The Trump administration on Sunday evening extended the social distancing guidance associated with the coronavirus mitigation push in the US to April 30, ruling out the president’s “aspirational” goal of restarting the US economy by Easter.
At a press briefing, Deborah Birx said that models projected between 1.6 and 2.2 million US fatalities without mitigation measures.
Trump dramatized an already dramatic situation.
“A lot of people have been asking ‘Well what would have happened if we did nothing?'”, the president said, conjuring the same cohort of unidentified Americans he cites whenever he wants to suggest it’s not just him asking around about something controversial. “We did nothing – just rode it out”, he said, waving his hands for effect.
“I’ve been asking that question to Tony and Deborah”, he continued. “Think of the number – 2.2 million people if we did nothing”.
“When I heard that number today – first time I’ve heard that number – you’re talking about 2.2 million deaths”, he repeated, at least five times. “And so, if we can hold that down to 100,000 – it’s a horrible number – we all together have done a very good job”.
And just like that, the goal posts have been moved. Now, 100,000 dead is effectively the optimistic scenario. Or at least that’s what one might be inclined to take away from the remarks Trump made on Sunday evening.
Anthony Fauci – who earlier Sunday told CNN that if he had to guess, the US may suffer between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths from the virus – said he believes the measures taken thus far are having an effect. He called Trump’s decision to extend the social distancing guidance through April “wise and prudent”. Fauci stood by his contention that more than 100,000 Americans could die from COVID-19.
Later, Trump denied that floating Easter as a possible date for reopening the US economy was a mistake, reiterating that it was merely an “aspiration”.
He also said he didn’t actually threaten to quarantine New York, but rather “just considered it”. Quarantines, he remarked, “are very hard to enforce”. Such a step would be “too much”. Andrew Cuomo on Saturday called any figurative or literal barricade around the state possibly illegal and tantamount to a “federal declaration of war”.
Asked what people who are concerned about paying rent should do while they wait on a check from Steve Mnuchin, Trump said he thinks “landlords will take it easy”. Suffice to say there are millions of people across the country keeping their fingers crossed on that.
As for “peak death” in the US, Trump reckons that’s about two weeks away. So, right around Easter, in other words.
“Easter’s a very special day for me. Wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches full?” Trump asked, during an interview with Fox on Tuesday. “You’ll have packed churches all over our country. I think it would be a beautiful time”.
As it turns out, the Easter idea was born when Trump watched a live-streamed church service by evangelical pastor Jentezen Franklin on March 15. “They’re going to show you that’s it’s just a bunch of empty seats”, Franklin lamented.
Less than 24 hours later, Melania canceled the White House Easter egg roll.
As dour forecasts for the US economy continued to roll in, the White House became increasingly concerned. Then, on March 20, Trump participated in a conference call with small business owners who generally suggested they would have a hard time weathering the storm.
Meanwhile, Jared Kushner and Kevin Hassett (who came back to 1600 Penn. to consult) convened a meeting in part to discuss a time table for restarting the economy.
48 hours later, on Sunday, March 22, Trump chatted with a dozen retired business leaders over the phone. Stephen Moore (the conservative pundit who Trump briefly floated for a seat on the Fed before it became apparent the idea was ludicrous) was on the call.
Moore told Bloomberg in an interview that he brought up the notion of declaring Easter “an economic resurrection day”.
Hours later, Trump opened his Twitter app and blasted out his infamous, all-caps “the cure can’t be worse than the disease” tweet, which was itself little more than a parroting of remarks by Fox host Steve Hilton.
“I think there is a kind of important symbolic importance of that date”, Moore told Bloomberg. “It’s a date everyone knows, everyone has their eye on Easter. It’s an appropriate time. We’d have had our economy shut down for a month, that’s a long time”.
“There was a concern – not unanimity, but consensus – that you had to have a reopening of the economy at some point soon”, Moore said, in similar remarks on Wednesday.
Moore, you’re reminded, is not actually an economist. And if Trump is an evangelical, he sure has a funny way of showing it sometimes.