By now, you've likely seen the story, Joe Biden's resulting attack, and the president's defense. Assorted thoughts: (1) There are a few things that are unavoidably bad for the president and his team here. For instance, he told Bob Woodward -- on the record, on tape -- in early February that he knew the virus was airborne, highly contagious, and far more deadly than even "strenuous flus." A month later, he was tweeting comparisons to average flu seasons, which he verifiably knew were misleading at best. Also, the White House needs a talking point other than "the president never downplayed the virus," when the president himself told Bob Woodward -- again, on the record, on tape -- that he downplayed the virus. "I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic," he added in a late March conversation.
(2) Avoiding widespread panic is a good goal for a leader facing a crisis (I'm, um, not sure Trump can make a strong case that he's generally inclined to turn down the temperature), but that task does not require minimizing or diminishing the severity of an easily-transmittable disease, in the midst of a deadly pandemic. I do not subscribe to the view that someone like Joe Biden would have performed better, given the former Vice President's gaslighting on China and insane endorsement of Andrew Cuomo's worst-in-the-nation handling of Coronavirus and shameless, blame-storming, active cover-up (I still don't understand why the Trump camp hasn't made a bigger deal out of this). In short, I don't buy much of the opposition's counter-factual revisionism, and I think this is at least partially true. But if the president had been more consistently sober and focused from the beginning, more people would have taken more serious precautions, and lives could have been saved. Being a 'cheerleader' for the country and avoiding a counter-productive freakout doesn't excuse pollyannish misdirection. The president's incoherent messaging and overall lack of discipline mattered -- and that's on him:
He has failed, badly, at presidential communication in this crisis. His defenders will say that Trump's actions are far more important than his words, but communication *is* a very big part of the job, both politically and for governing. And he just keeps failing at it. https://t.co/y3YVKEzd2l— Dan McLaughlin (@baseballcrank) September 9, 2020
(3) In Trump's defense, he does have a few good stories to tell -- from ventilators to vaccines. And although he too often exaggerates America's comparative standing in the world on COVID metrics, the data doesn't support the 'US-as-unique-global-catastrophe' narrative that his critics portray. We've written about this, and Trump-critical New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has reached similar conclusions:
Likewise, once you step back from deaths and case rates to other measurements of response capacity, the US looks anywhere from slightly-below to slight-above average, rather than catastrophic, compared to W. Europe and the Americas.— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) September 9, 2020
"Roughly average" isn't exactly a bumper sticker slogan, but it's certainly a better outcome than prevailing, negative storylines would suggest.
(4) Democrats and the media are eager to turn the focus back on COVID, as it's friendlier political terrain for anti-Trump forces. A growing number of Americans believe the country's situation is improving on this front, but a large majority (70 percent) still believe things are either staying the same or getting worse. Empirically, things are not getting worse. They are getting better, which is not to say that serious risks don't remain. In addition to clearly declining hospitalizations and deaths, major progress on rapid, low-cost testing and vaccines are also encouraging factors. But re-litigating February and March won't be a winner for Trump, even if his supporters have some decent counter-points (this timeline is interesting) to throw at Democrats. Two key pieces of defense, however, are these answers from Dr. Anthony Fauci. The latter is months old. The former is from yesterday:
QUESTION: Did you get any sense that President Trump was downplaying the coronavirus.— Francis Brennan (@FrancisBrennan) September 9, 2020
"No, no, I didn’t. I didn’t get any sense that he was distorting anything." - Dr. Anthony Fauci pic.twitter.com/tkky8f7RWz
Dr. Fauci: "The first and only time that Dr. Birx and I went in and formally made a recommendation to the President to" shut down the economy and put in place social distancing to combat the virus, "the President listened to the recommendation" and did it. pic.twitter.com/sn3N8TnNoL— Trump War Room - Text TRUMP to 88022 (@TrumpWarRoom) September 9, 2020
Yes, Trump was all over the map, careening from one message to another, offering misleading and overly-optimistic comparisons, and assuring people that the virus would eventually disappear. But the country's top medical expert -- revered by the Left as the leading authority to be trusted -- has had a front row seat to everything. And through all the bravado and petulance, he still maintains that when push came to shove, the president was not "distorting anything," and has stated for the record that POTUS heeded expert advice. Incidentally, please take this opportunity to pay attention to the people who've held strong opinions on Fauci in both directions, who may be suddenly touting or denigrating him, based on the political needs of the moment. These are people whose convictions or analyses might be best viewed as situational in the future.
(5) On a purely political note, one can debate the merits of an administration participating in a deep-dive book by Bob Woodward, and it's certainly true that the media's reaction to Woodward's negative treatment of Democrats aligns with the media's strong preference for Democrats. What I cannot fathom is why Trump would agree to speak candidly with Woodward and allow any embargo to be lifted -- and the resulting book to be published -- before the election. The only explanations I can think of are Woodward insisting on a pre-election timeline (in which case Trump could tell him to pound sand), or that Trump somehow believed publication would redound to his electoral benefit -- which is delusional for all sorts of reasons. Trump cannot blame others for 'forcing' him to speak with any journalist, and he cannot blame Woodward for sticking to rules he must have assented to (setting aside the ethical question about sitting on potentially life-and-death information for a book).
Trump said what he said, on the record, on tape, presumably with the full knowledge that it would become public in the fall of his re-election campaign. That's an own goal. It may be a flash in the pan that slides past quickly outside of the Beltway, or it could help solidify voters' negative perception of the incumbent's handling of the biggest issue of 2020. Time, and events, will tell. But if you're rooting for a Trump re-election, it certainly does not help. And on that score, I'll leave you with this:
I’m not sure the Woodward stuff, awful as it is, will break out of the Beltway in a huge way. But everyday Trump is stumbling through this sort of epic mess, is yet another day he’s not on Biden offense. And with 53 days to go, that is a huge win for Biden. #TickTock #RagThePuck— Mike Murphy (@murphymike) September 10, 2020