Donald Trump has treated the coronavirus public health crisis as a media war that he could win with the right messaging. But with cases now documented in 34 states and markets plunging, Republicans close to Trump fear his rosy assessments are fundamentally detached from reality in ways that will make the epidemic worse. “He is trying to control the narrative and he can’t,” a former West Wing official told me.
The problem is that the crisis fits into his preexisting and deeply held worldview—that the media is always searching for a story to bring him down. Covid-19 is merely the latest instance, and he’s reacting in familiar ways. “So much FAKE NEWS!” Trump tweeted this morning. “He wants Justice to open investigations of the media for market manipulation,” a source close to the White House told me. Trump is also frustrated with his West Wing for not getting a handle on the news cycle. “He’s very frustrated he doesn’t have a good team around him,” a former White House official said. On Friday he forced out acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and replaced him with former House Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows. Trump thought the virus was “getting beyond Mick,” a person briefed on the internal discussions said. Trump has also complained that economic adviser Larry Kudlow is not doing enough to calm jittery markets. Last week Kudlow refused Trump’s request that Kudlow hold an on-camera press briefing, sources said. “Larry didn’t want to have to take questions about coronavirus,” a person close to Kudlow told me. “Larry’s not a doctor. How can he answer questions about something he doesn’t know?”
Trump found a willing surrogate in Kellyanne Conway, but Conway’s dubious claim on Friday that the virus “is being contained” only made the P.R. situation worse.
Trump’s efforts to take control of the story himself have so far failed. A source said Trump was pleased with ratings for the Fox News town hall last Thursday, but he was furious with how he looked on television. “Trump said afterwards that the lighting was bad,” a source briefed on the conversation said. “He said, ‘We need Bill Shine back in here. Bill would never allow this.’”
Trump’s press conference on Friday at the CDC was a Trumpian classic, heavy on braggadocio and almost entirely lacking a sense of the seriousness of the crisis. “I like this stuff. I really get it,” Trump told reporters, his face partly hidden under a red “Keep America Great” hat. “People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors say, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should’ve done that instead of running for president.” At another point, Trump compared the situation to the Ukraine shakedown. “The [coronavirus] tests are all perfect. Like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect,” he said.
By now many of Trump’s advisers are numb to this kind of performance. “There’s very little that fazes anyone now,” a former official said. But one person who spoke to Trump over the weekend saw the press conference as an ominous sign. “He’s just now waking up to the fact that this is bad, and he doesn’t know how to respond.”
As Trump pushes a nothing-to-see-here message in public, sources said he’s privately terrified about getting the virus. “Donald is a famous germaphobe. He hates it if someone is eating nachos and dips a chip back in after taking a bite. He calls them ‘double-dippers,’” a prominent Republican said. Former Trump aide Sam Nunberg recalled Trump’s response to the last major outbreak in 2014. “When I worked for Trump, he was obsessed with Ebola,” Nunberg told me. (One Mar-a-Lago guest disputed this and said Trump was handshaking with gusto this past weekend. “He was acting like the opposite of a germaphobe,” the source said.)
Stories about Trump’s coronavirus fears have spread through the White House. Last week Trump told aides he’s afraid journalists will try to purposefully contract coronavirus to give it to him on Air Force One, a person close to the administration told me. The source also said Trump has asked the Secret Service to set up a screening program and bar anyone who has a cough from the White House grounds. “He’s definitely melting down over this,” the source said.
But thus far Trump’s private concerns haven’t affected his public response. Pressure from the public health community is mounting on Trump to cancel his mass rallies, but Trump is pushing back. “He is going to resist until the very last minute,” a former West Wing official said. “He may take suggestions to stop shaking hands, but in terms of shutting stuff down, his position is: ‘No, I’m not going to do it.’”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.