Business as usual for Trump as coronavirus spreads

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President Trump is taking a business-as-usual approach as the coronavirus spreads across the United States, attacking Democrats and “fake news” on Twitter while health officials warn of potentially significant disruptions to day-to-day life.

Trump, who spent the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, has been involved in aspects of the government response to the disease, receiving regular briefings from health officials and paying a visit to the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday.

But his routine and tone have largely gone unchanged as the severity of the coronavirus outbreak grows. The president traveled as planned to Palm Beach for a weekend of fundraisers and golf, and he turned to Twitter on Monday morning to Twitter to lash Democrats and the media even as lawmakers and Vice President Pence have urged unity in the face of a growing public health threat.

There are more than 600 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the United States, and at least 22 people have died from the virus, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins, with new cases being reported daily.

GOP Reps. Doug Collins (Ga.), who shook hands with Trump ahead of last week’s CDC visit, and Matt Gaetz (Fla.), who traveled with Trump on Air Force One on Monday, are now going into self-quarantine after coming into contact with an individual who tested positive for coronavirus, raising questions about the president’s own vulnerability.

But there’s no indication any significant changes are imminent for either day-to-day operations at the White House or Trump’s own habits.

“Reports that the White House has issued formal guidelines to staff instructing them to limit in-person interactions and meetings are completely false,” press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. “While we have asked all Americans to exercise common-sense hygiene measures, we are conducting business as usual.”

For Trump, that means keeping his travel plans, attending large political events and staying active on Twitter.

The president traveled to Tennessee on Friday to tour storm-damaged communities and meet with local leaders. From there he visited the CDC, donning a “Keep America Great” campaign hat as he periodically contradicted his own health officials and publicly attacked Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) as a “snake” while the state remains the epicenter of the virus in the U.S.

Trump spent the weekend in Florida, where he attended fundraisers, hosted the Brazilian president, dropped in on a birthday party for campaign official Kimberly Guilfoyle and golfed with members of the Washington Nationals.

“The fact that he’s still out there holding fundraisers and doing political events is really mind-boggling,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign. “His political opponents will use all these photo-ops against him.”

{mosads}With financial markets in free fall on Monday, Trump was on Twitter seeking to sow discord in the Democratic presidential primary, leveling unspecified allegations of corruption at former President Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden and suggesting that plummeting stocks were unrelated to the coronavirus.

Trump is expected to speak next weekend at the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Las Vegas, and he says future campaign rallies are not off the table, even as administration officials and health experts urge those most susceptible to avoid such large gatherings.

“He plans on still holding rallies,” Grisham said Monday on Fox News. “And I’ll tell you what, with our president — this man who doesn’t sleep and who I have seen work 15, 16 hours a day, every day — I have no problem thinking that he’s going to be just fine and just healthy.”

The president is an admitted germaphobe, and he has quipped in recent days about the coronavirus leading to the end of shaking hands, a gesture of greeting he says he forced himself to embrace when he got into politics.

But the coronavirus is becoming more widespread and its proximity more immediate.

At least one person who attended the Conservative Political Action Conference where Trump spoke late last month has tested positive for the virus, prompting multiple lawmakers in attendance to go into self-imposed quarantine.

The District of Columbia and nearby counties in Virginia and Maryland have all confirmed their first known cases of the virus in recent days. 

Trump, fixated on projecting calm, has been unbothered. His strategy for publicly containing the fallout of the virus has largely been to try and minimize it.

“I’m not concerned at all. No, I’m not,” he told reporters on Saturday at Mar-a-Lago. “No, we’ve done a great job.”

Over the course of a couple hours on Monday morning, he blamed the news media and Democrats for inflaming “the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant”; praised Pence and the coronavirus task force; touted the importance of his decision to curb travel from certain affected areas; and suggested the coronavirus paled in comparison to the common flu, a disease experts have stressed is not analogous to the current outbreak.

“Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on,” Trump tweeted. “At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

Trump’s running commentary on the virus has at times made it difficult for Pence, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, NIH chief Anthony Fauci and other officials to deliver a consistent message on the virus. They have had to defend or explain away comments Trump has made while simultaneously deflecting praise toward the president.

Health experts and former government officials expressed approval for how Pence, Fauci and other leaders of the coronavirus response team have handled themselves and the outbreak.

But Trump’s track record of making false statements and handling of past crises have severely undercut his ability to lead the country through the latest one, argued Tom Kolditz, a scholar at Rice University and former leader of the U.S. Military Academy’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership. 

“He’s just not suited for crisis leadership,” Kolditz said. “He’s too self-centered, he’s too narcissistic, and while people can kind of get behind that in more ordinary times, it scares people to death in a crisis.”

—Morgan Chalfant contributed.

Tags Coronavirus Donald Trump Doug Collins Jay Inslee Joe Biden Kimberly Guilfoyle Marco Rubio Matt Gaetz Stephanie Grisham

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