WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump seems to be experiencing a different coronavirus crisis than the rest of the country. And his personal vision of it could spell a significant danger to his re-election campaign.
For many people, including most of the rest of the government, there's growing fear about the epidemic as it continues to spread into more states.
Markets in free fall are tearing chunks out of retirement accounts. The prospect of entire industries shutting down, from travel and tourism to live entertainment, threatens to send the economy into a tailspin. And that's to say nothing of the actual health peril that has public officials warning this could be just the beginning of a global catastrophe.
But according to Trump, everything's still "perfect," from the way he handled the outbreak to availability of test kits. Many Americans recall that he played down the threat last month — "the risk to the American people remains very low," he said as he questioned whether it would spread — and mocked politicians who implored him to take it more seriously. He used the word "hoax" at a rally in South Carolina, later explaining that he meant criticism of his response was a hoax.
So at the exact time when administration officials, state-level officials and the public needed the president to sound the alarm, Trump told everyone there was nothing to worry about. He tried to sell Americans on the idea that they didn't need to protect themselves because he had it all under control.
Now, the risk is bigger, both because of the slow-footed response and because it appears that investors, health officials and the general public don't feel they can trust what the president is saying.
All of that makes the coronavirus, and the potential for greater illness and economic damage it could bring, a singular threat to Trump's re-election. Even if minimal damage is done, many voters will recall that Trump either didn't see the possible risk, or pretended it wasn't that bad.
Even on Monday, he continued to minimize the problem, implying it was far less dangerous than seasonal influenza. "So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year," he tweeted Monday. "Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!"
His political opponents have taken notice. "Lives depend on the wisdom and judgment of the president," Pete Buttigieg, who recently exited the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, said Monday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
"And there are certain things that no one else in the government can do to coordinate the response, to manage the issue, to convincingly reassure the American people," he said. "And we don’t have that and that is incredibly costly. It's costly medically, it's costly economically."
The view on Capitol Hill is as obvious in the deeds of Trump's Republican allies as it is in the words of Democrats: What he's saying doesn't comport with reality.
Several GOP lawmakers have self-quarantined, after possibly making contact with someone with the virus — and, following that, with the president. A senior congressional Democratic aide told NBC's Sahil Kapur that Trump's use of the bully pulpit is causing deep concern in Congress.
"Members and staff are very concerned about the White House response and how bad this can get across the country," the aide said. "There’s a feeling that the country could look a lot different in two weeks' time in terms of people’s ability to move freely, go to work and school. ... There was a thinking developing that the country had made it this far without a genuine crisis that Trump had to deal with and may get through an election with the status quo holding. That’s not true anymore."
Indeed, this crisis is unique in the degree of difficulty for Trump because he didn't create it, he can't distract from it and he's already tried to make it go away with his patented "nothing-to-see-here" news conference in which he generally declares victory and moves on — this time, to no avail. If it gets better, not worse, it will be a miracle for public health and for his presidency.
Trump is sticking to the tactic presidents typically use to keep investors calm during periods of economic instability — sometimes resulting in stabilization, sometimes not. The old line is, "the fundamentals of the economy are sound." Variations of it have been used by administrations and presidential campaigns from those of Herbert Hoover to John McCain in times of distress.
Trump, however, is dealing with an underlying public health crisis, and underplaying that threat could have major consequences for both the safety of the American public and the relatively strong economy he has centered his re-election campaign around.
"The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation," Trump tweeted earlier Monday. "Far beyond what the facts would warrant. Surgeon General, 'The risk is low to the average American.'"
A tanking economy would put Trump in greater jeopardy of losing his job. Just a few weeks ago, before he was acquitted of House impeachment charges by the Senate, he delivered a relatively well-reviewed State of the Union address and watched the Democrats' Iowa caucuses fall apart. Trump was at a political apex.
But now, if the economy turns and more of the public loses faith in his leadership over his handling of the coronavirus, he could find himself facing an emboldened front-runner for the Democratic nomination for the first time since his inauguration. Former Vice President Joe Biden's commanding victory in the Super Tuesday primaries last week made him the prohibitive favorite to be the nominee.
Right now, Trump is fighting his own vice president over a matter as simple as whether to praise a Democratic governor who has worked with the administration on the coronavirus response.
On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence lauded Washington Gov. Jay Inslee for coordinating with the federal government.
"I do want to commend, Gov. Inslee, your team's effort and the seamless partnership that was forged from the very beginning between our administration and your administration here at the state level," Pence said Thursday while visiting Washington state.
On Friday, Trump chastised Pence for saying nice things about Inslee, who briefly ran for president last year, and called the governor a "snake," which did not appear to be intended as a compliment.
And as Trump persists in his disputes, Wall Street investors and Main Street voters are clamoring for him to take the threats to their physical and financial health seriously.