Trump signals possible retreat in fight against coronavirus

Trump's impatience, ignorance, and lack of foresight is leading him toward the most dangerous of all possible scenarios.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump arrives for a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on March 22, 2020.Patrick Semansky / AP
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By Steve Benen

Shortly before midnight (ET) on Sunday, Donald Trump published an unusual tweet -- even by his standards -- about the coronavirus crisis. "We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself," the president wrote in an all-caps missive. "At the end of the 15 day period, we will make a decision as to which way we want to go!"

It raised all kinds of questions. What 15-day period? How could preventive measures be worse than a deadly pandemic? What makes him think there's a range of directional options?

As it turns out, there are some answers to these lines of inquiry, though they're not exactly satisfying. Trump's 15-day period apparently refers to the announcement the White House made early last week on social distancing. "This afternoon, we're announcing new guidelines for every American to follow over the next 15 days as we combat the virus," the president said from the briefing room podium on Monday, March 16, endorsing social distancing, among other measures.

Few seriously believed that 15 days would be sufficient to address the intensifying pandemic, and even Trump conceded at the time that the nation may not be able to turn the corner until July or August. That, however, was last week. This week, the Republican elaborated on his late-night tweet yesterday and signaled retreat in the fight against the viral outbreak.

President Trump struck a new tone at Monday's coronavirus press briefing, suggesting that social distancing restrictions will be lifted "fairly soon" and that the U.S. has learned enough lessons to re-open the economy despite the ongoing pandemic: "I'm not looking at months, I can tell you that right now."

In 1966, with the Vietnam War dragging on, then-Sen. George Aiken was asked for his opinion about the future of U.S. policy in the region. The Vermont Republican gave a relatively long, thoughtful answer about how the United States "could well declare unilaterally ... that we have 'won' in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam."

The front-page headline in the New York Times read the next day, "Aiken Suggests U.S. Say It Has Won the War." In time, as regular readers may recall, the public's understanding of the senator's position evolved into a convenient catchphrase -- "Declare victory and go home" -- which Aiken never actually said.

More than a half-century later, Trump appears eager to embrace a related posture toward COVID-19. The battle is just getting started -- it's only been a week since the White House endorsed modest restrictions -- but the president appears eager, not to declare victory and go home, but to declare victory and encourage people to leave their homes.

He's well aware of the fact that public-health experts consider a retreat incredibly dangerous, but as NBC News reported yesterday, many on Team Trump are "eager to get the country back to business" and have grown "increasingly concerned in recent days about the economic impact the tight restrictions on movement and social interactions are having."

The report added that these officials, principally concerned with the economic impact, fear that following the policy guidance of public-health officials was a bad idea.

If that means abandoning the nation's current course of trying to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic next week, it's an approach the White House is now open to. If it's a choice between economic activity and severe public-health risks, Trump appears to be prioritizing the former over the latter.

There's no great mystery as to what Americans could expect to see if the president abandons the current course and loosens restrictions. For one thing, the national system would quickly become a patchwork, with many states keeping up the fight, even as other states consider following Trump's lead.

For another, the more some parts of the country retreat from mitigation efforts, the more the virus will spread, the more health systems will be pushed past the breaking point, and more likely it is that we'll see mass American casualties.

Evidently, there are some prepared to argue that this is a price worth paying for the sake of the economy, but let's not pretend that there are no economic consequences tied to retreat. In the coming weeks and months, as infection rates soar, the economy will suffer as more and more of the workforce falls ill, and hospitals face an impossible onslaught.

To prevent a disaster, Trump should be eyeing more aggressive measures, not less. His impatience, ignorance, and lack of foresight is leading him toward the most dangerous of all possible scenarios.