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Coronavirus could keep Trump in the White House

Coronavirus could keep Trump in the White House
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I spent 25 years prosecuting conspiracy cases for the Department of Justice, so I admit that when I see something horrible occur, my mind defaults to conspiracy analysis. That happened Sunday morning, as pictures of the havoc from President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE’s coronavirus travel ban spread over news outlets and social media.

In an alleged effort to reduce the transmission of a virus that is sickening people across the globe, Trump ordered that all incoming flights from Europe be funneled into only 13 U.S. airports in major cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, and Atlanta. Ostensibly, this would allow U.S. officials to screen for the virus in people arriving from Europe, parts of which have rampant infection rates. The disaster that followed seemed easy to anticipate. Because 13 airports had to handle the volume that traditionally was spread across hundreds, the 13 airports experienced massive overcrowding from travelers arriving from Europe.

So much for the “social distancing” Trump and his administration were touting as an effective way to stem the spread of the virus. 

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Hundreds of potentially infected passengers arriving from Europe were packed together, shoulder-to-shoulder, for hours, as they were squeezed through narrow lines that led to a “screening” in which their temperature was taken. 

Current medical consensus is that someone infected with the coronavirus is highly contagious before symptoms appear. So a person can have a normal temperature, yet carry the virus and unintentionally pass it to others. 

This means that Trump’s screening plan offered little likelihood that people arriving from Europe with coronavirus would be prevented from entering the U.S. — but it did ensure that those who did have the virus were breathing, coughing, and sneezing on uninfected people as they spent hours trying to make their way through Customs and Border Protection lines. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were likely exposed to coronavirus at the airport, before they caught their connecting flights to disperse across the country.

On Sunday, Chicago Mayor, Lori Lightfoot, tweeted an angry and desperate plea that Trump rescind the policy because it was “putting Americans in danger” and forcing an “even greater health risk.”

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker was less reserved, demanding the Trump administration “get its s@#t together.”

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Trump and his Republican defenders have a long history of excusing Trump’s most egregious actions as either a bad joke or innocent political inexperience. This was their defense for: publicly asking Russia to hack Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary and Chelsea Clinton to host series based on their book 'Gutsy Women' Democrats see spike in turnout among Asian American, Pacific Islander voters Biden officially announces ex-Obama official Brian Deese as top economic adviser MORE’s emails; twisting the arm of the FBI Director to convince him to drop a criminal investigation; and soliciting a foreign government to investigate a political rival. Trump has played the “I’m too stupid to know better” card too frequently for it to be believable.

The president had access to advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the Surgeon General, the Department of Homeland Security . . . and Jared Kushner. Trump had to anticipate his plan would transform designated airports into virtual petri dishes and expose people to coronavirus as they attempted to make their way into this country. 

There has already been credible reporting that Trump’s response to the coronavirus outbreak was shaped by his assessment of how it will affect him politically. Early on, when containment was possible, Trump refused wide-spread testing for fear it would reveal additional infections and negatively impact his re-election bid. 

If Trump had quickly contained the spread of the virus, he would have been a hero. But, as is often the case, Trump’s shortsighted effort at gaming a personal advantage caused him to miscalculate. His effort to stymie testing and honest disclosure of the threat posed by the virus did not make it “disappear,” as he wishfully predicted. Instead, the virus has exponentially spread, and scientists say it is going to get worse before it gets better.  

If Trump loses the 2020 election, he will no longer have the protection that prevents a sitting president from being indicted. A cornered Trump is a dangerous Trump. When former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Federal student loan payment suspension extended another month Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week MORE’s poll numbers showed he would likely defeat Trump in the upcoming election, Trump panicked and committed an act — some say a crime — that resulted in his impeachment. 

Unsettling as it is to contemplate, there is a political advantage for Trump in the coronavirus. The national chaos, disruption, and uncertainty that will come from a worsening pandemic brings with it the promise of tolerance for norm-breaking presidential action that would have Americans marching in the streets under any other circumstance.   

We’re more than half-way there already. Without objection, our airport borders have closed to foreigners. People’s fortunes are lost and recovered by the day as the stock market loses and regains consciousness. Grocery shelves are empty from hoarding that evinces a fear of what is to come. Schools, restaurants, and movie theaters have shuttered. The government is telling us to separate ourselves from one another — for our own good. Donald Trump has declared a state of national emergency. And several states have postponed their presidential primary elections for the time being. 

Serious analysis has already surfaced discussing a legal means by which Trump could use the state of national emergency to avoid an election and stay in power.

Arguing that mass gatherings at election sites would present a public health risk, Trump could ask Republican-controlled legislatures to assign their electoral votes to him, without holding a public vote. If they agreed, Trump would have enough electoral votes to hold onto the presidency. Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern put it this way: “This maneuver would constitute an appalling assault on democracy. But it would be legal.”

If the next few months see a sharp decline in new cases of coronavirus, and things return to the way they were four weeks ago, this column will deserve no more concern than last night’s wailing kitchen smoke alarm, after I burned a pan of tater tots.   

But National Institute of Health’s Dr. Anthony Fauci has predicted: “We will see more cases and we will see more suffering and death.” Donald Trump has a history of doing himself, what he accuses others of doing. If rationing critical care hospital beds and ventilators brings pandemonium, as we watch loved-ones succumb to this virus, the time will be ripe for the president to execute the type of coup he has accused “deep state” Democrats of performing.

Yes, I know that what I’ve outlined is the stuff of Hulu adaptations of Margaret Atwood novels. I know that only the most narcissistic authoritarian would entertain doing what I’ve described. And I know that I really should not indulge my cynical prosecutor’s mind.

After all, what are the chances of this happening with Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Unemployment gains lower than expected | Jobs report lights fire under coronavirus relief talks GOP senators back Christian school's push for COVID-19 carve-out Bipartisan governors call on Congress to pass coronavirus relief package MORE at the helm of the Republican-controlled Senate and Donald Trump as the commander-in-chief of all federal armed forces?

Michael J. Stern was a federal prosecutor for more than 24 years with the Department of Justice in Detroit and Los Angeles, prosecuting high-profile crimes, including conspiracy cases related to international drug trafficking and organized crime. He has since worked on the indigent defense panel for the federal courts. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelJStern1.