — a toddler.
All that said, however, the most revealing statement that Trump made was not any piece of bluster or misinformation, but his blinkered response to what the United States could do going forward to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic.
At about the seven-and-a-half-minute mark of the interview, Trump claims that the virus is under control. Pushed by Swan’s flabbergasted response that more than 1,000 people are dying a day, Trump finally responds with: “It is what it is, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it.”
This is an astonishing statement for several reasons. If what Trump is saying is true, then America is good and truly screwed. As Ed Yong notes in an Atlantic cover story, the United States is responsible for a quarter of all infections and deaths in the world, despite comprising only 4 percent of the world’s population. Maybe the United States in 2020 is hard-wired to be more vulnerable to this kind of pandemic. Regardless, Trump’s sentiment would suggest that the country is in for a rough ride until vaccines are readily available.
Of course, what Trump is saying is not true at all. His numbers were badly off, of course. More importantly, we know that the federal government is not doing all it can do. We know from Vanity Fair’s Katherine Eban that back in the spring, Trump’s most trusted lieutenants did nothing because they did not view Covid-19 as a national problem: “Because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically. ‘The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,’ said the expert.”
The Trump White House has repeatedly rebuffed experts on reducing risky activity. Trump held an indoor rally in Tulsa despite a rise in the infection rate there, possibly contributing to the death of Herman Cain. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out guidelines on reopening schools, the Trump White House blasted them as too onerous.
On Tuesday an NPR/Ipsos poll revealed that “two-thirds of respondents said they believe the U.S. is handling the pandemic worse than other countries, and most want the federal government to take extensive action to slow the spread of the coronavirus, favoring a top-down approach to reopening schools and businesses.” Clearly, the country does not believe that the federal government is under control as much as it can be under control.
Why does Trump think he’s done everything he can? He has an obvious political motivation to say it. Do not, however, underestimate his toddler-like desire to avoid bad news. Politico’s Ryan Lizza and Daniel Lippman report that some officials believe the new White House team “is shielding Trump from how dire his situation is.” One official described Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and his underlings as “Kool-Aid drinkers.” Mary L. Trump, the president’s niece, suggested that the president was not processing any of the bad news: “He’s deflecting, he’s projecting, he’s denying.”
My Washington Post colleagues Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Yasmeen Abutaleb paint an even more disturbing picture: “more than five months into the pandemic, Trump has grown exhausted by the dismal coronavirus news and just wants the issue to be behind him … two former officials said, adding he now associates [White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah] Birx with the failures.”
The new Trump campaign message is that Americans will not be safe in Joe Biden’s America. After watching this president throwing up his hands and implicitly admitting defeat in combating the novel coronavirus, however, it is difficult to imagine how we could be less safe than we are in Donald Trump’s America.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University