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Coronavirus in Chief: A presidential drive-by and other desperate stunts that put lives at risk for theater

Apparently the closing argument from the Trump campaign for his reelection was supposed to be that the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, was overreacting to coronavirus, making fun – for example – of his insistence on wearing a mask and staying distant from others.

Trump was supposed to project strength in the face of the pandemic, suggesting that it has been way overblown by Democrats who oppose his administration and who are thus responsible for the faltering economy.

Then, of course, coronavirus began to spread like wildfire through Trump’s own inner circle after the Rose Garden celebration on September 27 of Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court seat, formerly held by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As Trump and increasing numbers of people in his inner circle began to test positive for the infection, the campaign first floundered, and now appears to be trying to brazen out the idea that the disease is not a big deal, and that Trump has conquered it.

This is insane. COVID-19 has currently infected more than 7 million Americans, and killed more than 210,000 of us, close to the number of Union soldiers — 224,097 – who died in our bloody four-year Civil War.

Apparently, it is frustrating Trump that he cannot campaign. On October 4, he traveled in a motorcade around Walter Reed Hospital, waving to supporters. The trip horrified medical personnel, who noted that the presidential vehicle is sealed against chemical attack, meaning that the secret service professionals traveling with the president were exposed to a deadly disease for no apparent reason. One of the agents assigned to the First Family told CNN “That never should have happened… The frustration with how we’re treated when it comes to decisions on this illness goes back before this though. We’re not disposable.”

Dr. James P. Phillips, from the Walter Reed Hospital, took to Twitter: “Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary Presidential “drive-by” just now has to be quarantined for 14 days. They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity.”

Even staffers were complaining about the disorganization in the West Wing after Trump’s drive. But things did not get more anchored the following day.

Early on, the president began to tweet at a great pace, in all caps, campaign slogans followed by the word “VOTE!” His promises were random and unanchored in reality, with words like “BIGGEST TAX CUT EVER, AND ANOTHER ONE COMING. VOTE!” According to Gabriel Sherman at Vanity Fair, the Trump family is divided over Trump’s performance. According to two Republicans close to the family, Don Jr. was worried by the drive around the hospital. “Don Jr. thinks Trump is acting crazy,” said one of the sources. But Ivanka, Eric, and Jared Kushner “keep telling Trump how great he’s doing.” All of them, though, worried about the morning’s tweet storm.

The infection continues to spread through the White House. On October 5, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany announced that she, too, has tested positive for coronavirus, a day after she briefed reporters without a mask. Two sources told CNN that two of McEnany’s deputies, Chad Gilmartin and Karoline Leavitt, have also tested positive, along with two members of the White House staff. McEnany said at first the White House was planning to put out the number of staffers infected, but then said it could not, out of “privacy concerns.” But of course there are no privacy at stake in the raw numbers.

We also learned that another person who attended the Rose Garden event, Pastor Greg Laurie of the Harvest Christian Fellowship megachurches in California and Hawaii, has tested positive for coronavirus. In addition, thirteen workers who helped to cater a private Trump fundraiser on October 1 in Minnesota are all quarantining.

Although doctors expressed surprise and concern at the idea Trump might leave Walter Reed Hospital on October 5, the president tweeted: “I will be leaving the great Walter Reed Medical Center today at 6:30 P.M. Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

Doctors noted that he is in a dangerous period for the progression of COVID-19, and that anyone who had required the sorts of treatments Trump has had is too sick to leave the hospital. “I will bet dollars to doughnuts it’s the president and his political aides who are talking about discharge, not his doctors,” William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University’s medical school, told the Washington Post.

A briefing by Trump’s doctors obscured more than it revealed. The White House physician, Sean Conley, has refused to tell reporters when Trump last tested negative for coronavirus, a piece of information that would tell us when he knew he was infected. He also refused to explain why the president was being treated with a steroid usually reserved for seriously ill patients, or to discuss the state of Trump’s lungs. He did say that the president is “not out of the woods yet.”

Nonetheless, Trump left Walter Reed Hospital on the evening of October 5, after lights had been installed to enable him to make a triumphant exit. Still infectious, he went back to the White House and climbed a flight of stairs to a balcony, where he dramatically removed his face mask and saluted well-wishers from a balcony. Although the moment was clearly designed to make Trump look strong, it was obvious he was struggling to breathe.

Aaron Rupar from Vox noted that “Trump has no choice but to continue to downplay coronavirus – despite 210,000 dead and record new case numbers – because if he changed course, it would be an admission that he was wrong about the defining issue of his presidency – at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.”

Trump later released a video telling people not to let the coronavirus “dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it. You’re going to beat it…. Don’t let it take over your lives.” CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta dubbed him “Coronavirus in Chief.”

Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden held a town hall in Miami on October 5, where he gave detailed answers to questions about police reform (more money, ban chokeholds and no knock warrants); socialism (“I’ve taken on the Castros of the world. I didn’t cozy up to them”); a mask mandate (the president can only mandate masks on federal property, but he would call on governors and mayors to do the same); and reopening schools (PPE, small classes, ventilation). Watchers noted that it was a treat both to see a normal conversation and to hear detailed, informed answers.

To stay in touch with voters, Biden began “Notes from Joe,” a daily newsletter. Bloomberg  reported that the contrast between the recent craziness of the White House and Biden’s calm detail has led the stock market to stabilize. Strategists are coming to think there will not be a contested election after all. Biden’s lead over Trump increased again after Trump’s debate performance, which apparently was designed to try to bully Biden by hitting triggers until he began to stutter, thus enabling the Trump campaign to portray him as mentally incapacitated. That strategy failed as Biden parried the triggers, and Americans were repelled by Trump’s behavior. Peter Rosenstreich, head of market strategy at Swissquote Bank SA, told Bloomberg, “Polls are shifting from a close election and prolonged uncertainty to more a dominant Biden and clean succession…. That is reducing uncertainty and increasing risk appetite.”

Tia Dufour and Joyce N. Boghosian / The White House

Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics

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About The Author

Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson is a political historian who uses facts and history to make observations about contemporary American politics. Her new book, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, is thought-provoking study of the centuries-spanning battle between oligarchy and equality in America.