The president's cure-can't-be-worse-than-the-disease logic is clear: As bad as the virus may be, the cost of the virtual national lockdown has grown too high.
Confronted with America's worst public health crisis in generations, President Donald Trump declared himself a wartime president. Now he has begun doing what past commanders have done when a war goes badly: Declare victory and go home.
The war, however, does not seem over. Outside New York, the coronavirus pandemic in the United States is still growing, not receding. The latest death toll estimates have more than doubled from what Trump predicted just weeks ago. And polls show the public is not ready to restore normal life.
But Trump's cure-can't-be-worse-than-the-disease logic is clear: As bad as the virus may be, the cost of the virtual national lockdown has grown too high. With more than 30 million people out of work and businesses collapsing by the day, keeping the country at home seems unsustainable. With the virus still spreading and no vaccine available until next year at the earliest, though, the president has decided that for life to resume for many, some may have to die.
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"Hopefully that won't be the case," Trump said Wednesday when asked if deaths would rise as a result of reopening, but added, "It could very well be the case."
"But we have to get our country open again," he continued. "People want to go back, and you're going to have a problem if you don't do it."
For a president who had staked his legacy on an economic record that was shredded by the crisis, moving on may seem like the best way to salvage his chances for re-election this fall. He tried to signal that this week by saying that his coronavirus task force would soon begin winding down.
By his own admission, Trump was surprised to discover that many others thought it was too soon to do that. By Wednesday he reversed course, vowing to keep the task force going "indefinitely" and promising that health experts like Dr. Anthony S. Fauci and Dr. Deborah L. Birx would remain part of the group even as he added other members.
....gloves, gowns etc. are now plentiful. The last four Governors teleconference calls have been conclusively strong. Because of this success, the Task Force will continue on indefinitely with its focus on SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN. We may add or subtract people ....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 6, 2020
Even then, the president tried to pivot by redefining the task force's mission to figuring out how to reopen the country safely and soon.
"I thought we could wind it down sooner," Trump told reporters as he hosted nurses in the Oval Office to sign a proclamation honouring National Nurses Day. "But I had no idea how popular the task force is until actually yesterday. When I started talking about winding it down, I got calls from very respected people saying, 'I think it would be better to keep it going.' "
That partial retreat did not mean that Trump had changed his mind about the broader direction. At a news briefing later in the afternoon, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, described the task force's battle with the virus as if it were largely past.
"They've gotten our country through this," she said. "There were supposed to be 2.2 million deaths, and we're at a point where we're far lower than that thanks to the great work of the task force and the leadership of President Trump."
The death toll Wednesday passed 72,000, or roughly the equivalent of every man, woman and child in Evanston, Illinois; Canton, Ohio; or Wilmington, Delaware, and far beyond the low estimate of 50,000 advanced by Trump just a couple of weeks ago. The widely cited model of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington now predicts 134,475 deaths by August 4, twice its previous estimate and about the population of Charleston, South Carolina.
Trump acknowledged the toll but characterized it as low compared with what it could have been. "It's a big number, but it's also a number that's the lower scale," he said in a separate appearance with Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa.
The president has made little effort to reconcile his increasing pressure to reopen with the increasing death toll, instead boasting that the government is now in better shape to deal with new cases with more ventilators, masks and other equipment.
"I think he has given up on the hard stuff and as a consequence is writing off people's lives," said Andy Slavitt, the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Barack Obama and now a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
"Not, unfortunately, in exchange for a better economic outcome," he added. "The economy — hiring, consumer spending, buying cars, getting on airplanes, signing leases — isn't going to happen. It's not going to happen until we have demonstrated we can navigate this global health crisis."
Most Americans do not have confidence in that yet, preferring that the president and their states take a slower course in the name of public health. By a ratio of 2-to-1, those surveyed by Monmouth University in a poll released this week were more concerned about lifting restrictions too quickly rather than too slowly. And 56 per cent said the more important factor should be making sure as few people get sick as possible, while 33 per cent said it was more important to prevent the economy from sinking into a profound downturn.
About half the states have begun to reopen their economies and public life in some meaningful way, and in some of them the risk may be low because they have seen only limited infections to date. But others are lifting restrictions on business and travel even though they do not meet the standards set by Trump's administration calling for 14 days of declining cases before the earliest steps.
In New York, the epicentre of the outbreak until now, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo acknowledged the difficult choices and has resisted moving quickly. "The fundamental question which we're not articulating is, How much is a human life worth?" he asked at a briefing Tuesday. "There's a cost of staying closed, no doubt — economic cost, personal cost. There's also a cost of reopening quickly. Either option has a cost."
Reopening while the virus remains unchecked could exacerbate the already disproportionate effects, experts said, particularly on lower-income families where breadwinners cannot work from home and have less access to quality health care.
"Doing so will result in many, many more deaths, with those deaths, of course, concentrated among less affluent Americans," said Jacob S. Hacker, the director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University. "And not just more deaths, but also a rationale for denying additional unemployment benefits and other vital assistance to those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder."
Trump argued that the country was better prepared to handle new cases even as doors reopened and that precautions would make a difference. As an example, he said Americans over age 60 and especially those with diabetes or heart problems should remain cautious about returning to work or public spaces.
"This virus is going to disappear," he said. "It's a question of when. Will it come back in a small way? Will it come back in a fairly large way? But we know how to deal with it now much better."
Remaining closed, he added, is not an option. "We can't have our whole country out. We can't do it. The country won't take it. It won't stand it. It's not sustainable."
In addition to the damage to the country, Trump has long viewed the pandemic through the lens of his political prospects.
He openly admitted in March that he did not want to let infected patients from a cruise ship disembark because it would increase the number of cases counted in the United States. He essentially made the same calculation Wednesday by saying that more testing only reveals more infections and therefore increases the numbers. "In a way, by doing all this testing we make ourselves look bad," he said.
Trump returned to his military analogy at one point Wednesday, calling Americans "warriors" in the battle and comparing the virus outbreak, which he blamed on China, to sneak attacks by Japan on December 7, 1941, and al-Qaida on September 11, 2001.
"This is worse than Pearl Harbor," he said. "This is worse than the World Trade Center. There has never been an attack like this."
As it happens, the death toll is now about 24 times that of the September 11 attack and 30 times that of the Pearl Harbor bombing, and still climbing. But Trump had no interest in extending the analogy to a long global war against tyranny or terrorists.
Instead, he said, for today's Americans, the front lines will be at their workplaces, schools, places of worship, street corners and shopping malls. "We have to be warriors," he said. "We can't keep our country closed down for years."
Written by: Peter Baker
Photographs by: Doug Mills and Joseph Rushmore
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES