US President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. Picture: REUTERS
US President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. Picture: REUTERS

Washington — As the coronavirus inflicts ever more death and economic carnage across the US, President Donald Trump is resorting to his preferred and battle-tested tactic to fight the biggest threat to his re-election: diversion.

The shift was clear on Mother’s Day when he flooded Twitter with 126 posts, including promoting a tweet that called his own justice department “corrupt”. A day later, he accused Democrats of trying to “steal” a little-watched congressional race in California.

He continued his attacks into the week, accusing former president Barack Obama of unnamed crimes, then on Tuesday promoted a baseless conspiracy theory that MSNBC’s host Joe Scarborough had committed murder.

The totality of Trump’s display underscored the extent to which the pandemic has worn on the president, who has watched his popularity in key swing states plummet. Just two months ago, Trump was revelling in a booming economy and a field of Democrat challengers that appeared in disarray.

Now, he faces harsher realities: more than 83,000 dead people and an economy in the deepest contraction in memory.

The coronavirus has, meanwhile, crept into the White House itself, infecting staffers in vice-president Mike Pence’s office and one of the president’s own valets.

Recent polls show that public opinion of Trump is souring as former vice-president Joe Biden pulls ahead in crucial swing states, despite a shoestring campaign and self-confinement to his Delaware home.

Pressuring Fed and FCC

Just 43% of Americans approve of Trump’s Covid-19 performance according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll released on Tuesday. That’s despite 71% of those surveyed approving of the job their state governors were doing.

The coronavirus isn’t the first existential crisis of Trump’s political career. And in each instance, he’s survived and even thrived through defiant and controversial behaviour echoed and amplified in his outburst earlier this week.

After the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump cavalierly discussed grabbing women sexually without their consent, he invited women who had accused former president Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to his presidential debate with Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Facing an investigation into possible ties between his campaign and Russia, in 2017 Trump accused Obama — without evidence — of tapping the phones at Trump Tower. And amid heavy criticism over his administration’s handling of the post-hurricane humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, Trump said on Twitter that any National Football League player protesting the National Anthem was “a son of a bitch”.

But the pace and intensity of Trump’s display this week offered a barometer of the sense of urgency to rescue his own political fate. He sought to dictate Federal Reserve policy by calling for negative interest rates. He called for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to help pressure NBC News to fire Meet the Press host Chuck Todd.

By late Monday, the president appeared to boil over, storming out of a Rose Garden press conference after telling an Asian American journalist to “ask China” for a response to her question about why he compares the US’s handling of the pandemic to that of other countries.

‘Frustrated with the economy’

Allies and aides to the president acknowledge his frustrations and political worries, but say Trump is primarily concerned with the country’s health and economic security.

“In the conversations I’ve had with him in the recent past, of course he’s frustrated with the economy,” Stephen Moore, an economist who Trump at one point intended to nominate to the Fed, said last week. “I mean, we’ve lost 30-million jobs and he hates that. Any president would hate that, that we’ve shrunk the economy so much. And he’s eager to get Americans back to work and our economy back functioning in a safe and effective way.”

They also downplay suggestions that Trump might overhaul his campaign team in an effort to get back on track. Trump and campaign manager Brad Parscale both publicly denied a CNN report late last month that the president had yelled in frustration over slipping poll numbers. And three people familiar with the campaign denied a Vanity Fair report on Tuesday suggesting Trump is weighing shaking up his campaign team by installing Corey Lewandowski — who, for a time, led his 2016 effort — in a more significant role.

Still, the president and White House officials also believe the news media hasn’t given him appropriate credit for his handling of the crisis.

On Tuesday, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany opened her briefing by arguing that “contrary to some media pronouncements”, the federal government had provided more ventilators than were needed for coronavirus patients and denounced critics who questioned the availability of testing and masks.

A day earlier, Trump tweeted that members of the press were “truly out of control”.

‘I’m feeling it’

The White House has made clear Trump’s frustration over governors earning plaudits during the crisis. One senior administration official told reporters on a call on Monday that governors are taking credit for testing successes only after members of the administration helped them get supplies. And Trump himself tweeted on Tuesday that none of the state officials could have achieved success “without me”.

Ultimately, Trump’s displays represent a reversion to the visceral politics where he has always been most comfortable — he first entered the national political conversation in large part by falsely claiming that Obama was born in Kenya. And in recent days, Trump has made clear he’s listening to his gut as he makes crucial calculations about how to reopen the economy.

On Monday, he predicted an economic rebound unlike any in American history because he sensed a “tremendous pent-up demand” among consumers. “I’m feeling it,” Trump said. “I’ve felt things a lot over my life, and I’ve made a lot of good calls.”

Bloomberg