The Memo: Low trust in Trump mars crisis response

Trust in President TrumpDonald John TrumpMulvaney: 'We've overreacted a little bit' to coronavirus Former CBS News president: Most major cable news outlets 'unrelentingly liberal' in 'fear and loathing' of Trump An old man like me should be made more vulnerable to death by COVID-19 MORE’s ability to deal with the coronavirus crisis — and even to impart reliable information about it — is eroding, posing a significant danger to his reelection hopes.

In several polls, the share of the population that finds Trump trustworthy on the crisis is lower than his overall job approval number — an indication that the lack of public trust cannot be attributed only to the nation’s partisan divide.

The fact that concerns about Trump’s accuracy are felt beyond the ranks of his ideological foes could be a political time bomb as the nation begins to grapple with the tough question of when to begin reopening.

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An NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll released over the weekend indicated that Trump’s statements on the coronavirus were trusted by only 36 percent of voters. This is a full 10 points lower than the share of voters who approve of his job performance overall.

A Pew Research Center poll conducted April 7-12 found 57 percent of Americans saying that Trump had done a “poor” or “only fair” job of giving accurate information on the crisis, while 42 percent said he was doing a “good” or “excellent” job. That was a notch or two worse than his overall approval rating, with 44 percent approving and 53 percent disapproving.

On one hand, the numbers may not be all that surprising. Trump’s freewheeling performances at his near-daily press conferences have included hotly disputed claims about everything from the availability of tests to the likely effectiveness of anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine in treating COVID-19.

On Sunday alone, he repeated a previous false claim that he had “inherited” defective tests for the virus — something that is an impossibility since the disease only emerged in recent months — and suggested that “nobody ever thought” such a crisis could develop, despite long-standing fears about pandemics among public health officials.

There is also the broader issue of Trump’s reputation for exaggeration and untruth. A running tally from The Washington Post asserted that the president had made more than 16,000 false or misleading claims in the three years between his inauguration and this January.

Democrats contend that there is something particularly striking about the lack of public confidence in the president during a full-blown national emergency.

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“I think it is extraordinary that voters don’t look to their president to provide information during a crisis,” said Democratic strategist Basil Smikle. 

“There has always been this sense that, even if you don’t trust a political leader’s decisions about things like taxation and spending, average Americans do have this belief that the president would always protect them from harm,” Smikle added. “The fact that voters don’t look to this president to protect them in a time of crisis may be unique in the course of our history.”

To be sure, Trump’s base has proven remarkably resilient. The disparity seen in recent polls between his approval rating on one hand and perceptions of his trustworthiness on the other may highlight one of the oddities of his appeal to his supporters. Parts of the Trump base seem willing to back him even while not believing everything he says is accurate.

This hearkens back to the refrain heard from Trump backers during the 2016 campaign, when it was said that the media took Trump literally but not seriously, while his supporters took him seriously but not literally.

There have, however, been concerns expressed even by Republicans about Trump’s White House briefings on the crisis and the danger that they can be counterproductive because of their combativeness and his penchant for hyperbole.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamWhy do Americans worry about North Korea? Senate confirms Ratcliffe to be Trump's spy chief Abrams announces endorsements in 7 Senate races MORE (R-S.C.) told The New York Times earlier this month that Trump “sometimes drowns out his own message,” while Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoTrump tries to soothe anxious GOP senators The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - In reversal, Trump says he won't disband coronavirus task force McConnell under mounting GOP pressure to boost state aid MORE (R-W.Va.) said the White House events were “going off the rails a little bit.”

Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said he thought some of the criticisms of Trump were unfair, but he acknowledged that the president’s style sometimes backfires, especially in the current circumstances.

“When you are in the middle of a crisis like this, it is far more important that you be really disciplined and careful with language,” Mackowiak told The Hill. “He does wing it sometimes, and I don’t think that serves him as well as if he would be more disciplined.”

The trust deficit could become more problematic if states are judged to have opened too early, risking a resurgence of the virus. 

News emerged on Monday that Georgia is set to allow some businesses, including gyms and hair salons, to open on Friday. The state had about 19,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus on Monday, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Trump has been much more assertive about reopening than have some public health officials, including Anthony FauciAnthony FauciTrump hits Biden and Obama in defense of his golfing Biden swipes at Trump: 'Presidency is about a lot more than tweeting from your golf cart' Top New Mexico tourism official says mass gatherings may not be possible for 18 months MORE, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 

Trump, in a series of controversial tweets on Friday, called on people to “liberate” three states — Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia — where protesters had called for a loosening of social distancing restrictions. At Sunday’s White House briefing, he said that “some governors have gone too far” in their restrictions.

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Fauci, by contrast, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Monday that if states “jump the gun” on reopening, “you’re going to set yourself back.”

Fauci has consistently polled as a much more trusted figure than Trump on the crisis.

If the scientist’s caution ultimately proves more prudent than Trump’s approach, it could spell big trouble for the president.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.