Notes from the Front

Historian Amy Cox Richardson write a blog on national affairs. This is her latest post:

Although in the early days of his administration Trump dominated news cycles, it is rare these days for him to do so unless there is a single, blockbuster story. There are a lot of players in today’s politics, they are more visible now than they were three years ago, and they get ink. Today was different, though. There were a number of smaller stories about the president, none of them blockbusters, but which added up to a surprisingly clear portrait of the man and how his fight for reelection might affect the nation.

The first story of the day came this morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump issued a joint statement commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Meeting on the Elbe, where on April 25, 1945, American and Soviet forces met during WWII, cutting Germany in two and approaching victory in their drive to defeat fascism. “The ‘Spirit of the Elbe’ is an example of how our countries can put aside differences, build trust, and cooperate in pursuit of a greater cause,” they said.

The statement was Putin’s idea, former U.S. intelligence analyst Angela Stent told the Wall Street Journal, an attempt to illustrate that today’s Russia is as great a power as the former Soviet Union. But there is more: the statement comes on the heels of Russia’s shipment of medical supplies to the U.S. and Putin’s continuing bid to get U.S. sanctions against Russian businesses and oligarchs lifted. But just this week, the Senate Intelligence Committee reiterated that Russia attacked the 2016 election, and lawmakers are concerned that this unusual and overly-friendly statement will encourage him to continue his efforts to meddle in American affairs.

In another story, Trump’s suggestion at Thursday’s coronavirus briefing that doctors should look into whether disinfectant or sunlight taken internally somehow might kill the virus seems to many political observers to be a game changer. Nothing has worked to quell the outrage and mockery that followed the statement.

The new White House press secretary tried to blame the media for the statement—“Leave it to the media to irresponsibly take President Trump out of context and run with negative headlines,” Kayleigh McEnany said—only to have the president undercut her by claiming his words were a trick to bait reporters.

This was obviously untrue, and caused more trouble. The idea that he thought it was acceptable to bait reporters on a day when American deaths from the coronavirus were approaching 50,000, while expressing no empathy for those deaths, brought even more outrage. Some White House officials told the New York Times that Thursday was “one of the worst days in one of the worst weeks of his presidency.”

Still, Trump continues to try to rewrite what happened. Today he tweeted that the media had misrepresented the statement, although of course the entire exchange was televised and is widely available for everyone to see for themselves. “Was just informed that the Fake News from the Thursday White House Press Conference had me speaking & asking question of Dr. Deborah Birx. Wrong, I was speaking to our Laboratory expert, not Deborah, about sunlight etc. & the CoronaVirus. The Lamestream Media is corrupt & sick!”

Trump has increasingly been treating the daily coronavirus briefings as replacements for his rallies, where he holds forth settling political scores, attacking the media, and launching his own theories about the crisis. Even before Thursday, advisors had been concerned that Trump’s performances at the briefings were hurting his public standing, and the fallout from Thursday seems to have cemented those concerns. He did not appear at a coronavirus briefing today. “What is the purpose of having White House News Conferences when the Lamestream Media asks nothing but hostile questions, & then refuses to report the truth or facts accurately. They get record ratings, & the American people get nothing but Fake News. Not worth the time & effort!” he tweeted.

Also today, a spokesman for the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva, Switzerland, said the United States would not collaborate with the World Health Organization and other world leaders to speed up coronavirus testing, drugs, and vaccines and to make sure both rich and poor nations have equal access to them. The stated reasons for the absence echoed Trump’s attempts to shift the blame for America’s coronavirus crisis onto the WHO, although the WHO declared the novel coronavirus a global health emergency on January 31, and continued to sound the alarm over it while U.S. government attention was elsewhere.

Although Trump supported WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in his bid for the position and has been friendly with him, including on calls in March, Trump is eager to blame the WHO for his own woeful response to the crisis, claiming that the WHO was too ready to believe China’s initial statement that the virus could not be transmitted person-to-person. Trump has withheld funding for the WHO and is now trying to undercut the organization by rerouting money formerly sent to the WHO to other organizations, although the State Department, in charge of this initiative, did not name any other specific alternative organization.

“Although the United States was not in attendance at the meeting in question, there should be no doubt about our continuing determination to lead on global health matters, including the current COVID crisis,” the spokesman for the U.S. Mission to Geneva said by email. “We remain deeply concerned about the WHO’s effectiveness, given that its gross failures helped fuel the current pandemic.”

The attempt to offload blame for the crisis reflects Trump’s focus on the upcoming election. His campaign today issued a fundraising email it claims Trump wrote. The email takes on the attempts of congressional Democrats to combat fraud and corruption in the enormous expenditures used to combat the economic crisis sparked by the pandemic. Such oversight seems both standard and wise for the handling of almost $3 trillion, but the president appears to be taking the attempt to safeguard against corruption personally.

Trump’s email says that Congress’s oversight of expenditures in the $2.2 trillion coronavirus bill are a “WITCH HUNT.” “First, the Democrat’s Russian Collusion Delusion FAILED because WE fought back,” it said. “Then, their Impeachment Hoax FAILED because WE fought back even harder…. NOW, they are trying to weaponize a new coronavirus committee against me, and if we’re going to withstand this attack, we’ll need to fight back even harder than ever before. This is the third WITCH HUNT in THREE YEARS.”

The email asked for money for a “presidential defense fund” to fight “this nasty battle against the Left.”

Here is her original publication, including her footnote references.

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