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Sick with the coronavirus, Trump puts his presidency on steroids

Analysis: The president's personal battle with Covid-19 is amplifying his approach to politics, not altering it.
Image: Donald Trump
The president's latest strength-at-all-costs messaging represents a more highly concentrated version of the regular Trump.Alex Brandon / AP

WASHINGTON — Getting sick with Covid-19 didn't change President Donald Trump's approach to politics. If anything, his trip to the hospital amplified it.

The strength-at-all-costs messaging Tuesday, which appeared to undermine both the stock market and his own party's strategy on a coronavirus relief bill, represents a more highly concentrated version of the regular Trump.

This is the Trump presidency on steroids.

When he tanked stocks Tuesday by tweeting that he had killed stimulus talks, it was reminiscent of the time in late 2018 when he insisted on taking blame for an impending federal government shutdown. Jaws dropped in Washington and New York, as did the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

"The president is living in a pre-COVID economic mindset, and it's a huge miscalculation on his part," Anthony Scaramucci, managing partner of SkyBridge, a hedge fund, and a former Trump White House communications director, said via text message. "He does not want to sign this bill because he views it as [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi's bill and a win for Democrats, ignoring the fact that we've got people all across this country, through no fault of their own, suffering."

While it's impossible to come to an empirical conclusion about the causes of each upward or downward spike in the stock market, Trump's behavior in the presidency — especially when it comes to fiscal policy that affects businesses — has been so extreme, and so closely timed to market volatility, that most analysts believe pronouncements like Tuesday's have a direct effect on sell-offs.

"We are deeply troubled by the sudden halt of negotiations," the Business Roundtable, an association of corporate chief executive officers, said in a statement. "Millions of American workers, families and businesses are suffering from the economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and need the support of their government."

Hours later, after the backlash from investors and corporate leaders, Trump shifted his course. Now, he says, he wants to pass stand-alone bills to send out government checks to millions of Americans and provide other limited forms of temporary relief.

"I don't know how he has leverage," Brian Kilmeade, co-host of "Fox and Friends" said Wednesday morning.

The stimulus bill tweet was sent less than 24 hours after Trump played down the virulence of the disease and played up his own strength — "I feel better than I did 20 years ago," he wrote — even though it took supplemental oxygen and a variety of drugs, including actual steroids, to treat him.

In that way, he became the embodiment of his broader message on a pandemic that has killed 210,000 Americans and crashed the economy: it's not that bad and he has been uniquely suited to combat it. The problem with that tack, from a political standpoint, is that most voters think Trump has mishandled the national response to the coronavirus.

It is the issue, according to Democratic and Republican strategists, that has been the biggest drag on his re-election hopes.

Ron Bonjean, a veteran Republican strategist who spoke to NBC early Tuesday afternoon, said that it makes sense for the president to weave his personal experience with the disease into how he talks about the larger coronavirus response. But Bonjean, speaking before Trump dumped cold water on stimulus talks and then scampered to dry them off, said then that the president had an opportunity to show his own battle with the disease has been instructive.

"The key here is will he really push for that stimulus package, and that could show a result of understanding what it’s like to have Covid," Bonjean said. "That would be an immediate result."

It's also one that could still happen, in theory. But Pelosi, who had been softening her set of demands, can now walk away from a deal and point her finger at Trump. In the interim, the president has exacerbated the uncertainty that responsible businesses and investors tend to hate.

That helps explain why Wall Street investors have been moving toward Democratic challenger Joe Biden in the face of claims from Trump that he is responsible for a stock market that was robust before the coronavirus hit the United States and has mostly rebounded since.

Trump's compulsion to beat his own breast hardest when he is at his weakest appears to be a major force in his loss of credibility with the public. CNN polling released this week shows Biden leading him 58 percent to 33 percent among likely voters on the question of which candidate is most honest and trustworthy.

And he's never worked as hard to project strength as he has since he was infected with the coronavirus.