(CNN)President Donald Trump wants America to know he’s doing a great job in keeping out the novel coronavirus, in a victory lap that could look premature if his own experts are correct in their more somber forecasts.
The President spoke at a news conference on Wednesday about the worldwide health emergency that has seen the virus sweep into South Korea, Italy and every continent but Antarctica, sounding as if the danger had already passed rather than was yet to arrive.
“The risk to the American people remains very low,” Trump said, as he unveiled his big announcement: Vice President Mike Pence will head the government effort.
The President’s optimistic performance came hours before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a patient in California who has the novel coronavirus might be the first person to be infected who did not travel to an afflicted region and was not exposed to another known carrier. The case raises the ominous possibility that the virus is already moving through the community.
In anxious times, including health emergencies, presidents are called upon to show authority and credible planning and to inspire confidence and national unity among Americans. The task is especially complicated for Trump, given the three years of divide-and-rule politics he has used to cement power, which has deepened mistrust among voters who do not support him.
His upbeat, election-year tone contrasted sharply with predictions from his government experts, who are warning of possible severe disruption to American life if the outbreak swells into a pandemic.
He enlisted some of those officials, who he touted as “tremendously talented,” in a rare appearance in the White House briefing room amid rising criticism that his administration’s response to the virus is too little, too late.
Trump’s main message was that there is nothing “inevitable” about a US outbreak. The President also claimed credit for his own wise steps that he said had kept Americans safe — no thanks to Democrats, he said, who have branded his approach to a possible pandemic as small ball.
“We’ve done a great job in keeping it down to a minimum,” the President said, crediting his early curbs on travel from China.
“Had I not made a decision very early on not to take people from a certain area, we wouldn’t be talking this way. … I took a lot of heat; some people called me racist.”
His comments, taken literally, ought to have quelled any sense of panic. But the President’s incessant political gamesmanship will make it difficult for many viewers to shed suspicion he was minimizing the situation for personal gain.
Trump’s main aim Wednesday seemed to be to minimize the threat. He went out of his way to compare the novel coronavirus to the seasonal flu — and marveled that so many Americans succumb to that ailment each year.
Presidents get judged on their handling of national crises. And Trump’s appearance left many questions unanswered. Among them is whether he will be guided by science or politics in fighting the virus. Another is whether he has the capacity to rally the nation behind him if things take a turn for the worse. It’s not a given that Trump has the self-discipline to manage the emergency and avoid counterproductive political grandstanding.
The President can be sure of staunch support from his base whatever happens, so any sense that a botched response could do for his presidency what the disastrous Hurricane Katrina relief effort did for George W. Bush may not materialize.
The imprecision of Trump’s language