President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package Trump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal First rally for far-right French candidate Zemmour prompts protests, violence MORE is staring down the steepest crisis of his presidency and his handling of it could define his time in office.
The coronavirus outbreak presents a test unlike any other Trump has faced thus far. Past crises — mass shootings, white nationalist riots in Charlottesville and government shutdowns — faded out of the news cycle over time or were swallowed up by political machinations.
But the virus shows no signs of abating, and Trump and his administration are under constant scrutiny for their response.
“In something like this there are two central things that the public asks — am I going to be OK and what are you doing about it?” said Eric Dezenhall, a prominent crisis communications management consultant.
The result has been a stress test for the Trump administration over the past few weeks, as public health officials have increasingly taken to the podium in the White House briefing room to convey facts and recommendations to the American public that have at times been eclipsed or complicated by the president’s rhetoric.
Trump has at times adopted a more somber and serious tone when discussing the virus, but his tweets and misleading claims boasting of his own actions have been viewed as inadequate and distracting.
“I’m not sure this administration has the intellectual capacity or the strategic understanding to address this,” said a former State Department official who worked under the Trump administration and previous presidents. “I really do think this could end up being Trump’s Katrina where people finally begin to question his ability to govern.”
The White House rejected criticism of the president's handling of the public health crisis.
"While the media and those on the Left want to spin up fear and create panic, this White House is working around the clock to protect all Americans from the Coronavirus," White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement.
"As President Trump said this week, we are using the full power of the federal government and the private sector. The President took decisive action early on to close our borders to the source of the virus and it is because of his leadership and relationships that he has brought together government and private industry for unprecedented collaboration to curb the spread of the virus, expand testing capacities, and expedite vaccine development," Deere said.
Trump has taken decisive action at various times to try and blunt the spread of the virus. He shut down travel into the U.S. from China and South Korea relatively early, a move that has earned praise from allies and public health officials.
He has sought economic remedies to aid businesses and workers directly affected by the virus through executive action, and Trump on Friday declared a national emergency to free up additional funding and resources for the federal, state and local government to combat the virus. He also announced the administration would set up “drive-thru” testing sites in order to speed up testing.
But the president spent weeks in February downplaying the threat, a decision that experts say cost precious time in galvanizing resources. In interviews and public appearances, he described it as “very well under control” and suggested the virus would dissipate once the weather warmed in April.
As the number of U.S. cases began to increase, Trump on Feb. 26 delegated control of the federal government response to Vice President Pence, a move that was generally well received given Pence’s experience in government and serious approach.
But Trump has been unwilling to entirely sideline himself, and his public commentary has at times been damaging to the effectiveness of the government response.
He has continued to minimize the threat to the public, comparing the number of deaths in the U.S. favorably to other countries even as the U.S. number climbs each day.
During a trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent on March 6, Trump walked around the facility in a red “Keep America Great” campaign hat and offered insights that at times contradicted public health officials. He suggested he was opposed to allowing a quarantined cruise ship to come ashore because it would increase the number of cases in the U.S.
“In any other circumstances people go, that’s Trump being Trump, but now you’re messing around with our lives,” Dezenhall said. “Now we are talking about our lives, now we are talking about an economic collapse. The antics not only do not work, they’re a source of outrage for audiences beyond his traditional critics.”
Trump’s Oval Office address this week was somber and serious, but his message was marred by three factually inaccurate statements about his administration’s response that created confusion and spooked investors.
Multiple former administration officials said they thought Trump appeared nervous and uncomfortable as he strained to read the prepared remarks, and they noted he failed to address critical subject matter like testing shortages and hospital capacities.
And while he called for an end to partisanship, by Friday Trump was again taking aim at his predecessor, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden on Bob Dole: 'among the greatest of the Greatest Generation' Moving beyond the era of American exceptionalism The bully who pulls the levers of Trump's mind never learns MORE, blaming his administration for delays in testing and criticizing its handling of the swine flu.
The virus outbreak comes in a presidential election year and during a period of unprecedented partisan divide in the country.
A Quinnipiac University poll released this week found 43 percent of registered voters approve of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus while 49 percent disapprove. But those totals are split sharply along partisan lines, with 87 percent of Republicans approving and 83 percent of Democrats disapproving.
Democrats, including presidential primary front-runner Joe BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE, have at times harshly criticized the president’s response to and words about the virus, prompting accusations from some that they’re trying to politicize the crisis.
“They’re falling right into the president’s hands here,” said Sam Nunberg, who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “It seems to me that the president can easily argue that his opponents are wishing for the worst, betting on the worst and instigating public hysteria.”
Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden to tackle omicron risks with new travel rules Mnuchin and McConnell discuss debt limit during brief meeting Major Russian hacking group linked to ransomware attack on Sinclair: report MORE was the point person for negotiations with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiUS expected to announce diplomatic boycott of Beijing Olympics soon: report Pressure grows to remove Boebert from committees Lawmakers remember Bob Dole: 'Bona fide American hero' MORE (D-Calif.) on a legislative response. Trump was sidelined in the talks and skipped an annual bipartisan St. Patrick’s Day luncheon where he would have had to sit with the Speaker.
The president on Friday afternoon continued to express optimism, trying to portray his decision-making as ahead of the curve and telling reporters “I don’t take responsibility at all” for delays to testing the public.
“Our overriding goal is to stop the spread of the virus and to help all Americans who have been impacted by this,” Trump said. “This will pass through and we’re going to be even stronger for it.”
But the coronavirus is in some ways uniquely problematic for Trump.
It requires empathy and understanding from a president who has struggled to display that quality for extended periods. It has demanded a whole-of-government approach after Trump spent years hollowing out agencies of career officials and replacing them with acting leaders because he liked the “flexibility” that offered.
And public health experts say responding to the virus requires transparency from an administration dogged by its tendency to offer misleading or inaccurate statements.
“We pride ourselves on having a decentralized government, but in times of crisis you look to your federal government,” one former White House official said. “And if he’s not up to the task he’s going to take a huge hit.”