As the coronavirus outbreak spreads, Trump focuses on the stock market?

In the midst of a public-health emergency, Trump should be focused on the emergency itself, not its impact on Wall Street.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump talks to reporters at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on Feb. 18, 2020.Evan Vucci / AP

In mid-November, as the impeachment effort against Donald Trump advanced, the president published a tweet intended to push back against the idea. Did Trump focus on his innocence? The evidence? The underlying legal principles surrounding the impeachment process?

No, what the Republican actually argued was that lawmakers shouldn't impeach him because it'd be bad for the stock market. If Trump were impeached, he wrote at the time, "it would lead to the biggest FALL in Market History. It's called a Depression, not a Recession! So much for 401-K's & Jobs!"

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know, of course, that the president was impeached and the markets didn't much care. But what struck me as interesting is the fact that Trump wasn't just wrong, he was also confused about what mattered: in his mind, concerns about Wall Street were reason enough to let him get away with an illegal extortion scheme.

Four months later, the White House is confronting a coronavirus outbreak, which has led the president to focus on ... Wall Street again. The Washington Post reported today, "Trump is highly concerned about the market and has encouraged aides not to give predictions that might cause further tremors."

Privately, Trump has become furious about the stock market's slide, according to two people familiar with the president's thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal details. While he has spent the past two days traveling in India, Trump has watched the stock market's fall closely and believes extreme warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have spooked investors, the aides said.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but in the midst of a public-health emergency, the president should ideally be focused on the public-health emergency -- not the emergency's impact on the major Wall Street indexes.

Don't get me wrong, if this is what it takes to get Trump to care about the coronavirus outbreak, I'll try not to be picky about the nature of his motivations.

But his preoccupation with the stock market is bizarre, in part because it's a rather twisted priority under the circumstances, and in part because it's something presidents have very little control over.

As Neil Irwin explained overnight, Trump is, in effect, "experiencing the downside of having spent the last three years personalizing much of what happens in the markets and the economy, saying that the soaring stock values under his watch are a reflection of his special ability, and a central part of his case for re-election in November."