Donald Trump has a plan.
In some cases, those might very fairly be described as the five most dangerous words in the English language – when arranged together, in that order, anyway.
In a letter to the nation’s governors on Thursday, Trump said he intends to establish a kind of ranking system wherein the government will go county-by-county and assess the ongoing risk posed by the coronavirus.
This will be possible, Trump says, based on “expanded testing capabilities” which will “quickly enable us to publish criteria, developed in close coordination with the nation’s public health officials and scientists”.
The idea, obviously, is to relax protocols in areas where the virus isn’t prevalent or otherwise poses less of a risk, so that those parts of the country can normalize life and thereby revive economic activity.
“As we enhance protections against the virus, Americans across the country are hoping the day will soon arrive when they can resume their normal economic, social and religious lives”, the president writes.
To be sure, Trump is one of those “Americans”. That is, he’s an American hoping very much that life will get back to normal “soon”, where “soon” means in time to make sure his poll numbers aren’t affected by the public health crisis.
The president has been rattled over the past two weeks by increasingly dour economic forecasts emanating from Wall Street. Thursday’s horrific jobless claims data underscored just how catastrophic the damage to the economy is likely to be in the event the myriad containment efforts currently in place across the country remain in effect for several months.
Of course, reopening the economy prematurely comes with its own set of risks – namely that hundreds of thousands of people might get sick, and at least some of the sick will die.
Trump has argued that between suicides and other deleterious side effects of a depression-like slump in the economy, the “cure” may be “worse than the disease”.
But that kind of utilitarian logic isn’t likely to play well with voters in November if, for example, the economy ramps back up only to see infections spike forcing a second shutdown.
Trump is obviously aware of that risk, but based on his rhetoric this week (the president has suggested, on at least a half-dozen occasions, that Easter would be a good time to reopen parts of the country) it’s a chance he’s willing to take.
In the letter to governors (some of whom are presiding over shelter-in-place orders for millions of Americans), Trump attempts to strike a heartwarming tone that suggests he’s concerned first and foremost about the public health risk and the lives lost to the virus.
“A number of our fellow citizens have tragically succumbed to its ravages, while many more are fighting for their lives”, Trump says. “We mourn alongside those who have lost loved ones and we send our prayers for the recovery of all who are still sick”.
One person who isn’t sure Trump has a solid grip on this situation is Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC. Here’s what she told The Hill, in an exclusive interview on Thursday:
We’re looking at our flu syndromic data, our respiratory illness that presents at emergency departments. Across the country there’s a number of areas that are escalating. The numbers in New York are so large that they show up, but we’re looking at increases over time and we’re really seeing some in a number of places. It would be surprising to me based on what I’ve seen about how this virus spreads if it were not going to increase in many other parts of the country.
From a political strategy perspective, it’s not obvious that this is a gamble Trump should take.
After all, a recession is now inevitable. There is virtually no chance of averting a steep downturn. The scientific community is generally optimistic that with the proper management, the virus can be “defeated” – that the curve can be “flattened” in relatively short order.
Meanwhile, the Fed and Congress have stepped in with trillions upon trillions of stimulus in the single-largest coordinated monetary-fiscal disaster response in the nation’s history.
Given that, and because nobody is likely to blame Trump for the recession, it seems as though the safest strategy for the White House headed into the election is to simply accept the economic pain, knowing it will likely prove fleeting, and then count on the stimulus to turbocharge a bounce-back starting (at the latest) in the fourth quarter.
But of everything Trump has been accused of over the course of his life, being scrupulously prudent isn’t on the list.
So, as the president would put it, “we’ll see what happens”.
Bonus: Below are two highly germane excerpts from an interview Anthony Fauci granted to NPR on Thursday
At White House briefings, you and Dr. Deborah Birx have talked about an interesting scenario where scientists are able to gather data about cases all across this country and then policymakers can tailor their response based on local characteristics, like “how bad is it here?” Do you have the data you need now to tell different areas of the country they should be doing different things?
We are quickly getting to the point where we will be able to get that data. But you are correct. To be honest, we don’t have all that data now uniformly throughout the country to make those determinations. But that’s a major, primary goal that we have right now, is to get those data, because you have to make informed decisions and your decisions are informed by the information you have.
The president said this week that he’d like to see the economy reopened, up and running by Easter. That’s April 12. There seem to be real risks if states and communities come out of shutdowns too early. What are you advising right now? Should we even be considering April 12?
The president has set April 12 as an aspirational goal. He knows, and we’ve discussed this with him, that you have to be very flexible on that. He put that out because he wanted to give some hope to people. But he is not absolutely wed to that. And he keeps saying that although he would like that to be the date, he’s open-minded and flexible to make sure that the facts and the pattern of the virus determine what we do.