The magnitude of the crisis confronting Trump -- and the rest of us

With President Trump warning of “a very, very painful two weeks” -- and obviously it could be longer than that -- the reckoning seems to have arrived.

It is hard to wrap your head around the consequences of this deadly disease. Trump, casting aside the optimistic rhetoric of the past, says the death toll in America could be between 100,000 and 240,000 -- but only if everything goes right. That’s the best-case scenario, an almost unthinkable number in peacetime. Even the lowest estimate here, as the New York Times points out, would be about as many Americans as were lost during World War I.

We all watch the daily flood of headlines and images: Hospital tents going up in New York’s Central Park, while the U.S. Open tennis center is turned into a triage center. Elmhurst Hospital in Queens looking like a “war zone,” in Trump’s words.

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In Detroit, the police chief having the virus and 500 police officers being quarantined.

 

The New Orleans convention center turned into a temporary hospital.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser threatening 90 days in jail and $5,000 fines for those who violate her stay-at-home order.

The U.N. general secretary saying this is the gravest global crisis since World War II.

The stock market continued to sink yesterday. And everywhere, streets are almost deserted as businesses, stores, schools, gyms and theaters have shut their doors. Sports leagues and the Olympics have shut down.

As more familiar names contract the virus -- Prince Charles, Tom Hanks, Boris Johnson, Chris Cuomo -- the media are also running more obituaries of ordinary Americans: a nurse, a minister, the kind of person who might live down the street. And that is making the situation far less abstract.

The president’s more serious demeanor at Tuesday’s briefing was welcomed by many in the media, who have been waiting many weeks for him to reach this point. It is not a partisan observation to say that Trump spent weeks insisting that things were under control, that we would not be inundated with cases, that the media and Democratic criticism was a hoax, that the coronavirus was like the flu. He now says “it’s not the flu -- it’s vicious.”

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The president explained the shift in a back-and-forth with CNN’s Jim Acosta. Early on, he said, “I knew everything. I knew it could be horrible, and I knew it could be maybe good.”

He took a rosier tone, Trump said, because “I want to give people hope. You know, I’m a cheerleader for the country.”

That is a tightrope that all presidents must walk in time of crisis. Often they are trying to talk up the economy when things go south, or reassure hurricane victims that relief is on the way, the problem that George W. Bush faced during Katrina. Yet they also can’t seem out of touch with a dire situation.

Another president might have moved more quickly on testing kits and ventilators, the object of so much criticism from the governors, including some Republicans. But another president probably wouldn’t have shut down travel from China so early, a move that experts say undoubtedly saved lives.

The bottom line is we are where we are. We can’t undo the past. We have to try to limit the deadly toll from this killer virus. Even the presidential campaign has been put on hold. There will ultimately be a political reckoning in November, but for now, we are firefighters battling an enormous blaze.