“This is a pandemic, I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” US President Donald Trump said on Tuesday. “I’ve always viewed it as very serious, there was no difference yesterday from days before.”
It was the same man who tweeted on February 24 that “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA” and said on February 26 that “the risk to the American people remains very low” and said “it’s going to disappear” on February 26 and “we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away” on March 10.
A day after he addressed the nation in a new, more sombre tone that many Americans grappling with a new reality welcomed, Trump was back to being Trump.
He took to Twitter to lash out at Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer for saying governors should work through their own supply chains to get ventilators and other needed medical equipment instead of relying on the federal government to get it for them.
Failing Michigan Governor must work harder and be much more proactive. We are pushing her to get the job done. I stand with Michigan!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 17, 2020
A day earlier, a different Trump had stood at the podium during a White House briefing. Gone, at least for the moment, was the partisan bickering and personal attacks against the people – Democrats – and forces (the media) he sees as his opponents. Gone were the rosy asides meant largely to prop up the stock markets. Gone was the pretence that the coronavirus and the disease it spreads, COVID-19, was anything other than a public health emergency.
The shift was informed in part by a growing realization within the West Wing of the White House that the coronavirus crisis is an existential threat to Trump’s presidency, endangering his reelection and his legacy. Trump has told advisers that he now believes – finally – the virus will be a significant general election issue.
And that’s what got his attention.
Polls released on Tuesday showed that Americans’ faith in the way the federal government is handling its response to the growing crisis dropped precipitously as the extent of the problem became clear. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that just 46 percent of Americans thought the government was doing enough, compared with 61 percent in February when the problem was primarily an overseas one.
Just 37 percent of Americans said they had a good amount or a great deal of trust in what they are hearing from Trump, while 60 percent say they had not very much or no trust at all in what he says. More Americans, 49 percent, disapprove of the president’s handling of the pandemic than approve – 44 percent.
Notably, however, the numbers do not differ much from his overall job approval rating, which stands at 43 percent, hinting that the stark divisions within the US electorate are immune to the coronavirus. Another poll released on Tuesday, by the Kaiser Family Foundation, found that Trump’s Republican base remains sceptical about the threat of the virus and are less likely than Democrats to take precautionary measures.
Why? Primarily because Trump’s constant haranguing of his critics has paid off. Only weeks ago, he attempted to portray media alarmism about the virus as a “hoax” and as recently as Saturday said the government had “tremendous control” of the virus. On Monday, he said he had been referring to his government’s handling of the crisis and not the virus itself.
Trump’s echo chamber in the right-wing media was right there with him. Fox News hosts who had previously derided the media as “panic pushers” engaged in “yet another attempt to impeach the president” were praising Trump’s handling of a “sobering and scary” crisis.
On his favourite morning show on Tuesday, Fox & Friends, the hosts were even socially distancing themselves six feet apart on set instead of snuggling on the so-called “curvy couch”.
“We have a responsibility to slow down this virus and to think of other people during this time,” said host Ainsley Earhardt. “And so, if you can keep your distance and prevent someone from getting close to you that might be sick, you can save your family, you can save the elderly and help our country as a nation.”
Trump’s change in tone came following a series of alarming briefings with dire projections about how many Americans could be infected if drastic action is not taken. But he also heard from Republican allies – including some on Capitol Hill – who urged him to alter course, fearing that earlier missteps may be eroding his reelection chances in November.
Those supporters are apparently so concerned that they took the dramatic step this week of reaching out to sitting Republican-appointed federal judges and told them that if they were planning on retiring, doing so sooner rather than later – before a change in administration or election that leads to Republicans losing control of the US Senate that confirms those judges – would be advisable.
Few expected Trump’s more measured approach to last, but some were surprised it was so short-lived and said it failed to erase the ill will generated over the previous weeks.
“I’m not sure a change in tone makes up for a kind of complete lack of leadership that the country has seen in the first few weeks of this crisis,” Princeton University presidential historian Julian Zelizer told The Associated Press news agency.