Just as his battle with the media is reaching new heights, President Trump is finding new enemies in the war on the coronavirus–and who is to blame for the pandemic.
That was on display yesterday when Trump halted U.S. funding to the World Health Organization, accusing the group of “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,” in part by having “pushed China’s misinformation.” Trump, of course, had once praised China’s early efforts.
He also drew fresh battle lines with the nation’s governors, saying they need to take a back seat right now.
In the blink of a news cycle, the president is being accused of acting like a “king,” of trashing the Constitution, of using a White House briefing to air “propaganda.”
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Putting aside the rhetoric, what’s clear to me is that Trump wants credit for reopening the economy, which would obviously be good news, while he was happy to let the governors shoulder the burden of shutting down the economy, which was painful news. That’s hardly an unusual stance for politicians — who prefer to announce new spending goodies but not controversial budget cuts — but the life-and-death nature of the pandemic casts it in a much harsher light.
Still, there was something about Trump’s marathon presser on Monday that has everyone up in arms.
Let’s start with the president, responding to sharp criticism from Andrew Cuomo. He tweeted that “Cuomo’s been calling daily, even hourly, begging for everything, most of which should have been the state’s responsibility…I got it all done for him, and everyone else, and now he seems to want independence! That won’t happen!”
And addressing the nation’s governors, Trump invoked the film “Mutiny on the Bounty”: “A good old-fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain! Too easy!”
What triggered all this were these presidential pronouncements about the governors: “The president of the United States calls the shots. They can’t do anything without the approval of the president of the United States.”
When asked what provision of the Constitution gave him this power, Trump said “numerous provisions…When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total.”
New York’s governor, who had been cooperating with the White House, went off in a series of TV interviews.
“It makes no sense, it’s schizophrenic,” Cuomo told CNN’s “New Day.”
It was “a breaking of the Constitution,” he told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” And: “It’s frightening. This is the last place we should be, this crazy politics, this absurd positioning when we’re talking about life and death.”
Trump, as I’ve noted before, is all about projecting strength. If he declares that he has the supreme power, he knows full well that pundits and legal scholars will be arguing over the niceties of separation of powers while his base cheers him on. The same dynamic is at work while experts and diplomatic debate his freezing of aid to the WHO.
While Republicans usually champion states’ rights over the big, out-of-control national government, Trump has never particularly cared about federalism either.
Has Trump conveniently said the feds are not a “shipping clerk” when he wanted the states to take the lead in getting testing kits and ventilators? Sure. But the president now says he could have chosen to nationalize the initial response to the coronavirus, but chose not to.
It was Cuomo, Gavin Newsom, J.B. Pritzker and the rest, along with some mayors, who chose to close the schools, shut down non-essential business and issue stay-at-home orders. But that was then, as Trump sees it, and he wants to be the one heralding the economic comeback, even as both sides argue about the timing.
Oh, and the press is also in the line of fire. “For the purpose of creating conflict and confusion, some in the Fake News Media are saying that it is the Governors decision to open up the states…,” Trump tweeted.
The president got into it Monday with CBS’s Paula Reid, who pressed him on what he did with the breathing room afforded by his early restrictions on China travel. “You didn’t use it to prepare hospitals, you didn’t use it to ramp up testing,” she lectured him. The president interrupted, calling her “disgraceful.”
Reid kept on talking as Trump tried to move on: “What did you do with the time that you bought, the month of February?…What did your administration do in February with the time that your travel ban bought you?”
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The president also drew fire for unveiling a campaign-style video that depicted him as acting (mainly against China) while the networks were interviewing guests who downplayed the coronavirus threat (true in part, as shown in selective clips.)
One of the clips was of podcast comments by New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who was heard saying that Trump was accused of “xenophobia” for halting flights from China and “at the end of the day, it was probably effective, because it did actually take a pretty aggressive measure against the spread of the virus.”
Haberman called that “misleading,” saying on Twitter that her next comment — that Trump treated the travel limits as a Mission Accomplished moment — was cut out.
If Trump and some governors do wind up issuing conflicting orders, it will put many businesses and institutions in a difficult position. But I don’t see that happening. This is, for the moment, all about positioning and reaping political credit.