In Depth

Coronavirus: is Donald Trump putting the US at risk?

The president is bucking the advice of health officials, arguing for a quick restart of the economy

Donald Trump’s reaction to the novel coronavirus outbreak, as it unfolded from foreign menace to rampant pandemic, has been inconsistent, but his approval rating has risen.

The coronavirus crisis is one that forces governments to choose between the outbreak’s containment or the economy’s health, and the former reality TV star has vacillated, reluctant to throw his weight wholly behind one course of action.

Countries with major outbreaks have, so far without exception, resorted to sweeping lockdowns, but in the federal system of the US, where there has been a surge to almost 70,000 cases and more than 1,000 deaths, the response has been more localised, with the extent of the restrictions varying state by state.

Trump hedges

The president seems torn. He was initially a skeptic, comparing Covid-19 to the common flu, but on 11 March he barred travellers from mainland Europe in an Oval Office address that sent the stock market tumbling. After that, he seemed to be willing to accept the strictest measures, on Sunday declaring the country at war “against an invisible enemy”, and himself a wartime president.

On Monday, however, he seemed to change his stance again. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” he said. “Our country wasn’t built to be shut down.” On Tuesday, he said he wanted the country “raring to go” by Easter.

Official government figures on jobless rates in the US are due out today, but the Economic Policy Institute predicts that 3.4 million workers filed for unemployment last week - more than “any prior week in American history”.

Of course, the president is right that this is a terrible price to pay - a point he illustrated idiosyncratically: “You’re going to have suicides by the thousands… Probably and - I mean, definitely - would be in far greater numbers than the numbers that we’re talking about with regard to the virus.”

Weighed against that, a research analysis by Imperial College in London raised the prospect that 2.2 million Americans could die from Covid-19 if the outbreak goes unchecked.

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The US Senate has now approved a $2trn (£1.7trn) coronavirus disaster aid bill, the largest economic stimulus in US history.

The plan, which is expected to pass the House of Representatives on Friday, includes direct payments of $1,200 to most American adults.

How is Covid-19 affecting US politics?

The cost of an economic shutdown is high, but given every society with a major outbreak has, in the end, chosen to counter the contagion, Trump’s continued hedging risks backfiring, if America is seriously buffeted by Covid-19 - particularly with a presidential election in November looming.

Nevertheless, as things stand, his approval rating is strong. “Forty-nine percent of U.S. adults, up from 44% earlier this month, approve of the job Trump is doing as president,” reports a Gallup poll from Tuesday.

“By calling for the economy to reopen, Trump will put the onus on governors, mayors and CEOs to keep it shut. That way he can seek reelection by saying the recession isn’t his fault,” writes Max Boot in The Washington Post. “But in the process Trump will risk the lives not just of those credulous enough to believe his pronouncements… but of the whole population. It will be much harder to enforce even statewide lockdowns if the president is saying it’s safe to go back to work.”

It remains to be seen if Trump is genuinely committed to keeping the economy open and active, even in the face of a Covid-19 catastrophe, or if he is playing the crisis with a signature spontaneity and reactivity, much as he plays to the crowd at one of his rallies.

In reality, next week he could be leading the all-or-nothing charge against the disease once again.

“If by September Mr. Trump and his team are bringing the U.S. through the threat from this pandemic, he will be re-elected,” argues Daniel Henninger in The Wall Street Journal. “Without a single rally. Rallying a nation is what gets presidents remembered.”

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