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Trump unbending in ignoring virus toll

The president has stayed true to character, analysts say, in showing little empathy as Covid ravages his country.

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President Donald Trump has barely acknowledged the spiralling death toll from the coronavirus in the country he is leading, as he focuses on lawsuits lodged in a futile battle to overturn his election defeat (Alex Brandon/AP)

President Donald Trump has barely acknowledged the spiralling death toll from the coronavirus in the country he is leading, as he focuses on lawsuits lodged in a futile battle to overturn his election defeat (Alex Brandon/AP)

President Donald Trump has barely acknowledged the spiralling death toll from the coronavirus in the country he is leading, as he focuses on lawsuits lodged in a futile battle to overturn his election defeat (Alex Brandon/AP)

President Donald Trump has been highlighting several really big numbers this week: New highs for the stock market. The 100-plus House members backing a lawsuit challenging his election loss. The nearly 75 million people who voted for him.

All the while, he has looked past other staggering and more consequential figures: The record numbers of coronavirus deaths, hospital admissions and new cases among the citizens of the nation he leads.

On Friday, Mr Trump’s team blasted out a text with this strong, high-minded presidential message: “We will not bend. We will not break. We will never give in. We will never give up.”

But it was not a rallying cry to help shore up Americans sagging under the toll of a pandemic that on Wednesday alone killed more Americans than on D-Day or 9/11. It was part of a fundraising pitch tied to Senate races in Georgia and to Mr Trump’s unsupported claims that Democrats are trying to “steal” the presidential election he lost.

Of Mr Trump’s tweets over the past week, 82% have been focused on the election and just 7% on the virus — almost all of those related to forthcoming vaccines — according to Factba.se, a data analytics company. Nearly a third of the president’s tweets on the election were flagged by Twitter for misinformation.

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Donald Trump has appeared more focused in election-related battles – such as with this appearance at a campaign rally for Senate Republican candidates in Georgia – than with the recent death toll from the pandemic in the US (Evan Vucci/AP)

Donald Trump has appeared more focused in election-related battles – such as with this appearance at a campaign rally for Senate Republican candidates in Georgia – than with the recent death toll from the pandemic in the US (Evan Vucci/AP)

AP/PA Images

Donald Trump has appeared more focused in election-related battles – such as with this appearance at a campaign rally for Senate Republican candidates in Georgia – than with the recent death toll from the pandemic in the US (Evan Vucci/AP)

As he talks and tweets at length about the election he is trying in vain to subvert, the president is leaving Americans without a central figure to help them deal with their grief over loved-ones’ deaths and the day-to-day danger of the pandemic that still rages. His strategy has been to focus totally on the shiny object that has been approaching — a vaccine.

On Friday night, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the final go-ahead to a vaccine from Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, launching emergency vaccinations in a bid to end the pandemic. But Mr Trump’s three-minute internet address hailing the vaccine made no mention of the toll the virus has taken.

Calvin Jillson, a presidential historian at Southern Methodist University, said Mr Trump has proven himself unable or unwilling to muster the “normal and natural, falling-off-a-log simple presidential approach” that is called for in any moment of national grief or crisis.

“He simply doesn’t seem to have the emotional depth, the emotional reserves to feel what’s happening in the country and to respond to it in the way that any other president – even those who’ve been fairly emotionally crippled – would do,” Mr Jillson said.

Mr Trump did convene a summit this week to highlight his administration’s successful efforts to help hasten the development of coronavirus vaccines and prepare for their speedy distribution. And he spent part of Friday pressing federal authorities to authorise use of the first-up vaccine candidate from Pfizer.

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President-elect Joe Biden has promised greater politician leadership than that shown by Mr Trump over the pandemic, saying this week: “We can wish this away, but we need to face it” (Susan Walsh/AP)

President-elect Joe Biden has promised greater politician leadership than that shown by Mr Trump over the pandemic, saying this week: “We can wish this away, but we need to face it” (Susan Walsh/AP)

AP/PA Images

President-elect Joe Biden has promised greater politician leadership than that shown by Mr Trump over the pandemic, saying this week: “We can wish this away, but we need to face it” (Susan Walsh/AP)

At his summit, the president put heavy emphasis on the faster-than-expected development of the vaccines, calling it “an incredible success”, “a monumental national achievement”, “really amazing” and “somewhat of a miracle”.

He has also claimed credit, though Pfizer developed its vaccine outside the administration’s “Operation Warp Speed”.

In a passing nod to the pandemic’s toll, Mr Trump promised the coming vaccines would “quickly and dramatically reduce deaths and hospitalisations,” adding that “we want to get back to normal”. But it will be months before most Americans have access to a vaccine.

Asked what message he had for Americans suffering great hardship as the holidays approached and the virus crisis only grew worse, Mr Trump’s answer had an almost clinical tone.

“Yeah, well, CDC puts out their guidelines, and they’re very important guidelines,” he said, “but I think this: I think that the vaccine was our goal.”

It's not simply that he has decided not to express concern or sorrow, it's that he does not feel the sorrowHistorian Jeff Shesol

To focus otherwise would undercut Mr Trump’s goal of minimising the national pain of the virus’s toll and his claims that the danger will soon vanish.

Mr Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, on Friday answered that approach with a promise for greater presidential leadership. Of the virus, he said: “We can wish this away, but we need to face it.”

Jeff Shesol, a presidential historian and former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, said Mr Trump’s failure to express empathy was a “personal pathology manifesting itself as political strategy”.

“It’s not simply that he has decided not to express concern or sorrow, it’s that he does not feel the sorrow,” Mr Shesol said.

Ari Fleischer, who served as White House press secretary to President George W Bush, said Mr Trump has approached the virus in a “very mechanical, focus-on-the-vaccine kind of way” when people are also hungering for an emotional connection. That has hurt Mr Trump politically, but it is true to his persona, Mr Fleischer added.

“The president is a blunt force more than he’s an empathetic force,” Mr Fleischer said. “To his credit, he doesn’t pretend. He is who he is. Most politicians would fake it.”

PA


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