Hours after sending a letter to America’s governors sketching the contours of the administration’s strategy for reopening parts of the US economy as early as Easter, Donald Trump spoke at the daily coronavirus press briefing.
As these things go, it wasn’t a disaster, although parts of it were characteristically transparent in terms of Trump pandering to the narrow interests of corporate America and business luminaries while attributing their views to society more generally.
For example, Trump insisted he’s “hearing it loud and clear from everybody [that] people want to go back to work”. “This is a country that was built on getting it done”, he said, gesticulating with two clinched fists for effect.
That’s true in a kind of generic sense. That is, anybody who was working, bringing home a steady paycheck and enjoying health benefits, but who is now suddenly jobless, certainly wants to “go back to work”.
But the idea that “everybody” is lighting up the White House switchboard begging Trump to abandon even the pretense of caution around the virus in order to put a stop to the sudden tsunami of layoffs is clearly ridiculous.
The reality is that Americans don’t know what to think right now. Sure, if you’re one of the record 3.283 million people who filed for unemployment benefits last week (see the visual), you’re scared and want to go back to work – that’s almost tautological if you equate not working with being destitute.
But you don’t necessarily want to rush back to work if the risk of contracting a deadly disease is deemed unacceptably high by, for example, the CDC. After all, when it comes to feeding your family, the only thing worse than being temporarily jobless is being permanently dead.
Trump was, in all likelihood, echoing the sentiments of some of the business leaders and investors he’s reportedly spoken to this week. Of course, he’s also looking out for his own political fortunes, which he seems to believe would be damaged more by a recession that clearly isn’t his fault, than by a bungled effort to restart the economy at the risk of public safety, which, if it went wrong, would be almost solely on him.
He also spoke a bit about world leaders’ commitment to sharing information on the virus, and said a hospital ship should arrive in New York on Monday, by which time the number of cases in the state will surely have grown dramatically if the last week is any indication.
In addition, Trump reiterated how crucial the airline industry is, in case anyone had forgotten that planes are generally more efficient than, say, bicycles and cars when it comes to traveling long distances. He then vowed to assist cruise lines. “It’s a big business, it’s a great business”, he said, of leisure ships.
In a truly unfortunate development that could only happen to Trump, the COVID-19 US infection total surpassed the case counts in Italy and China (on Johns Hopkins data) quite literally as he was speaking. This is where the numbers stood while he was at the podium:
“If I’m looking at the numbers correctly, the United States has now passed China as the country with the highest number of virus cases”, a reporter ventured. “Does this surprise you at all?”
“No, I think it’s a tribute to our testing”, Trump responded.
“You don’t know what the numbers are in China”, he went on to snap, waving his hand. “China tells you numbers and–“, he trailed off.
“I’m speaking to President Xi tonight”, Trump said, picking it back up. “But you just don’t know. You know, what are the numbers?”