coronavirus

A chastened Trump presents a newly somber tone

As many Americans started a new week with shuttered shops, schools and offices, the president traded his trademark defiance for a series of serious warnings.

Donald Trump


Before markets started spiraling like 1987’s “Black Monday” crash, and even before President Donald Trump heard from state governors and G-7 leaders trying to stave off deaths at home, the president received a series of fresh warnings about the scale of the calamity poised to wash over America.

His coronavirus task force presented new information based on overseas models showing how quickly the virus could spread without swift action. And new data he was shown from China overnight highlighted that country’s economic collapse — plunging factory activity and soaring unemployment — despite its draconian measures to combat the coronavirus crisis.

Faced with a reality that the nation he oversees needs to take dramatic action or follow in the footsteps of deeply troubled nations abroad, the president took on a newly somber tone about a virus outbreak he spent months downplaying.

“I’m glad to see that you’re practicing social distancing,” Trump quipped as he stepped up to the lectern in an unscheduled appearance at the sparsely populated James S. Brady briefing room in the White House, where reporters were arranged with open seats between them.

It was a short moment of levity for Trump before he laid out dramatic new guidelines aimed at curbing the spread of the virus and saving lives. He instructed people to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people, stay home from work or school if possible, avoid travel and nursing homes.

In just 24 hours, the president went from telling people filling up their pantries to just “relax,” to acknowledging the economy might be careening toward a recession and warning the public they have a narrow window of 15 days to stop the spread of a lethal disease.

“It’s bad. It’s bad,” Trump said. “But we’re going to be hopefully a best case, not a worst case. And that’s what we’re working for.”

It was a dramatic change in tone from his Oval Office address, which was riddled with mistakes; his Rose Garden news conference, where he went against expert recommendations and shook hands with everyone in sight; and his Sunday appearance with the vice president, when he rattled off a list of CEOs he talked to on the phone only to turn on his heels without taking questions.

“Each and every one of us has a critical role to play,” Trump said Monday, flanked by members of his task force. “If everyone makes these critical changes and sacrifices now, we will rally together as one nation and we will defeat the virus.”

The shift represented a new understanding by the White House of the risk that the U.S. could soon be overwhelmed by a disease explosion.

“Look, we could have a spike in these cases or we could blunt the curve,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien told POLITICO. “And if we can blunt the curve we can end up with a situation where our health care system can handle the crisis. We don’t want a spike the way we’ve seen in Italy.”

The president, who just one day before said the virus would quickly pass, said Americans should brace for the coronavirus to affect daily lives as late as July or August. And he appeared disturbed to hear that some of his closest allies, like GOP Rep. Devin Nunes, had bucked the advice of the health professionals standing at his side by encouraging people to go to restaurants.

“Well, I would disagree with it,” Trump said. “It's adverse to what the professionals are saying.”

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer called it a “striking difference.”

“This was sobering, serious, realistic and modest. This is what the doctor ordered,” Fleischer said.

The 180-degree turn came after Trump was urged by allies privately and publicly to do more as the crisis careened out of control.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, an outside adviser to Trump, penned an op-ed Monday that didn’t criticize the president but did push him to act more aggressively by directing governors to close all schools and prohibit attendance at public facilities, including restaurants and bars, until at least May 11, among other suggestions.

“More must be done to prepare for increasing case numbers and to effectively communicate what must be done to reduce the threat,” he wrote. “I fear Americans are not yet taking this virus seriously enough.”

And Newt Gingrich, another ally of the president, whose wife is the ambassador to the Holy See in Vatican City, wrote a chilling first-person account of what he saw in Italy.

“Faced with a pandemic threat, history teaches us it is far better to be overprepared than underprepared,” Gingrich wrote in Newsweek. “The lesson of Italy is that the sooner you act, the fewer lives you will lose and the less damage you will do to your economy.”

On Sunday, the president hoped that the Federal Reserve’s decision to cut its target interest rate to near zero would help blunt the market’s nosedive and for once lavished praise on an institution he regularly lambastes on Twitter. “That makes me very happy,” he said in a news conference.

But a former adviser said Trump realized Monday when the financial markets continued to fall that he had to do more. “The Fed obviously didn’t help” calm the waters, the person said.

Trump was also deeply alarmed by the economic collapse in China that became apparent early Monday, according to two people close to the White House. Data released late Sunday showed a 13.5 percent decline in China’s industrial output in January and February from a year earlier, as well as a dramatic spike in unemployment. The country has also experienced a widespread suspension of manufacturing since the coronavirus outbreak began in China’s Hubei province in December.

“The president understands numbers and they were explaining to him some of the China economic numbers over the weekend and now he knows what’s coming here,” said one person close to Trump, adding that the drop in manufacturing truly startled the president.

“This is a communist country that sealed off everyone in their apartments and is still seeing those numbers, so it made him realize there’s no way for the U.S. not to suffer those consequences and what he needs to do is whatever he can to get us through this as quickly as possible,” the person added.

News of China’s economic free fall came just days after the president and his team boasted about gains in U.S. markets following his declaration of a national emergency — during the Rose Garden ceremony last Friday at which Trump surrounded himself with corporate executives.

Up until Saturday, officials inside the White House Office of Legislative Affairs were “trying to project as much confidence” as possible in their conversations with the president, a tone that began to shift Sunday morning as more governors implemented lockdowns on non-essential businesses and ordered their residents to avoid gatherings of 50 people or more.

“It’s smart what he’s done. He’s made a decision to downplay expectations,” said a second person close to the White House after watching Trump’s appearance at the White House briefing Monday afternoon.

Another official noted that the new White House guidelines gave some governors political cover to call for curfews and closures that have been met with groans by some small businesses bearing the brunt of the new rules or eye-rolls from younger Americans who may be less susceptible to the physical damage of the virus.

“I think the media has to recognize why he was hired by the American people — he’s not going to be consoler-in-chief,” said Jason Miller, a senior adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign and an unofficial adviser. “They want him to go and get it done. What he’s realized here from the markets to society … they react to big bold leadership.”

Fleischer said the president was able this time to be “reassuring and realistic.”

“When events are this big, this serious, and this scary, the president’s communications job is twofold: One, be reassuring. And two, be realistic. And those two reinforce each other. The more realistic a president is, the more a country will believe his reassurances.”

Still, Trump didn’t let go of his old approach completely.

When asked by a reporter Monday to rate his response on a scale of 1 to 10, the president answered in Trumpian fashion: “I’d rate it a 10. I think we’ve done a great job.”