Sunday, October 4, 2020

Sunday Reading

Coronavirus and the Threat Within the White House — David Remnick in The New Yorker.

From the start of his Presidency, Donald Trump has threatened the health and the security of the United States. It has now been made clear that Trump’s incompetence, cynicism, and recklessness have threatened his own welfare. Even the best security system and the most solicitous medical officers in the world could not protect him from a danger that he insisted on belittling and ignoring. On Friday, at 12:54 a.m., Trump announced by Twitter that he and the First Lady had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. By the end of the evening, “out of an abundance of caution,” the President had gone to Walter Reed hospital to spend “the next few days.” The Trumps join the more than seven million other Americans who have contracted the virus. More than two hundred thousand have died from Covid-19, the disease it causes. Most of them were older than sixty-five. Trump is seventy-four.

The contrast between Trump’s airy dismissals of the pandemic’s severity and the profound pain and anxiety endured by so many Americans has helped define the era in which we live. Hours before he announced the diagnosis, Trump claimed, in a speech recorded for the annual Al Smith Dinner for Catholic charities, that “the end of the pandemic is in sight, and next year will be one of the greatest years in the history of our country.”

Any ailing individual ought to be able to depend on the best wishes of others—and on affordable, decent health care. Trump can depend on both, even if millions of Americans cannot. We can only hope that he and his wife get through the virus in a couple of weeks with minimal suffering, and, with prime medical attention and a modicum of luck, there’s reason to think that they will. But, as President and as a candidate for reëlection, Trump should not count on the silencing of American citizens—on a deference that he has never shown to the people whom he swore to protect and has not. Because of his ineptitude and his deceit, because he has encouraged a culture of heedlessness about the wearing of masks and a lethal disrespect for scientific fact, he bears a grave responsibility for what has happened in this country. It will never be known precisely how many preventable deaths can be ascribed to his irresponsibility, but modest estimates run into the tens of thousands. Yet Trump’s insistence that Americans pay the virus little mind never ends. Just before the death toll reached two hundred thousand, last month, he declared at a rally in Ohio that the virus “affects virtually nobody. It’s an amazing thing.”

In terms of scale, the West Wing is less like the Kremlin or the Élysée Palace than like the cramped executive offices of a medium-sized insurance company. The hallways are tight. The chairs in the Cabinet Room sit close to one another. The Oval Office itself, where Presidents routinely hold working sessions with many aides, is smaller than you might expect. And yet numerous reports in the press have described how, owing to the President’s attitude, employees, reporters, and visitors to the West Wing are disdained or mocked if they wear a mask.

The Centers for Disease Control and other public-health institutions have long said that wearing masks is essential to minimizing the spread of the coronavirus. Trump has been of another opinion, a delusional one. In April, as he would so many times, he waved the counsel away, saying, “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.” He went on, “I don’t know, somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute desk, the great Resolute desk. I think wearing a face mask as I greet Presidents, Prime Ministers, dictators, kings, queens—I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself.”

That this perilous variety of magical thinking has encouraged all manner of self-destructive behavior across the country—in crowded bars and on beaches, at motorcycle rallies, at Trump rallies––heightens not only the chances of lethal outbreaks in countless cities and towns but also the divisions among our citizens. Trump regularly mocks his opponent, Joe Biden, for taking care to wear a mask at public events. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask,” he said during Tuesday night’s Presidential debate in Cleveland. “He could be speaking two hundred feet away, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.” (On Friday morning, the Democratic standard-bearer tweeted, “Jill and I send our thoughts to President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump for a swift recovery. We will continue to pray for the health and safety of the president and his family.”)

It is difficult to overstate the psychological overload that the drama of the Trump Presidency presents to anyone who has been following the narrative. Take a week in the life: One day we learn that Trump, who is alleged to be the wealthiest President in U.S. history, paid just seven hundred and fifty dollars in federal income tax during his first year in office. Then comes a debate performance in which he tries to baselessly undermine mail-in voting and asks the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, to “stand back and stand by”—presumably, to be mobilized should he lose. He made it plain, as he has in his public speeches, that he is not so much running for reëlection as running against the election itself, hoping to invalidate its results preëmptively with threats and conspiracy theories. Then, at an ugly, mask-free rally in Minnesota on Wednesday, Trump riled the crowd, declaring that a Biden Presidency would “inundate your state with a historic flood of refugees.” Misinformation and violence, too, are contagions, and Trump, who sees only political advantage in fomenting schism and mistrust, has long been a superspreader.

There is no way of knowing how the President’s illness will shape the coming weeks. The polls suggest a motivation for the desperation of his rhetoric and his tactics: the last time there was a polling deficit like the one we’re now seeing at this point in a national election was in 1996, when Bob Dole trailed Bill Clinton all the way to Election Day. The President is obsessed with menaces—posed by shadowy members of a “deep state,” by “the radical left,” by foreigners of all sorts. But the gravest menace to public health and public order has come from within the White House. So long as Trump holds office, no manner of quarantine will suffice to contain it.

Time for the 25th Amendment? — David Frum in The Atlantic.

On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot as he entered his limousine after a speech at a Washington hotel. Reagan’s condition soon stabilized. He was released from the hospital April 11 and spoke to a joint session of Congress on April 28.

But in the first few hours, it was not clear whether the president would live or die. Paperwork was prepared to appoint Vice President George H. W. Bush as acting president. You can see it here, courtesy of the Reagan Library. The paperwork was never executed. Instead, the day after the shooting, three top aides visited Reagan in the hospital. They brought with them a piece of legislation that had to be signed that day. Reagan signed it. American citizens and foreign allies were assured: The presidency still functioned. Adversaries who might have been tempted to take advantage of a break in United States governance also got the message: Be warned.

(The legislation, in case you were wondering, blocked a scheduled increase in dairy price supports from going into effect the next day.)

The faction-riven Reagan White House was not always a happy place. But under the deft management of Chief of Staff James Baker (now the subject of a superb new biography by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser), the Reagan White House was a supremely functional place. It got the job done.

The Trump White House is not happy and does not get the job done. It is the most dysfunctional in history. Donald Trump is the most corrupt president in history. Yet that White House and that president head the government of this unfortunate country. Now that Trump has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and is being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, it’s important that Americans and the world know whether anybody is in charge—and if so, who?

Granted, Americans were asking that question even before Trump was airlifted to the hospital. The administration has given no straight answer even to such basics as “Are Trump’s tweets official statements of the president?” The U.S. government in court has sometimes argued yes. At other times, it has argued no. Trump notoriously spends his days watching television, and also notoriously trusts even the wackiest television talkers more than the scientists, military, and intelligence services of the United States.

Before Trump’s diagnosis, however, Americans at least knew that he was the head of government and the head of state. If a presidential signature was required, his was that signature. If an order had to be given to the armed forces, that order ultimately traced to his legal authority.

Now there’s reason to wonder: Is he still able to discharge the office from Walter Reed? If he’s not, U.S. law provides remedies. Either way, Americans and the world need to know.

That need raises special problems in the Trump era, because of this White House’s supreme dishonesty. Their words mean little. In the stress of 1981, the Reagan White House walked an extra mile to communicate assurance. I mentioned how faction-riven that White House was. When Reagan signed the dairy bill on the day after the assassination attempt, the three aides by his side were the leaders of the three big factions: not only Baker, but also his rivals, Michael Deaver and Edwin Meese. Nobody was left to linger behind to cast doubt on Reagan’s competence.

COVID-19 can be incapacitating, especially for older people and especially for people who are overweight, as Trump is. When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson entered the hospital for COVID-19 in April of this year, he formally deputized Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to oversee government for him. Such a transfer is a more serious matter in the U.S. system, formalized by law. Any administration might hesitate to acknowledge the incapacity of the president. But if the Trump administration is not going to invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment and its temporary transfer of authority from president to vice president, then it needs to do something else. It needs to communicate to Americans and the world that Trump remains able to do his job, if only to the same minimal extent he has done the job until now. And it needs to do that communicating fast—and as close to truthfully as this crooked administration can manage.

Doonesbury — Counting Crow