Mar 15, 2020 - Politics & Policy

How Trump snapped out of coronavirus delusion mode

Hand over an alarm clock

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

It took a stock market crash — and a Fox News star's intervention — to finally snap President Trump's delusional and possibly disastrous fixation with treating the coronavirus like just another winter flu.

Why it matters: Because the government was so slow to distribute tests, Trump officials don't know how far the virus has spread in the U.S. 

Behind the scenes: The president and some of his team were in denial about the virus for weeks, portraying it as just an overhyped winter flu. Over the past week, per half a dozen Trump advisers, a series of alarm bells snapped them out of their complacency.

  • Trump has always treated the stock market as his personal ticker on his performance. On Thursday, the stock market had its biggest one-day fall since 1987's Black Monday crash.
  • On Friday, the White House Council of Economic Advisers sent a memo to administration officials surveying outside economic forecasts. Its finding, per a source with knowledge of the memo: The likelihood of a recession in the next 12 months had risen from a 29% to 37% chance. A second source confirmed the memo's broad outlines.
  • And a number of informal Trump advisers — including Fox News host Tucker Carlson — emphasized to the president that this was not the flu and urged him to act fast.

Trump's error-riddled Wednesday night address — which sent the markets spiraling — was the low point of a disastrous month for the administration. One senior White House official described it as "just awful."

  • The short, 10-minute scripted speech contained three policy statements that needed clarifying or correcting (including the president's erroneous claim that he would ban trade between the U.S. and Europe). 

The big picture: The calamitous speech obscured signs that the administration is hustling to get its act together.

  • The administration is finally clearing out the regulatory hurdles to testing.
  • Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin cut a deal with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to provide the first wave of support for people affected by the coronavirus.
  • All of Trump's top public health advisers supported the European travel restrictions, according to a senior administration official who was in the room for the conversations. They will extend the travel ban to the U.K. and Ireland on Monday.
  • Top administration officials are finally following the CDC's guidance on limiting the virus' spread. Though Trump himself shook hands in public as recently as Friday, Vice President Pence told White House staff on Saturday afternoon to avoid physical contact with others.
  • Pence is holding daily press briefings. Two sources with direct knowledge said they will continue next week.
  • And the administration is working closely with the private sector and the states. Senior administration officials said governors and more industry leaders will visit the White House this week.

Between the lines: Trump laid a trap for himself by falsely claiming the U.S. footprint of the virus was small and shrinking.

  • So what happens, one adviser mused, if these numbers skyrocket simply because the administration finally gets its act together on testing?
  • The data will stand in jarring contrast to the president's outlandish claims.

The bottom line: The president initially set impossible expectations. When the numbers come in, he'll have to face reality.

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