Trump Toys With Turning the Coronavirus Loose Again

US President Donald Trump speaks with anchor Bill Hemmer during a Fox News virtual town hall meeting from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C.
Trump walks through his deadly plan. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Watching Donald Trump’s press appearances Monday and Tuesday has been like watching a movie where a serial killer taunts the police with clever riddles about his next probable victim and they are helpless to stop him—if the killer’s message were “I’m going to stab Tom on Wednesday at the park, at lunchtime,” and also the killer ran the police force.

In this case, Trump is proudly broadcasting various plans that health care experts warn would lead to tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of needless deaths if enacted. His latest notion, first announced during a coronavirus task force press conference on Monday and then elaborated upon during a Fox News town hall event on Tuesday, is to “open” the economy by ending mass public lockdowns, even as the tide of coronavirus cases is forecast to soon overwhelm our hospital systems and possibly cause the sort of medical shortages and unrelenting mass death seen in Italy.

On Tuesday during that Fox News event, Trump said, “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.” (Easter falls on April 12 this year.)

The president went on to explain that he felt that “the Dow was helped by the fact that” he was talking about “opening relatively soon.”

The stock market had rallied before Trump’s press event on Tuesday, on news that Senate negotiators were close to a deal to pump about $2 trillion in stimulus into the badly damaged economy. But Trump attributed the spike to his talk of “opening” the economy.

“I think that [legislation] maybe had even less of an impact than the fact that we’re opening up this incredible country, because we have to do that,” he said. (The Dow actually dropped a bit during the president’s hourlong Fox News appearance after having risen for much of the rest of the day.)

Trump also speculated that the coronavirus would be less deadly than experts have described.

“When you add all of the people, the millions of people, that have it that get better, we’re substantially under 1 percent,” he guessed, of the mortality rate for the coronavirus.

“When they came to my office, don’t forget, they were saying 3 percent, 4 percent, 5 percent, there’s a very big difference,” he said of the medical advice he had received and was now ignoring. “No, we have to put our country back to work.”

Because testing shortages have made it impossible to check the entire population of infected people for the virus, it’s unclear what the actual death rate is for COVID-19. The rate of mortality in confirmed cases, though, has been as high as 9.5 percent in Italy and 4.3 percent in France. Part of what appears to be leading to these death rates is the disease spreading much more quickly than the hospital systems can keep up, due to a combination of lax policing of social distancing and shortages of medical supplies.

Part of Trump’s proposal appears to be to end social distancing and send people back to work in large numbers, which would make new infections multiply. That plan is rejected not only by public health professionals but also notably by otherwise stalwartly Trump-supporting Republicans such as Sen. Tom Cotton, Rep. Liz Cheney, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. In the words of DeWine, “When people are dying and people don’t feel safe, the economy is not going to come back.” With front-line governors like DeWine having to make the decision that would “open” the economies in their given states, it fortunately seems unlikely that most states will go along with Trump’s plan at the expense of the lives of their states’ citizens.

What about the second part of the coronavirus puzzle, though—the medical supply shortages? The other thing Trump did on Tuesday was pick a fight with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo after Cuomo had all but begged the federal government for help acquiring badly needed ventilators for the epicenter of the American outbreak.

Cuomo said during his press conference on Tuesday that his state’s cases were doubling every three days and that at this rate of growth, caseloads would peak in two to three weeks. He said his state has procured about 7,000 ventilators—the equipment that will soon be needed to keep coronavirus patients from dying en masse—and that it currently has a shortfall of about 30,000 from its anticipated need.

“There is no other way for us to get these ventilators. We’ve tried everything else. The only way that we can obtain these ventilators is from the federal government. Period,” Cuomo said, exhorting Trump to order factories to start building the equipment through the Defense Production Act. “Only the federal government has that power. And not to exercise that power is inexplicable to me,” he added. “I do not for the life of me understand the reluctance to use the federal Defense Production Act.”

But after being lobbied by the Chamber of Commerce and other corporate interests in recent days, Trump has steadfastly refused to place ventilator orders using the DPA.

Cuomo also called on the federal government to release its strategic stockpile of ventilators to New York. “How can we be in a situation where you have New Yorkers possibly dying because you can’t get a ventilator, but a federal agency saying, ‘I’m going to leave the ventilators in the stockpile.’ I mean, have we really come to that point?” Cuomo said.

Prior to Trump speaking, Vice President Mike Pence said that the federal government would be sending New York 2,000 ventilators from its strategic supply of 20,000 on Tuesday and 2,000 more on Monday, but it’s unclear whether those were included in the 7,000 Cuomo said his state has been able to procure, and it is well short of the 30,000 he says the state needs in the next two weeks.

Trump, who is the only person in the country right now who can order that this lifesaving equipment be manufactured near the scale needed, addressed Cuomo’s exhortations during his Fox News appearance by taunting the governor, suggesting aid for New York state was a personal favor Trump was doing for Cuomo and citing an article from a conspiracy theory–peddling website that blamed Cuomo for failing to build a greater strategic stockpile for the state five years ago. Here’s what the president said:

I watched Gov. Cuomo and he was very nice. We’re building him hospitals, we’re building him medical centers, and he was complaining about—we’re doing probably more for him, definitely more for him, than anybody else and he was talking about the ventilators, but he should have ordered the ventilators. And he had a choice, he had a chance, because right here, I just got this out, that he refused to order 15,000 ventilators, I’ll show this to Bill [Hemmer], take a look at that, Bill. This says, “New York Governor Andrew Cuomo rejected buying 16,000 ventilators in 2015 for the pandemic, for a pandemic, established death panels and a lottery instead.” So he had a chance to buy, in 2016, 16,000 ventilators at a very low price and he turned it down. I’m not blaming him or anything else. But he shouldn’t be talking about us. He’s supposed to be buying his own ventilators. We’re going to help, but if you think about Gov. Cuomo, we’re building him four hospitals, we’re building him four medical centers, we’re working very, very hard for the people of New York, we’re working along with him, and then I watched him on the show, complaining. And he had 16,000 ventilators that he could have had for a great price and he didn’t buy them.

Trump continued his remarks around Cuomo later in the event:

But you know, it’s a two-way street. They have to treat us well, also. They can’t say, “Oh, gee, we should get this. We should get that.” We’re doing a great job like in New York where we’re building, as I said, four hospitals. We’re literally building hospitals and medical centers. And then I hear that there’s a problem with ventilators. Well, we sent them ventilators and they could have had [15,000] or 16,000. All they had to do is order them two years ago but they decided not to do it. They can’t blame us for that.

So Trump’s current plan to protect the nation from the coronavirus pandemic involves: (1) “opening” the economy against the advice of medical professionals, political allies, and many of the nation’s governors in a way that would cause the disease to spread and cases to explode and hospitals to be overwhelmed; (2) blaming equipment shortages on the governors after refusing to take the actions necessary to make up the shortfalls. And in all of this, his top priority remains the only thing it’s ever been—insisting, in the midst of an economic and public health disaster, that “they have to treat us well.” What’s a little more American carnage next to the need to protect the presidential ego?