Coronavirus pushes Trump into a 'fiasco vortex' as events spin out of administration's control
WASHINGTON - Donald Trump's White House has never been quiet. It should never be quiet. Right from the start, its old-fashioned administration was governed by a motto borrowed from the Whiz kids of Silicon Valley: move fast and break things. When things looked chaotic at times, the President and his closest advisers found that it was simply the result of a movement official Washington was not used to.
That strategy seemed to work, if less as a government philosophy than as an ongoing "library ownership" prepared for Fox News. Then the coronavirus came and threw an unruly White House into the kind of cinematic clutter critics had long feared. Now that the president and many of his closest associates are sick and the chances of a new coronavirus bailout seemingly full of uncertainty through a tweet from the president and the presidential campaign, it looks like Trump has finally lost control of the narrative.
The coronavirus outbreak in the White House, which seems to be stretching by the hour, has transformed Trump's presidency into what leading Washington crisis relations expert Eric Dezenhall wrote in “Glass Jaw: A Manifesto Defending Fragile Reputations in a Time of Immediate Scandal. “Dezenhall, who has worked for the Reagan administration and whose clients have included Enron executives and Michael Jackson's attorney in recent years, says the fiasco vortex is a phenomenon in which crisis overtakes a public figure and destroyed all attempts to impose a favorable cast on developments. Fiasco will be the only development people see.
President Trump speaks to journalists on the south lawn of the White House before traveling to Walter Reed Hospital on October 2. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
As always, the president's Twitter feed is a powerful indicator, in this case of a president dangerously removed from reality. Full of steroids and vitriol, Trump relitated the 2016 elections, celebrated bartenders in Washington, DC who openly opposed mask orders, and gave unfounded warnings that the Democrats wanted to "permanently" close the places of worship. There was no concern for White House staff who, when they got to work, were working in a presidential viral miasm. Not even for those who were already sick and quarantined, let alone the legions of White House staff who were simply seeking direction and reassurance from their boss.
"Repeal Section 230 !!!" darkly tweeted the man who enjoyed comparison with Winston Churchill during the Battle of Britain. Nobody but his most dedicated supporters could possibly have known what he meant or what Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act had to do with the pandemic, which is currently killing Americans at the rate of around 800 a day. The answer is nothing.
It was almost as if the president wanted to confirm that reports of a "collapse of the west wing," as the Axios news agency described the situation, were not only true, but perhaps too mild in their assessment.
"I think this is outside of management as Trump cannot be administered," Dezenhall concludes. “He's always got on in chaos. There is no strategy here. You won't see a cool, new Kennedy-esque Trump taking control of the situation in the west wing.
In addition to the flood of complaints full of tweets, Trump has published relentlessly optimistic videos about his own health. But these do not seem to have reassured anyone, least of all the presidential aides, many of whom seem as confused and confused as the American public at large. On the weekend of October 2, a reporter from New York Magazine asked a senior White House official what kind of notices had been sent about the country's newest coronavirus hotspot at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
President Trump speaks outside the White House on Thursday, where he is being treated for COVID-19. (@ realDonaldTrump / via Reuters)
"It's easy," replied the employee. "We don't get any."
That confusion was reflected in polls in which Trump fell apart in both national and battlefield state polls against his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. It has less to do with what Biden did than what he avoided, which is to scare an already confused nation with the feeling of a west wing in utter disarray, unwilling to answer simple questions as to when The first time President learned that he was sick, or what the White House Medical Department is doing to keep others in the building safe.
"Right now, Biden is teaching a master class on how your opponent's candidacy can self-destruct," tweeted David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, which analyzes the races of Congress. While Democrats talk about winning Texas, Republicans resent how Trump can promise to get 300 million Americans to safety when he has had such obvious problems dealing with the pandemic at the executive mansion.
A Republican Senate assistant who previously worked in the Trump administration was ruthless and asked to rate the president's performance over the past few days. "On a scale from one to ten, with 10 being perfect, President Trump would handle 0.000001," he told Yahoo News.
For three years, some of the president's closest advisors have argued that trying to contain Trump's shambolic energy was a mistake. On the contrary, letting go of that energy on Pennsylvania Avenue was the whole reason he was elected by the American people. You had to let Trump be Trump, these advisors argued. That was the whole point of Trump.
"Burn down and entertain" was the modus operandi, says Dezenhall, the crisis management expert. "Until last February he was doing these things perfectly."
Republicans who hadn't been part of Trump's inner circle came to this view, even if it meant that they were often briefed on White House policies by Twitter or Fox News. That was the price of “winning,” many of them thought.
"There was no chaos, just a method," a former senior Trump MP said in 2018. He said the breakneck pace should keep both the media and the president's democratic enemies forever off balance, unsure where Trump is might strike next. He could reverse environmental regulations, revise a trade deal, cut taxes or fly to a summit in North Korea.
President Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2019 in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
Neither allies nor critics ever knew what he was going to do, and that was the point. "We never gave you time," said the former MP. "We kept our feet on the gas."
Then the virus came.
The foot may still accelerate, but the Trumpmobil is now hurtling dangerously off a cliff. Trump had been trying to fight his way through the pandemic for months. Then, late last week, the coronavirus hit the west wing, and 2020 American politics reality show took a dark new turn.
On Friday, Trump traveled to the Walter Reed Hospital. Earlier this week, the White House outbreak had sickened an ever-growing list of advisors and aides. The joint chiefs of staff - decorated military veterans who represent the armed forces Trump allegedly worships - had gone into quarantine. The Senate, about to begin a Supreme Court confirmation battle, closed the shop. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell admitted he was too anxious to go to the White House given the negligence of Trump's coronavirus.
Halloween is still weeks away, but the White House has taken on the feel of a haunted mansion. Workers in full body suits moved grimly through the west wing and disinfected surfaces. Those who could stay away left the place to the essential staff who had no choice and the sycophants who were unable to abandon the man who had raised them from the darkness to the highest levels of power.
A member of the White House cleaning staff sprayed the press conference room on the evening of President Trump's return from Walter Reed. (Erin Scott / Reuters)
"I'm not surprised at this whole White House outbreak," said Olivia Troye, a former top advisor to Vice President Mike Pence who recently left the Trump administration over dealing with the coronavirus. It describes an inattentive, unpredictable president whose worst impulses are often triggered by his closest colleagues.
One of the most important is Jared Kushner, the influential son-in-law and adviser to the president, whom Troye describes as "negligent" for refusing to wear a mask despite his regular proximity to the president. Kushner had argued early on in the pandemic that the Republican president could well leave it alone as the coronavirus appeared to be largely destroying democratic states. The virus has since struck many Republican states, not to mention at least three Republican Senate members, and the seat of Republican power in the White House in a brutal confrontation with Kushner's reasoning.
Other advisors have fueled the president's belief that too much attention to the virus is succumbing to the establishment that its supporters have spurned. Instead, they pushed the president into superficial machismo and disregard for science.
From left: White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino, President's Aide Hope Hicks, and Senior Advisor Stephen Miller on the South Lawn September 21. Both Hicks and Miller later tested positive for COVID-19. (Andrew Harnik / AP)
That category included loyalists like Dan Scavino, the president's former golf caddy and current social media director. Back in July, Scavino shared a picture on social media in which he was Dr. Anthony Fauci, the widely trusted immunologist, mocked. His disregard of advice from Fauci and other experts helped Trump land in Walter Reed last weekend, but Scavino was uncowered and rushed to the president's side as quickly as he could.
Another longtime Trump loyalist, Johnny McEntee, had also fueled the president's disregard for the virus. McEntee, a former University of Connecticut soccer player, had no political experience before joining the Trump campaign in 2016. He followed Trump into the White House to be fired in 2018 for financial inadequacies.
(Scavino and McEntee did not reply to emails from Yahoo News.)
McEntee rejoined the Trump administration in late 2019 when the coronavirus was about to hit American shores. Although he had no experience that might be required for the job, he was appointed head of the White House Human Resources office, a position in which he allegedly identified disloyal candidates across the executive branch. In their place came people like Michael Caputo, who became a senior communications officer for the Department of Health and Human Services in April. Caputo's accomplishments included silencing scientists and, what would prove the keystone of his brief career as a federal employee, railing against assassinations by political rivals in a live Facebook video.
Caputo has since returned to his hometown of Buffalo, New York, where he is receiving cancer treatment. And while his fate was played out in public, there have been countless instances of public health professionals being asked to either remain silent or find other employment. The result was that the fall of the White House was left to its own disastrous machine, isolated not only from the broader community of policymakers and advisers, but also from experts working directly on the administration.
In other words, what happened in the west wing is an epic self that was months if not years in development.
And there is hardly anyone who can stop it now. Of the four men who have served as Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows was the closest to Trump and not infrequently turned up for social events at the Trump International Hotel in pre-pandemic times. Although the former Freedom Caucus member who represented western North Carolina in the House may not have been an original Trump supporter, his deference proved convincing enough to get him the job after Trump hired his third boss, Mick Mulvaney, fed up.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows will be interviewed outside the villa on Wednesday. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Meadows, branded an "idiot" by compatriot Republican John Boehner, former House Speaker, lacked none of the management skills that could help the west wing with its worst health crisis in generations. He gave confusing information about the President's health and seemed to ignore that the health of hundreds of White House staff was also at stake.
"If I were a middle-level employee there, I would be pretty mad at Meadows," a former administrator told Politico. "It's hard to see," said another former official of Meadows' performance.
Others had boldly predicted that the virus was nothing to fear. Marc Short, a top pence adjutant, introduced the Dr. Deborah Birx, a prominent member of the White House's coronavirus task force, frequently questioned introduced models. Stephen Miller, one of Trump's closest advisors, fed the president's resentment that could just as easily be applied to the pandemic as it was to Miller's main concern, immigration.
Neither of these aides seemed to realize that their laissez-faire approach would almost certainly invite the coronavirus into the west wing. Instead, they have stubbornly rejected this terribly obvious conclusion.
The lack of preparation was amazing as the White House had known for months that the coronavirus was trying to sneak through the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. During the summer, Katie Miller, a pence spokeswoman, fell ill from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Several other employees also fell ill. But instead of tightening restrictions, the White House relaxed them, dropping temperature controls in June, and ending the mask requirement just a month after being asked to wear them.
Trump's bravery was demonstrated by Dr. Scott Atlas, a Stanford radiologist named Best Coronavirus Advisor to the President in August. Atlas, unfamiliar with pandemic responses, advocated a light-hearted stance on the coronavirus when advocated by Fauci and Birx, experts who led the White House task force through much of spring and early summer.
Atlas, who refused to reply to multiple Yahoo News emails, opposed wearing masks and locks. He advocated allowing the virus to spread through the population until enough Americans were infected to achieve herd immunity, an approach that had failed in Sweden. But when the coronavirus hit the White House, Atlas, like Napoleon, withdrew from Moscow. He has not been heard from in days, which seems to be tacit confirmation that his advice to the president was worthless.
President Trump listens to White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Scott Atlas, during a press conference on Sept. 23 too (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)
Meanwhile, efforts to trace contacts were so desperate that the District of Columbia government issued a letter asking people who may have been infected at the White House in the past few days and weeks to contact appropriate health officials to turn. It was an amazing and stinging rebuke from the government of a city that the Republicans relentlessly disapproved of as broken and dysfunctional. In fact, the district had been exemplary in containing the coronavirus until its efforts were thwarted by Trump's irresponsible behavior.
Supporters believe the American people will celebrate Trump's return to health. They insist the polls are wrong. Corey Lewandowski, Trump's first campaign manager during the 2016 competition, was reluctant to imagine that the president had to be "rescued" from his own crisis.
"He wins," Lewandowski told Yahoo News. "Winners don't have to be saved."
Others believe that once the chaos worked to Trump's advantage, it could do so again. Back in 2018, commentator Lance Morrow published a comment in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Trump's Theory of Chaos". Morrow argued that Trump thrived in what a 19th-century French anarchist called "the fertility of the unexpected."
Two years later, Morrow believes Trump can still use the chaos to his advantage, even if that chaos now lives inside the gates of the White House. "Yes, I think it can still be to his advantage, although there is now of course more sheer Trump fatigue and more familiarity with his ways," Morrow told Yahoo News. "I think the fertility of the unexpected works well for Trump in part because the MSNBC / CNN brigade has a dependable, humorless moral dudgeon made up of not-very-smart pastors and scolders." As tired as people may be of Trump, Morrow said they are even more tired of media doing nothing but attacking him.
The main problem with this argument is that Jake Tapper and Rachel Maddow will not be elected in November. More than usual in presidential re-election campaigns, it is a referendum on a deeply polarizing incumbent and, in particular, on his handling of the pandemic. The White House outbreak does not help his case.
Only 39 percent of respondents in a new CNN poll said Trump had "plans for problems" and only 43 percent said he was protecting the nation. Those were goddamn numbers for a 2016 candidate who portrayed himself as a leadership genius who would make national security a priority.
"I certainly don't see any indication that a group outside of Trump's base is gathering around him," University of Virginia poll expert Larry Sabato told Yahoo News. "He stepped on his own wave of sympathy with his irresponsible behavior towards the virus."
"A massive mobilization of Trump voters" remains the president's best hope, says Sabato. "They insist that a big surprise is coming." Whether this persistence reflects reality or some other fit of self-delusion will soon become clear.
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