In coronavirus, Donald Trump has met his match

When the painful blows coming to Americans’ daily lives, health and wallets hit, it is his presidency that could become Covid-19's most politically significant victim

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, looks at U.S. President Mike Pence while answering a question during a news conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Saturday, March 14, 2020. Trump said he took a test to determine whether he has coronavirus, days after learning that he’s come in contact with people who were infected or are concerned they’ve got the virus. Photographer: Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg
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The biggest question hanging over Donald Trump was how this political novice with little time for expertise and boundless faith in his own instincts might cope with an unanticipated crisis. Due to the coronavirus, we now know: very badly.

The US president has met his match, and Covid-19 has cast serious doubt on his reelection prospects.

Mr Trump is a self-promoter, showman and salesman. His career has been based around what his 1987 memoir, Trump: The Art of the Deal, euphemistically described as "truthful hyperbole". He is used to saying whatever he thinks will sound good.

However, the virus cannot be misled, bullied or cowed into submission.

Mr Trump’s first and most persistent instinct is to deny that any problem is serious. From the beginning, he has downplayed the pandemic, declared it contained and defeated, compared it to "the common flu", and consistently suggested in many ways that concerns are vastly overblown. Yet the virus spread.

FILE - In this April 29, 2009 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the East Room at the White House in Washington. On Friday, March 6, 2020, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly asserting that Obama waited until October 2009 to declare a national health emergency amid the H1N1 pandemic after 20,000 people in the U.S. were hospitalized and more than 1,000 had died. The president declared a public health emergency in April 2009, after roughly 20 cases of the flu strain, more commonly known as swine flu, emerged. He declared a national emergency in October 2009. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
Donald Trump keeps untruthfully claiming that the Obama administration put regulations in place that hampered his government's ability to implement testing. AP Photo

His second reflexive response is to blame others. For a President of the United States, that just does not work. He keeps untruthfully claiming that the previous administration, led by Barack Obama, put regulations in place that hampered his government's ability to implement widespread testing.

It will not work, because while the American system bestows enormous power on its presidents, it equally does not give them – especially after the first year – the ability to blame anybody else for tragic and consequential missteps.

Mr Trump says he will not take any responsibility for the testing fiasco. But he knows he will be blamed.

Most Americans have yet to feel the real economic, social and health impact of the coronavirus. And Mr Trump and his allies, particularly on Fox News, have been spouting the conspiracy theory that this pandemic is being over-hyped by his enemies to try to overthrow him.

In times of crisis, Americans turn to their president for inspiration, reassurance, guidance and the steady hand of leadership. Yet Donald Trump's speech was alarming and divisive

As long as the threat feels distant and theoretical, many Republicans may swallow that bilge. But once they face mounting closures and restrictions, economic downturn, and the sickness and possibly deaths of friends and relatives, the notion this is all overblown will not last.

Mr Trump's presidency is therefore facing an existential threat.

On Wednesday, Mr Trump finally addressed the nation on prime-time television regarding the pandemic. But it was a singularly ineffective and possibly even damaging speech. In times of crisis, Americans turn to their president for inspiration, reassurance, guidance and the steady hand of leadership. Yet the speech was alarming and divisive.

Deprived of his admiring crowds and blustering grievances, he struggled and fumbled to read simple sentences. It seemed as if he would rather have been anywhere else in the world at that moment.

People pass by an entrance to Google offices in New York, U.S., June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Two days after Donald Trump gave his speech, Google confirmed that it has no intention of setting up a coronavirus-testing website. Reuters

His speech included mistakes and misrepresentations. He announced travel restrictions on Europe, but not Britain and Ireland – though they were added later. He also got key facts wrong about his own new policy, including whether it applies to cargo (he said it does, but it does not).

One early consequence of the ban was massive logjams at many US airports on Sunday night as thousands of Americans predictably rushed home. Mystifyingly, no provision for this seems to have been made and it is hard to imagine a better scenario for spreading the virus far and wide.

Errors in the speech continue to be discovered. Two days after it was given, Google quietly confirmed that it has no intention of setting up a nationwide coronavirus-testing website and could not explain why the president announced that.

People naturally turn to their government for guidance based on reliable information. And in general, US government professionals – who Mr Trump routinely derides as operatives of a "deep state" – have tried to provide that. Astoundingly, the main exception has been the president himself.

He insists that testing is available for all Americans who want it and blames Mr Obama for any problems. None of that is even close to the truth. The lack of testing is mostly a result of the Trump administration’s refusal to accept World Health Organisation testing kits, fumbling when trying to create their own kits, and interfering with efforts by medical scientists to improvise because of the crisis.

Worst of all, Mr Trump eliminated the pandemic directorate at the National Security Council that the Obama administration established after the Ebola epidemic of 2014. He said of the current epidemic that such outbreaks are not imaginable in advance. But clearly they are, at least by others.

Mr Trump seems to view the pandemic more as a political and public perception challenge than a budding public health calamity.

Compounding his woes, he will almost certainly be facing former vice president Joe Biden, not the self-declared "democratic socialist" Bernie Sanders, in November.

On Thursday, Mr Biden delivered his own coronavirus address. He reminded Americans what a normative presidential address in such a crisis sounds like. He had empathy for the suffering, wrapped the nation in his rhetorical arms, issued good advice and laid out a series of practical steps to combat the disease.

By contrast, Mr Trump offered nativist railing against a "foreign virus", travel restrictions, false claims and empty bluster.

However, when the painful blows coming to Americans’ daily lives, health and wallets really hit, it is Mr Trump’s presidency that could become the coronavirus' most politically significant victim.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington