Trump's closing argument: COVID's not that big of a deal

It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off for him.

Common flu doesn’t kill more than 100,000 Americans a year even in an especially bad season and I’ve never heard of it hitting any demographic harder than COVID has. But lay that aside. What’s truly terrible about that tweet is that it sounds eerily similar to one of the more infamous ones he’s ever sent, almost seven months ago to the day. This was at the very start of the pandemic, before he’d banned travel from Europe, when the daily death toll was in single digits:

After 215,000 deaths and a severe case himself that required experimental therapies to treat, he’s back to square one. He’s actually regressed from his experience with the disease.

Last night Tim Miller wrote that the 90 seconds Trump spent on the White House balcony, first removing his mask, then saluting while he gasped for breath, and then apparently entering the building *without his mask on* — presumably still contagious with COVID — was the weirdest 90 seconds in the history of the presidency. I’d argue that the clip below, which he shot in the moments afterward, is even weirder. Any other politician would have seized on his infection as an opportunity to gain sympathy and signal that he feels the country’s pain in a uniquely physical, personal way. Instead Trump’s strongman instincts have led him to position himself as someone who heroically and deliberately accepted the risk of infection in order to show leadership (“I knew there’s danger to it, but I had to do it”) instead of having half-assed his way into an outbreak at the White House through sheer negligence, if not recklessness. “Trump having embraced the covid-is-a-distraction perspective of the halfass floomers with new messianic zeal instead of his old, smug trolling is a new level of Hell from 2020,” wrote Peter Spiliakos.

Yesterday I said that the SUV ride around Walter Reed may have been the most damaging photo op of his presidency. I think this clip and the spectacle on the balcony that preceded it may have topped it. The coup de grace was the line “Maybe I’m immune, I don’t know.” If you’re sick enough to need oxygen, remdesivir, dexamethasone, and a Regeneron antibody cocktail that practically no one else has had access to, then guess what? You’re not immune. But this is what we get from Trump surrounding himself with people like Scott Atlas who’ve been chattering at him that “cross-immunity” may mean that Americans are far less susceptible to infection in the aggregate than anyone thinks. Trump probably believed that, which may have fed his skepticism of masks and social distancing inside the White House. And he may have believed it so much that he’s still entertaining the possibility that he’s immune just seconds after he was caught on camera gasping for breath.

I’d guess Philip Klein’s take on what went down last night is shared by, say, two-thirds of voters:

It’s irresponsible for Trump to suggest that his experience — again, if he is truly over the hump — should guide the behavior and decision making of all Americans, none of whom have the resources that he does. This is especially true for COVID-19, which has produced an incredibly wide range of outcomes, even among those with similar demographic and health profiles. Somebody else may get a much worse case than Trump simply because they were unlucky. Trump’s triumphalism is unwarranted, and frankly, cruel to those who were less fortunate through no fault of their own.

Trump has been trying to argue that he got COVID-19 because he did not think a leader should be cooped up in the White House, so he took on more personal risk.

But this is a completely selfish way of looking at it. This isn’t just a matter of the risk that he personally took on, but the actions he took to needlessly endanger the lives of others — including attending a fundraiser when there was good reason to believe, at the minimum, that he had been exposed to the virus.

Don’t be afraid to get back to work, the president tells the viewer in the clip. “You’re going to beat it.” But of course that’s not true for many, many people, especially ones his age. And telling them that, as Klein notes, will lead vulnerable people to take risks that end up endangering them. Even if Trump himself pulls through, which remains an open question, it could be that he ends up suffering from one of the long-term complications that thousands of other COVID survivors are coping with. There’s an undertone to the White House messaging about his recovery over the past few days that Trump overcoming the illness was somehow a matter of “strength” or determination (“he’s a fighter!”), but that’s destined to play as a terrible insult to people who’ve died. They battled the virus too. They fought to live. Many of them were physically strong. They lost. Should they be blamed?

Especially when they didn’t have a fleet of doctors and experimental therapies to help get them through?

One of the people apparently endangered by him is a military aide who works at the White House and has been in contact with him. He’s the latest positive case from the White House. A source who works there told Axios that staffers are afraid and angry:

“It’s insane that he would return to the White House and jeopardize his staff’s health when we are still learning of new cases among senior staff. This place is a cesspool.”

“He was so concerned with preventing embarrassing stories that he exposed thousands of his own staff and supporters to a deadly virus. He has kept us in the dark, and now our spouses and kids have to pay the price. It’s just selfish.”

What’s notably crazy about this “don’t sweat the disease that might yet kill me” message is that it’s likely to play badly with two groups that Trump’s been trying to make inroads with. One is Latinos, who have suffered disproportionately as a population from COVID. The other is seniors, who went big for Trump four years ago and have been drifting away from him this year. He’s tried stunts to win them back (e.g., his recent plan to send them $200 taxpayer-funded gift cards to pay for prescriptions) but being cavalier about a virus that kills them at much higher rates than any other age group seems like a singularly terrible move in the home stretch of a campaign. Two national polls this week have found Biden leading among the 65+ group by more than 20 points — and that probably doesn’t even include reaction to the president acting cavalier about the virus. It’s mostly being driven by his boorish debate performance.

What will the split among seniors look like next week?

The best thing he could do for himself now would be to lie low, heal, and try to make the debate on the 15th. If he looks and sounds good there and is sympathetic to voters (it’s a townhall debate, remember), that could help him. He vowed this morning that he’ll be there:

The worst thing he could do for himself would be to double down on this “COVID’s not so bad” message in another high-profile way, especially as cases are rising again nationally and in swing states like Wisconsin. But since he’s Trump, that’s probably what he’s going to do:

I’m not sure even Republicans are down for an “I beat it, so will you!” pep talk. A new poll finds that 66 percent of GOPers now say they always wear a mask when leaving home, up 20 points since July. They’re more worried about the disease than they used to be, not less, especially with a second wave predicted for winter. Now that they’ve seen their own president hospitalized for it, the takeaway for most won’t be, “I guess it’s not that dangerous.” It’ll be, “If the president can’t avoid it, no one can.”

I’ll leave you with this piece from Matthew Walther, lamenting that Trump is ending his campaign by doubling down on COVID skepticism but resigning himself to the fact that it was probably inevitable. “It is not entirely clear to me that this is about winning anymore. What we are seeing is Trump unbound, determined ‘Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent,’ a politician who is trying, perhaps hopelessly, to make support for him some kind of life-affirming existential gesture.”

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Ed Morrissey 10:01 AM on December 06, 2022