Trump sees ghosts of hometown past and election future in COVID-19

Analysis: The president says he did more than nothing to stop the spread of coronavirus as he warns Americans that the coming week will be painful.

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By Jonathan Allen

If he had done nothing at all, President Donald Trump said Tuesday, the American death toll from the coronavirus would be geometrically higher than the low six-figure count he now expects.

In other words, it could have been worse.

Looking like he'd been visited by the ghosts of hometown past and election future, Trump deviated from his typically ebullient, brash and optimistic style to deliver a somber message much more in line with that of his leading scientists.

In doing so, a president who played down the threat of the virus for weeks, mocked critics who urged him to take it more seriously and publicly agonized over his decision to advise Americans to stay home landed again in the unusual-for-him position of readying the public for a terrible outcome.

"It's a matter of life and death," said Trump, whose native Queens, in New York, is at the center of the crisis, as he reiterated his call to extend federal stay-at-home guidelines through the end of April.

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"I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead. We're going through a very tough few weeks," he said. "We're going through probably the worst thing the country's ever seen. ... We lose more here potentially than you lose in world wars as a country."

Trump's abrupt shifts in tone are something Americans have become accustomed to as little more than theatrics — he previously did a day of real talk on March 16, only to revert to his old self after the stock market plunged. But Tuesday's change reflected an undeniable political reality: He can't afford to blow sunshine at the public as a plague forces unthinkable choices about who lives and who dies.

Both his legacy and his re-election hopes are likely to be defined by how he handles this crisis, and the judgment will be harsh if he appears to be deeply out of touch with public sentiment during a time of fear, grief and loss.

"I want to be positive. I don't want to be negative," Trump, who was informed over the weekend that most voters would rather stay inside a little while longer, said Tuesday. "I want to give people in this country hope."

The spread of the pandemic has taken that option away from him. Instead, he has been left with the task of persuading the public to ignore his missteps and focus on the difference between how bad things are and how bad they could have been. In that telling, Trump is the hero who fought off bad advice to spare millions of lives, not a goat who failed to heed alarm bells.

It's the version he told Tuesday, and it's likely to be the one he sticks with from now until Election Day. Rather than compare his actions to those of a hypothetical alternative president, Trump has chosen to make the contrast about the difference between what he did and what would have happened had there been no president at all.

While he acknowledged the spiking number of lethal cases and used charts to affirm the government projections that now suggest that 100,000 to 240,000 Americans are likely to die, he warned that the spread of the pandemic could have been on track to kill more than 2 million people in the U.S. without any intervention at all.

Indeed, he said, he was advised to stand back and watch.

"What would have happened if we did nothing?" he said. "Because there was a group that said, 'Let's just ride it out.'"

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Many top administration officials did very little for a long time. One of them was Trump. He curtailed some travel by foreign nationals from China to the U.S. on the last day of January, but he didn't appoint Vice President Mike Pence to run a coronavirus task force until Feb. 26. He held political rallies through Feb. 28, and he said just last week in reference to economic damage that the cure can't be "worse than the disease."

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, both repeated the line publicly as Trump moved toward a call to reopen shuttered businesses by Easter — less than two weeks from now.

But now Trump seems to understand that he can't will the disease into submission or convince the public that tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths aren't that bad.

He's right that he did more than nothing to fight the disease. His critics believe he did next to nothing. He has to hope the public believes it would have been worse without him.