Setting aside occasional rays of hope -- and with the caveat firmly in place that clearly improving public health and economic conditions could change the game by October -- it's beyond doubt that President Trump is currently on track to lose in November. Based on polling, a significant reason for Trump's decline is widespread disapproval of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with his persistently poor showings on character measures like honesty and empathy. Much of political Twitter is buzzing about a just-released portion of an interview the president recorded with Axios reporter Jonathan Swan, with critics hammering Trump on three subjects in particular. I'll address them in reverse order of importance.
First, it is admittedly a bit bizarre that Trump continues to double down on his message that he wishes Jeffrey Epstein's alleged accomplice well. Ghislaine Maxwell is accused of repeated sexual assault and serial trafficking of underage girls. Trump and Maxwell knew each other in a previous life, but it's mystifying that the president can't just repeat some boilerplate about being disturbed by the allegations and hoping that justice is served. Instead, he seems more defensive of Maxwell than he is of any number of people he's personally hired into his own administration. He's offered a harsher recent assessment of Dr. Deborah Birx than he has of a woman charged with sex crimes against children. People are overreaching on this point with various conspiracy theories, but it's certainly an odd tic.
Second, Trump deflected questions about the historical legacy of civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, who died last month of pancreatic cancer. The president said he doesn't know how Lewis will be judged by history, repeatedly noting that Lewis boycotted his inauguration and State of the Union Addresses. Trump did not participate in any of the formal memorials for Lewis, and his recurring focus on various snubs pretty obviously reveals the reason why. Lewis also pettily refused to attend President George W. Bush's 2001 inauguration, and expressed adamant disagreements with Bush over the course of his two terms in office. Nevertheless, the 43rd president rose above political disagreements and slights, delivering a lovely eulogy for Lewis in Atlanta last week. Trump could and should have been more gracious; some contributions to progress and the greater national good must transcend the politics of the day. The president's inability to overcome his blinkered, myopic and transactional approach to life may be appealing to some supporters, but it's not serving him well with the broader electorate.
Finally, we arrive at the Q&A on coronavirus. I believe that many in the media and the opposition (there is significant overlap, of course) have weaponized the virus against Trump from day one, reflexively criticizing virtually everything he's done and said -- up to and including the point of regurgitating Chinese Communist propaganda. The pandemic is being used as an opportunity to deify progressive politicians and demonize conservative ones, with little regard for actual data or facts. Trump is at the center of this target, and he's consequently watched his standing fall from a slight electoral favorite to a clear underdog. The White House and his campaign can talk all they want about "resets" and "new tones," but the fundamental problem is exhibited in this exchange:
.@jonathanvswan: “Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases. I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, etc.”@realdonaldtrump: “You can’t do that.”— Axios (@axios) August 4, 2020
Swan: “Why can’t I do that?” pic.twitter.com/MStySfkV39
Trump was simply not equipped to mount a convincing defense on any of this, even as a number of decent-to-strong arguments were available to him. He wanted to focus on the US death rate among those who contract the disease, and understandably so. America's case fatality rate is far better than much of the world, outperforming dozens of other countries, including the UK, Italy, France, Mexico, Spain, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Brazil and Portugal. This is a testament to our high quality, innovative healthcare system and dedicated healthcare workers. Trump could have pressed this point home, and even pivoted to noting how many nations with single-payer, government-run systems have glaringly under-performed the frequently reviled US system on this important metric. Adrift and frazzled, he didn't even try.
Swan preferred to discuss COVID mortality as a percentage of the population, generally measured by the number of deaths per 100,000 people living in any given country. Somehow, the president was totally unprepared to address this issue, shuffling papers, trying to shut the line of argument down by saying, "you can't do that," and baselessly hinting that South Korea's data may be questionable. What he could have accurately said is that despite the US experiencing a very difficult time early on, our population-based mortality rate still remains better than a number of other hard-hit nations, from the UK to Spain, Italy, and Sweden. We are roughly equivalent to France. Politically-motivated critics want voters to believe that America's standing is uniquely terrible on the world stage, but that's not true. Trump could also have steered the back-and-forth in other advantageous directions, such as highlighting how the "official" global statistics take Beijing's bogus numbers at face value, which would have turned the discussion back to the entirely legitimate and important issue of the Chinese Communist Party's culpability in this disaster.
He also could have noted that the abject failure of Democratic governors in New York, New Jersey, Michigan and elsewhere to protect vulnerable populations in nursing homes has disproportionately contributed to America's relatively high death rate. If those governors hadn't forced many thousands of infected people into facilities filled with elderly residents within the first few months of the pandemic, our national numbers would look a lot better. That's basically indisputable, especially in light of comparatively low death rates across the rest of the country. One might guess whether he'd have been ready with a rebuttal to Gov. Cuomo's go-to blame shift tactic on this criticism. Perhaps he could have pushed back more effectively against Swan's technically-correct point about deaths increasing in sunbelt states. Leading indicators like infection rates, hospitalizations, and ICU bed availability are all headed downward in places like Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas. Deaths are up (though still far, far, far below levels seen in the Northeast), but that's a lagging indicator. If the declining trajectories on the other measures continue to point in the right direction, deaths will follow suit. Those states would have flattened the curve. Trump touched on this briefly at the end of the clip above, but provided little clarity for viewers who may be confused about who was telling the truth.
The upshot is that the president of the United States remains woefully underprepared to answer entirely predictable and oft-repeated critiques of the country's coronavirus response. This is political malpractice twice over, as it allows critics to perpetuate overstated condemnations while also telegraphing a general lack of presidential engagement. The virus could very well be the determining factor of the 2020 election. As a matter of leadership and public health, POTUS should be granularly involved and exceptionally focused on the issue. As a matter of political survival, POTUS should...also be granularly involved and exceptionally focused on the issue. And he should be highly attuned to evincing sorrow and sympathy for the loved ones of more than 150,000 Americans who have died of the disease thus far -- which must entail consciously avoiding phrases that could be perceived as callous flippancy:
TRUMP: Right now, I think it’s under control. I’ll tell you what—— JM Rieger (@RiegerReport) August 4, 2020
SWAN: How? 1,000 Americans are dying a day.
TRUMP: They are dying. That’s true, and you—it is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it. pic.twitter.com/AViWOt2COJ
People who cut off the "that doesn't mean we aren't doing everything we can" bit aren't giving a full picture of that answer, but even a sub-average politician should have the awareness to realize, "it is what it is" isn't the sort of tautological cliche that fits the moment. Those who want to see President Trump re-elected for a second term shouldn't be angry with Swan for asking tough questions with aggressive follow-ups (Joe Biden needs to undergo rigorous cross-examinations, too). They shouldn't be frustrated with those who offer negative analyses of Trump's performance. He is the president and the candidate. He's trailing. The moment looms large and the stakes are high. He needs to do better. Can he?