Trump’s self-interest is at odds with safe coronavirus policy
The deadly rampage of coronavirus across the United States has pitted President Donald Trump’s self-interest in maximizing his chances of winning a second term against the safety of the American public.
When Trump leaves office, the protection that prevents a president from being criminally indicted will be gone. Even before his impeachment, legal experts found ample support for the belief that Trump would be indicted upon departing the White House. The Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office has already essentially named Trump as an unindicted co-conspirator in a campaign finance fraud scheme that saw his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, sentenced to three years in prison.
This means Trump is almost certainly working overtime, figuring out how he can avoid indictment after leaving office.
The statute of limitations for most crimes is five years. Though there is a tolling argument that could be made, the better bet is that another term in office would run out the clock on many of Trump’s alleged crimes, including the New York Cohen case in which prosecutors have alleged Trump to be both instigator and beneficiary.
President Barack Obama handed Trump a growing economy, and its continued upward trajectory — as well as the ongoing devotion of his base — has been largely responsible for Trump’s white-knuckled grip on a presidency that might otherwise have fallen to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and impeachment.
Medical experts, including the National Institute of Health’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, have insisted that shelter-in-place is the best way to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus’s exponential killing spree. While home isolation dramatically reduces the transmission of COVID-19, its economic cost is devastating. Sounding the recession alarm, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said the coronavirus has led the economy into “uncharted territory.”
If the economy stays below sea level, there will likely be a return to the Bush-era recession — or worse.
There is a slice of voters who supported Trump in 2016 who could be convinced to vote for a Democrat if the economy continues to falter. This has not been lost on the president. Fearing a free-fall, Trump began laying the groundwork to end home sheltering. Last month, he tweeted — in all caps — “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.” And two weeks ago, he told Fox News he wanted the economy back in gear and churches “packed” by Easter, April 12.
Sending people back to work is the best way to jump-start the economy; it’s also the best way to spread the coronavirus.
And so there is an inherent conflict between Trump doing all he can to protect American lives by supporting continued shelter-in-place orders, and doing all he can to rev the economy as a way of supporting his reelection campaign — and the immunity from indictment that comes with an extended residency in the White House.
Public pushback from medical experts and governors made Trump reconsider his push to “open the country up.” Photos of makeshift morgues, videos of bodies being loaded into trucks and predictions of 2.2 million deaths if home sheltering is not continued helped convince Trump to extend social distancing measures until April 30.
While the immediate danger of Trump’s wish for “packed” public events has passed, it is a mistake to think he finally respects the health risk posed by this virus and is committed to doing all he can to mitigate it. It should not be long before Trump redirects his effort to resume the course he previously charted: people back to work and a growing economy, despite the human toll.
With any other president, we could default to the belief that he has the country’s best interests at heart. But if a Trump presidency has taught us anything, it is that Donald Trump’s first allegiance is — and always will be — to himself. Instead of using this existential crisis to bring people together, Trump has tried to take down anyone who criticizes his botched response to the pandemic, while simultaneously heaping undeserved praise on himself.
Trump absolved his failure to supply hospitals with adequate medical supplies by repeatedly implying that exhausted health care workers were stealing surgical masks (and apparently selling them on the black market).
And always looking to leverage a quid pro quo — in deed if not in word — Trump suggested that governors should withhold any criticism and instead be publicly “appreciative” in order to get life-saving federal medical supplies for their hospitalized citizens.
During his almost four years in office, Trump has proved to be a divining rod that can reliably find and effectuate the worst possible response to nearly any situation. If the past is any predictor of the future, we should brace ourselves for carnage.
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.