What Happens When Trump’s Pattern of Dealing With a Threat Doesn’t Work?

The president’s instinct is to lie, distract, and blame. It’s not working this time.

Dan Diamond, who writes about health issues for Politico, exposed the way that sycophants in the Trump administration have failed to respond effectively to the coronavirus. Of particular concern is the battle underway between Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and Seema Verma, the administrator for Medicare and Medicaid Services. They appear to be in competition to gain the president’s favor. During a conversation about that with Terry Gross on NPR, he revealed how it has affected the federal government’s response to a pandemic (emphasis mine).

I think they are both trying to show that they’re incredibly active and aggressive in public, but some of the decisions behind the scenes haven’t always reflected the best judgment of career professionals. In the case of Alex Azar, he did go to the president in January. He did push past resistance from the president’s political aides to warn the president the new coronavirus could be a major problem. There were aides around Trump – Kellyanne Conway had some skepticism at times that this was something that needed to be a presidential priority.

But at the same time, Secretary Azar has not always given the president the worst-case scenario of what could happen. My understanding is he did not push to do aggressive additional testing in recent weeks, and that’s partly because more testing might have led to more cases being discovered of coronavirus outbreak, and the president had made clear — the lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the president, the better for his potential reelection this fall.

That not only explains the lack of tests that have been made available, it tells us why the administration has so consistently lied about the spread of the virus in the United States. But the president had already signaled his obsession with keeping the number of cases low during remarks to the press last week.

Trump was addressing the question of what his administration would do about passengers on the Grand Princess cruise ship, where an outbreak of coronavirus had occurred.

[My experts] would like to have the people come off. I’d rather have the people stay, but I’d go with them. I told them to make the final decision. I would rather—because I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.

While the coronavirus was spreading all over the country, the president wanted to keep the numbers artificially low because it served his own interests. So they lied, which is what Trump always does. But as Kevin Drum noted, it’s not working this time.

You can get away with this for a while, especially if you have Fox News and talk radio to back you up. And the longer you get away with it, the more convinced you become that it will always work, that everything in politics is marketing. So eventually you go too far: you try to deny the reality of an epidemic that even your most fervent supporters know is real. You double down by quoting obviously bogus testing numbers. But unlike your previous delusions, this one has real consequences: since testing and tracing are the backbone of infectious disease control, a lack of testing makes the epidemic even worse.

You might remember that Trump didn’t just lie about what was happening, he joked about the Democrats politicizing the crisis and called it a hoax. That was an attempt to distract his supporters and get them focused on how he had been under siege from the beginning of his presidency. It allowed him to compare the criticisms of his handling of the situation to the Russia investigation and his impeachment.

But ultimately, whenever Trump feels challenged, he becomes obsessed with finding someone to blame. You can see him attempting to deflect blame during his remarks about the cruise ship. Even though it had absolutely no bearing on the situation, he felt the need to point out that the coronavirus outbreak on the ship “wasn’t our fault.”

Perhaps because he recognizes that he can’t lie or distract his way out of this crisis, the president went into full blame mode on Twitter Thursday night.

In case you’re wondering, nothing in either of those tweets resembles the truth. But using lies to blame an opponent for your own failures is typical of the current leader of a party that once billed itself as a proponent of “personal responsibility.”

Since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, he has always resorted to his pattern of lie, distract, and blame when challenged. While that has been apparent to those of us who live in the reality-based world, it has often worked to maintain the loyalty of his most ardent followers. As the coronavirus reaches the stage of exponential growth in this country, will it continue to work? That is doubtful. It is at that point that we’re likely to see him ramp up the divisiveness of xenophobia to defend himself—which is when things will really get dark.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.