There are things that Donald Trump is very good at. In areas of politics and foreign policy, his impulsiveness and unpredictable way of doing business have paid off. Think of sticking by Brett Kavanaugh and the strike on Qasem Soleimani, for example. What he is not good at is being a cool, collected, steadying hand, which is what an outbreak like the coronavirus requires.
From the outset of the medical emergency, Trump’s rhetoric has been unclear. At times he has seemed to downplay the nature of the situation, perhaps to protect the markets. In fairness, there is a careful and important balance to be struck between protecting against outbreak and destroying the wealth of the American people. Both are fairly dire potential outcomes. But both politically and in terms of the markets, Trump’s tone has not helped.
Wednesday night on Sean Hannity’s show, Trump said the following: “I think the 3.4 percent is a false number. Now, this is just my hunch, but a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people will have this and it is very mild. They will get better very rapidly, they don’t even see an interest or call a doctor, you never hear about those people so you can put them down in the category, the overall population in terms of this corona flu, or virus. So, you just can’t do that. If we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by sitting around and even going to work, some of them go to work, but they get better and then…”
For those of you who teach public speaking, this could really be a tool about how not to reassure people in the face of a pandemic of a deadly virus. In dealing with something along these lines, “This is just my hunch” should not be in one’s lexicon. Nobody knows how severe the coronavirus will be in the United States. Trump could be right that it does not devastate. But this type of talk is not helpful medically or politically.
Trump has nothing to gain politically by downplaying the virus. Even if he’s right, he can’t campaign on “I predicted the outcome of the coronavirus.” And if he’s wrong, it could absolutely destroy his campaign. If this gets very bad his words will come back not to haunt, but to un-elect him.
The smart thing to do here is what he has already done, which is put Mike Pence in charge of it. Pence is the un-Trump. Trump tends to ad lib about a lot of things at once; it’s a kitchen conversation, not a set of measured remarks. Pence is so measured you could tailor a suit by him.
There are ways of talking about coronavirus that convey confidence while also acknowledging that serious precautions must be taken. This is what Pence did by announcing the shipment of new test kits around the country. You say, “Yes, this is a bad situation, no, we don’t have all the answers, but we have resources in place to fight it.”
The problem is that Trump doesn’t know how to say that he doesn’t know the answer to something. If a reporter asked him, “What number am I thinking of?” he’d have a confident go at it. That is quite literally the opposite of what is called for in this moment.
Presidents pick vice presidents for a reason. Veeps compliment them politically. As Rocky says about Adrienne, they fill gaps. For Trump, communicating on the coronavirus is a huge gap. His blustering bravado cannot help in this, as it so often does with other issues. So please, Mr. President, just stop talking off the cuff about this virus.
There is no shame in simply saying that you have put Pence in charge and have complete confidence in him. Sometimes boring is good, and Pence knows how to be good and boring. Let him use his talents to calm a country on edge. It will be better for the country, better for the markets, and better for chances of reelection.
What makes the coronavirus so scary is that nobody, including experts (who don’t all agree with each other anyway) knows what the exact right thing to do is. Measures are being taken, that’s about the best we can say, and the best deliverer of that message is Pence, not Trump.