If we’re lucky, the White House press corps will make a fetish of the president’s physical health. If it doesn’t, we’re likely going to see a shift in its coverage, away from the administration’s bungling of a federal response to the coronavirus epidemic and toward a scorched-earth campaign to identify someone—anyone!—to blame for it.
Turns out someone who attended the Conservative Political Action Conference later tested positive for the novel strain of the coronavirus. That person, who has not been named, came in contact with a Who’s Who of the Republican Party, including Ted Cruz, the US Senator from Texas, and Mark Meadows, the president’s incoming White House chief of staff. (They and others haven’t tested positive but are quarantining themselves out of precaution.) Donald Trump attended CPAC—he always does—but after a press conference Monday, he pointedly did not say whether he’d been tested.
A president who does not say whether he’s been tested for a new disease after being in a context in which the new disease was present would normally be blood in the water. That’s just enough credible information to support legitimate suspicion that the president could be infected. That suspicion is likely to grow in volume and intensity the more the president refuses to say whether he’s been tested. But even then, given Trump’s vast record of dishonesty, few serious people are likely to believe him. As I said, if that’s where the press corps’ attention ends up landing, we’ll all be lucky.
If the press corps does not act with suspicion toward the administration, I’m afraid it will fall back on its hoary habits, behaving, as it often does, with endless benefit-of-the-doubt. Even now, after knowing everything we know, the press corps still acts as if there’s something unknown, or unknowable, about how Trump will behave during a national emergency. Respectable journalists from the largest and most trusted news outlets continue, to this day, to demonstrate an unwillingness to accept that this president is no ordinary GOP partisan. Trump is a fascist with no hope of redemption.
And yet we continue to hope. Why? A proper response to a viral outbreak requires a federal government willing to be honest with itself and the public at large about the severity of the outbreak. This president, as we know, does not tolerate honesty when the truth is at odds with his ego and self-interest. Public health officials were prepared to warn senior citizens against flying for fear of infection. But the White House overruled them. The elderly are, of course, among the most vulnerable to new viruses. The president, as he has time and again, put his interests above the national interest.
And why not? The president put his interests above the national interest when he involved a foreign leader in an international criminal conspiracy to defraud the American people of their right to fully consent to his rule. Trump’s White House withheld, knowingly and illegally, military aid to Ukraine in exchange for a promise by that nation’s president to announce an investigation into Trump’s likely Democratic rival, Joe Biden. In this, the president committed treason, and he got away with it.
Again, why not? The president has established the precedent, and continues to reinforce the precedent, that he is not only above the law—he embodies the law. In cooperation with nearly the entire conference of Republican senators, Trump successfully neutralized the constitutional authority of the Congress to hold any president accountable for his conduct. As the Washington Examiner’s Quin Hillyer memorably put it, the Republicans are now the party of “constitutional eunuchs.”
When the GOP acquitted Trump of two articles of impeachment brought by the US House of Representatives, it affirmed what the president took for granted—that his interests and the national interests are one and the same. It’s OK for the White House to break the law to block money intended by Congress to fund Ukraine’s war with Russia. It’s OK for it to take money appropriated for the Pentagon and spend it on building a southern border wall. It’s OK for the military to assassinate Iran’s top general, leading the US to the brink of war. It’s OK for Trump to ignore generally the will of Congress and hence the people. His interests, after all, are the national interest.
It’s a matter of time before the president is fed up with news of his administration’s inept response to the coronavirus outbreak. Expect him to identify a scapegoat. Expect him to double down on fascist programs already in motion: mass deportations, attacks on “sanctuary cities,” completion of a border wall, and more restrictions on more immigrants from more “shithole countries.” Expect him also to declare emergency powers of some kind. Punching down on the weak and defenseless, and violating civil rights and liberties, won’t do a damn thing to stop the spread of a virus. But it will give the impression the president is handling the outbreak decisively and competently.
The press corps, alas, is likely to follow Trump’s lead.
Let’s hope it makes a fetish of his health instead.