Politics

Trump’s Coronavirus Con

As the stock market plummeted, the president kept peddling hype.

Trump turns sideways while speaking at a podium in the White House press room
President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic at the White House on Tuesday.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump has focused on appearance, not reality. To make himself look good and maintain confidence in the economy, he has fudged the extent of the epidemic, oversold evidence of cures, exaggerated the availability of tests, and downplayed the likelihood of economic disruption. He has also encouraged the public to invest in the stock market, even as government officials who knew the extent of the coronavirus threat quietly sold off parts of their portfolios. Trump’s hype about the market isn’t the worst of his deceptions, but it’s notable because the market, for more than a month, moved persistently in the opposite direction from what he kept promising. It shows how willing he is to maintain and prop up a fraudulent story.

“Highest Stock Market In History, By Far!” the president tweeted on Feb. 19. Two days later, after the Dow Jones Industrial Average began to slide, Trump told his followers at a rally in Las Vegas, “We just hit an all-time high with the stock market.” On Feb. 24, the Dow plunged 1,000 points, as the virus paralyzed China’s economy and spread to other countries. “The Coronavirus is very much under control,” Trump tweeted. “Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” On Feb. 26, as signs of infection increased in the United States, the Dow suffered another 1,000-point drop. But Trump shrugged that the market “had one bad day; that was yesterday.” The virus, he promised, would soon “go away.”

Trump blamed the sagging Dow on media hysteria. CNN and MSNBC were “doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets,” he tweeted on Feb. 26. “USA in great shape!” Two days later, he accused CNN of trying to “stoke a national Coronavirus panic.” The real cause of the market slide, he argued, was investors’ fear that Trump, the savior of the economy, might lose to the Democrats. “The market will all come back,” he promised. “After I win the election, I think the stock market is going to boom like it’s never boomed before.”

On March 2, Trump met with pharmaceutical executives for a televised discussion of possible coronavirus therapies and vaccines. The market surged, and the president claimed victory. At a rally in North Carolina, he thundered, “Today we just had the largest one-day increase in the stock market in history!” But the slide resumed, and by March 9, thanks to an oil price war and an escalation of virus-related travel warnings, the Dow was down another 3,000 points.

Trump blamed the market’s losses on “the Fake News.” He dismissed the coronavirus as less harmful than the flu, for which “nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on.” On March 11, the NBA suspended its season. But in a televised address that evening, Trump insisted, “This is not a financial crisis. This is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome.” The next day, he promised that the stock market would “bounce back very big.”

As international commercial travel halted, Trump argued, absurdly, that this would help the economy. He took his wrongheaded dogma about trade—that cutting off commerce with other countries is somehow good, because that way you keep more for yourself—and applied it to the virus crisis. “I’m not a globalist,” he told Sean Hannity on March 4, hours after Italy shut down all its schools. “If people want to spend their money in the United States instead of traveling abroad, I’m very fine with that. I think that’s great.” On March 6, Trump exulted, “We’re going to have Americans staying home instead of going and spending the money in other countries. And maybe that’s one of the reasons the job numbers are so good.”

March 13, a Friday, was a good day. That afternoon, shortly before the stock market closed, Trump held a press conference with corporate executives in the White House Rose Garden. He claimed (falsely) that Google would “very quickly” have a website ready to screen Americans for possible infection, and he predicted that the virus would soon “wash through.” The market soared. “BIGGEST STOCK MARKET RISE IN HISTORY,” the president tweeted the next day. He declared the press conference a success, noting that while he and the executives were doing their pep talk, their companies’ share prices had increased. Two days later, after another 3,000-point plunge, he promised, “Once this virus is gone, I think you’re going to have a stock market like nobody has ever seen before.”

Trump suspected that his March 2 meeting with pharma executives about possible cures had boosted the market that day. So he tried more hype. On March 19, at a press conference and in a call with governors, he talked up one of the proposed drugs, chloroquine, as a “game changer” that had shown “very encouraging early results” and was “going to be great.” Trump’s medical advisers warned that the evidence for chloroquine was purely anecdotal, and they cautioned against “false hope.” But Trump stood by his hype—“I’ve been right a lot,” he insisted—and he claimed that “stock market geniuses” shared his faith in a full financial recovery. The defeat of the virus “will happen much sooner than originally expected,” the president declared on Sunday. “You will see our economy skyrocket. … Everything’s going to fall into place. It’s going to be beautiful.”

Trump never retreated from his bullish message. Each time the market fell, he just tweaked the numbers to make the worsening status quo look good. On Feb. 26, he noted that the Dow, at 28,000, was still about 10,000 points higher than when he got elected. On March 6, as the sell-off continued, he said the market was still “up 70 percent.” On March 12, after another terrible week, he argued that it was “still much higher than when I got here.” And on Sunday, after all the gains under his presidency were wiped out, he bragged that investors hadn’t lost money. The trillions of dollars in wealth that had disappeared were “all cushion,” he proudly declared.

By Monday, the cushion was gone. The Dow fell below 18,600, a loss of more than 1,000 points since Trump’s inauguration. So he snapped into action. Alarmed by the market’s slide, he announced, contrary to medical advice, that he intended to reopen businesses that had been closed to prevent the spread of the virus. On Tuesday, the market responded with a big jump, and Trump claimed victory. “The Dow surged over 2,100 points. That’s the all-time record,” he crowed. Investors “see that we want to get our country open as soon as possible. … That’s a very big factor, I think, in today’s historic gain.”

Trump’s talk of reopening businesses—like his promises about cures, websites, the production of virus tests, and an economy ready to take off “like a rocket”—is about hype, not reality. Like any good con man, he sells confidence. He might goose the Dow for a day or two. But sooner or later, when promises don’t match reality, the market goes with reality. For weeks, it’s been falling. Rich people knew the truth. Senators knew the truth. The people who don’t are the ones who believe Trump.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to Wednesday’s episode of What Next.