“There are times when you really need a president—and those are the ones that have forged our great presidents,” Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian, told me. “A crisis allows them to mobilize the country in ways that ordinary times do not. It’s not like a crisis allows you to become a great leader, but it offers the chance. It also offers the chance for great difficulty.”
Every so often, there’s a hint that Trump may understand the moment. Watching his news conference at the White House on Saturday, I felt surprised, in a good way, when he said, “We’re all in this together.” It’s an anodyne comment that any president might make. But coming from Trump, it sounded almost like an epiphany. Relief was fleeting. An enduring pattern of the Trump presidency has been that his magnanimity never lasts. Inevitably, his grievances resurface and he reverts to the hard-edged partisanship that feels utterly inappropriate during a crisis of this scale. Here, that took only a day.
With schools and churches shutting down, he took aim Sunday at Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and that top-of-mind scandal: Hillary Clinton’s emails. More recently, he’s toggled between praise and criticism of New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, whose administration is battling the largest concentration of COVID-19 cases in the country. Cuomo’s state has been collaborative (Saturday). Cuomo needs to “do more” (Monday). Cuomo is doing “a really good job” (Tuesday).
“Could he change? Yeah. But that would require a personality transplant,” John Podesta, the former White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton and an adviser to Barack Obama, told me.
As the number of cases has grown, the White House’s approach has seemed improvised, as ever. Trump first tapped his secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, to head the coronavirus task force, but then moved Azar aside and made Vice President Mike Pence the public face. Needing more help for Pence, his chief of staff, Marc Short, approached Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and influential senior adviser, on March 11 and asked him to get involved, an administration official told me.
Kushner has since helped shape the administration’s response, redirecting aides who were working on a Middle East peace plan and other projects and corralling officials from other agencies to assist the task force. He urged Trump to invoke a national emergency and to preside over the regular press briefings now taking place, the administration official said.
“This is the top priority,” Peter Navarro, a Trump trade adviser and member of the task force, told me. “There is no other priority. Everybody in the administration gets it. And everybody who didn’t get it gets it now.”
Inside Trump’s orbit, though, there’s still no clear consensus on the wreckage the virus will cause—not to mention what, exactly, the federal government should be doing to stop it. Trump now concedes that a recession may hit. But even his former advisers offer a more ominous forecast. Kevin Hassett, who chaired Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, told CNN on Monday that the chances of a global recession are “close to 100 percent.” Next month, the U.S. economy could show a loss of 1 million jobs, he said.
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