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Donald Trump says he’s a wartime president. “We’re at war, and we’re fighting an invisible enemy,” he declared last week. “We are all joined together as one people” against the coronavirus, he told Americans. “As long as I am your president, you can feel confident that you have a leader who will always fight for you, and I will not stop until we win.”
In many ways, we really are in a war against the virus. And much of what Trump is belatedly doing—shipping out virus tests and ventilators, for instance—will save lives. But primarily, he thinks about himself. That’s why he adds “as long as I am your president.” Trump understands that he can improve his chances of reelection by appealing to patriotism, but he doesn’t understand what patriotism is. He’s using the language of national unity—as he has done so many times before—to pursue personal grievances, not to serve his country.
Throughout the crisis, Trump’s behavior has been selfish and partisan. He has blamed states for their own suffering. He has sent aid more promptly to some states than to others. He has demanded praise from governors and has refused to speak to those who, in his view, are insufficiently “appreciative.” He has refused to interact with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He invited no Democrats to his signing of a bipartisan financial relief bill. As body bags pile up, Trump has used daily White House briefings—which are supposed to be about the virus—to complain that he’s mistreated by the press. On Thursday, after Democrats called for congressional oversight of the administration’s multiple failures in responding to the virus, he accused them of undermining America’s war against “this enemy.”
But Trump’s incomprehension of patriotism doesn’t just show up in his treatment of states, governors, and lawmakers. It also shows up in the way he treats other countries.
The president’s favorite lie, which he repeats in every speech, is that in late January, against the advice of all his aides, he bravely banned travel from China to the United States. “We had 20 people in the office, 21 to be exact, and we had a lot of experts,” he told Sean Hannity last week. “They never really thought to do that.” Trump has tweeted pictures of everyone who was in the Situation Room during these deliberations, including Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services; Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Trump tells this story because it makes him look bold and prescient. It plays on his identity as a champion of strong borders. But the story is fake. In reality, Trump was reluctant to impose the travel ban. His aides had to push him into it. And instead of following up with virus control measures inside the United States, he used the travel ban as an excuse to do nothing more.
In January, U.S. intelligence agencies warned that China was concealing the extent of the outbreak. These warnings were relayed directly to Trump, but he insisted that China was being candid and had the virus under control. Azar, Redfield, and Fauci all recommended a travel ban, but Trump resisted it. He trusted Chinese President Xi Jinping, and he agreed with advisers who worried that a ban “could roil the financial markets.” Specifically, Trump warned that it might scare investors and disrupt trade talks with China. Not until Jan. 31—after hundreds of thousands of travelers had arrived from China since the start of the outbreak, and after U.S. airlines had already moved to suspend flights between the two countries—did the administration finally announce a ban.
Throughout February, as intelligence assessments discredited China’s assurances, Trump continued to defend Xi. Then, in March, infections in the United States became undeniable. The virus emerged as a threat to Trump’s reelection, and he snapped into action, branding it “the Chinese virus.” He needed to divert blame from his negligence, and his best bet was to frame the enemy as a foreign intruder. He even managed to work Mexico into the new shtick, announcing “new travel rules at our northern and southern borders to halt the entry of the Chinese virus.”
Trump’s China-bashing about the virus, like his Mexico-bashing about immigrants, was never about loving America. It was about helping himself. He was happy to vilify Beijing, but only as a weapon against his domestic enemies. At a White House briefing on March 19, after U.S.-based news organizations criticized his Chinese-virus rhetoric, a right-wing journalist accused them of promoting “Chinese Communist Party narratives” and “siding with foreign state propaganda.” Trump agreed. “They are siding with China,” he said.
But Trump was just as happy to defend China when he disliked its American adversaries. On March 26, at a briefing that was supposed to be about the virus, Trump changed the subject to trade deficits. “China has taken advantage of the United States—until I came here—with Sleepy Joe Biden and Obama and Bush,” he complained. Rather than denounce China, he denounced his predecessors. “I don’t blame China,” he said. “I blame the people that were right here, because they should have never allowed it to happen.”
In the virus crisis, as in the Russia scandal, Trump rejects American intelligence and media reports about foreign interference. On Monday, Fox News host Brian Kilmeade asked him about new disinformation operations conducted by Russia, China, and Iran. Citing a Washington Post article, Kilmeade explained that these campaigns blamed the virus on the United States, “using the same principles [Russia] used to infiltrate our 2016 election.” But Trump dismissed the article. “When you read it in the Washington Post, you don’t believe it,” said Trump. “I see stories in the Washington Post that are so fake.”
Kilmeade insisted the article was true. So Trump reached for another excuse he has often used on Russia’s behalf. If China was peddling propaganda, Trump argued, that was no big deal, since the United States puts out propaganda too. “They do it, and we do it,” the president shrugged. “Every country does it.”
On Wednesday, Bloomberg News reported that according to a new U.S. intelligence assessment, China’s tallies of coronavirus infections and deaths have been “fake” and “intentionally incomplete.” The Bloomberg article, citing three U.S. officials, said the White House received this intelligence document last week. But on Wednesday evening, when Trump was asked about the story, he insisted, “We have not received that.” He conceded that China’s numbers were “a little bit on the light side,” but he changed the subject to trade. “They’ll be spending $250 billion buying our product,” Trump said of the Chinese. “So we have a great trade deal, and we’d like to keep it. … As to whether or not their numbers are accurate, uh, I’m not an accountant from China.”
Trump has no loyalties. When Russia interferes in our elections or when China lies about an epidemic, he doesn’t ask how it affects America or American values. He asks how it affects Trump. If talking trash about other countries helps him politically, that’s what he’ll do. But he doesn’t care which countries they are. Nor does he care whether you’re a foreign dictator or the governor of Michigan. All he cares about is whether you’re nice to him.
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to The Gist.
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