“Modified aspirational” is the phrase that Donald Trump used on Sunday, in another of his train-wreck press briefings, to describe how his goal of reopening the country by Easter might be substituted by the prospect of a return to normalcy by a June 1st deadline or sooner: “Maybe we’ll even beat it.” In Trumpian terms, it was a way of saying that his original goal had little or no connection to reality, certainly not to the reality of new models indicating that between 1.6 and 2.2 million Americans could die as a result of COVID-19 if no measures are taken. (These numbers, accepted by the C.D.C., are in line with earlier ones.) The same models suggest that, as Dr. Deborah Birx said on Sunday, “between eighty thousand and a hundred and sixty thousand, maybe even potentially two hundred thousand people” could die even if the country not only sticks with the current distancing measures but performs them, in Birx’s words, “even better, in every metro area, with a level of intensity.” Is that our modified aspiration? Dr. Anthony Fauci, in the same briefing, said that he always hopes to beat the models, which involves changing the “assumptions.” (The course of a new disease can be hard to predict; scientists are working on treatments and, on a longer timeline, vaccines.) Trump, meanwhile, said that, although two hundred thousand dead was “a horrible number,” compared with a potential death toll of more than two million, it would mean that his team had “done a good job.”
Even given the fierceness of the novel coronavirus, it was not inevitable that we would arrive at this juncture. The Administration wasted a month; early testing was a failure; Trump, in his words and his actions, undermined mitigation efforts. (My colleague Isaac Chotiner took a look at where some of the catastrophically bad assumptions came from.) None of these scenarios were inevitable. But so far, some of the lowest expectations about the kind of President that Trump could be in this crisis have proved optimistic. It is tempting to tune him out and focus instead on what Americans can do on a state, local, and individual level—in the last category, practice rigorous social distancing to flatten the curve. And yet Trump’s behavior this weekend inspired a new set of desperate, modified aspirations for the least that he might do going forward.
Could he please avoid provoking panic by casually proposing a three-state “quarantine”—covering New York, New Jersey, and some or all of Connecticut—as he did on Saturday, only to discard the idea? The terms and the specific legal authority for the phantom quarantine were never quite clear—only the alarm and the forlorn feeling, for those who live in those states, that they might be used as the scapegoat for this disaster. (In some ways, it’s a red-state-blue-state variation on Trump’s “Chinese virus” xenophobia; my colleague Masha Gessen has an essay on the subject.) At the moment, parishes in Louisiana are suffering, too, and many places in between. As Fauci said on Sunday, “This can happen anywhere.” Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has simultaneously refused to close his state’s beaches and blamed New Yorkers for outbreaks. What will the rhetoric be like, with what encouragement from the President, when things get much worse?
And could he stop pretending that the need for supplies has been met, or never existed, and stop insinuating that anyone who says otherwise is lying? “Many of the states are stocked up. Some of them don’t admit it,” he said at the Sunday briefing. Yamiche Alcindor, of PBS NewsHour, asked him about his earlier suggestion that governors are asking for things that they don’t need. Trump interrupted: “I didn’t say that.”
“You said it on Sean Hannity’s Fox News,” Alcindor replied.
“Why don’t you act in—a little more positive?” Trump said. He had some advice for her: “Look, let me tell you something: be nice. Don’t be threatening.” He cut her off repeatedly and never answered her question. When Jeremy Diamond, of CNN, got the microphone a little later, he handed it back to Alcindor —behavior one might actually aspire to.
Could Trump not make governors, and also reporters, engage in rituals of flattery as a condition of his helping them? He tossed out that condition on Friday, saying that he didn’t see why governors deserve his attention if they aren’t “appreciative” (“If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call”), adding that he had told Mike Pence not to call Jay Inslee, of Washington, or Gretchen Whitmer, whom he referred to as “the woman in Michigan.” On Sunday, when Diamond asked him about those statements, it was his turn to be attacked, with Trump deriding CNN as “fake news.” He complained that all he was doing was demanding gratitude for his entire team, not just for himself—as if that made it better—and then repeated, “I want them to appreciate the incredible job we’re doing.” If the governors don’t, he added, “That’s O.K. But I don’t have to deal with them. But our Vice-President does deal with them.” It was, at best, a modified obsequiousness aspiration.
Trump might also refrain from finding other material ways to set states against one another. Governor Andrew Cuomo, of New York, and others have repeatedly urged the President for a nationalized medical-supply chain. Instead, Trump’s plan has been to have the states essentially compete for supplies. It is a fitful and disastrous way to work; it is both bad public-health policy and politically divisive. It would help, of course, if Trump could ever get his head around the numbers. He insisted more than once during the weekend that the projections that New York will need thirty-thousand ventilators when cases peak didn’t seem right to him; on Sunday, he hinted that New York is hoarding ventilators it doesn’t need. On Monday, on “Fox & Friends,” he said that so many ventilators are in the pipeline that “after this is over, they’ll be selling ventilators for a dollar a piece.” No part of that is true.
It has always been futile to expect Trump to be truthful. But could he, when facts are stated in front of him, hold back from spinning them into toxic conspiracy theories? On Sunday, another speaker at the briefing, a medical-equipment distributor, said that the number of masks used at one hospital in New York had spiked dramatically, from fewer than twenty thousand a week to three hundred thousand. That is not surprising, given the stream of people who may be infectious, particularly in the absence of testing, and the heroic work that medical professionals are doing to save their patients and themselves. Trump didn’t think so. “Something is going on,” he said. “You ought to look into it, as reporters. Where are the masks going? Are they going out the back door?”—he raised his hands in a questioning pose, as if contemplating the perfidy of nurses. “So somebody should probably look into that, because I just don’t see from a practical standpoint how that’s possible.” And, lest anyone think that the answer had to do with, say, strategic stockpiling, he said, “I don’t think it’s hoarding. I think it’s maybe worse than hoarding.”