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Relax everyone, advises Donald Trump. Not much to worry about with the coronavirus – it’s just another flu bug or, as his nozzle Rush Limbaugh risibly put it, the “common cold.”

If only, for Mr. Trump’s sake, that were right.

Just a fortnight ago, everything looked rosy for the President. His mood was buoyant as he looked to the fall election with a glowing economy in hand, one posting some of the best numbers in half a century.

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Alas, shift happens. Deus ex machina; the fates can intrude. The coronavirus scare has pummeled markets in ways not seen since the financial meltdown of a dozen years ago. A global recession is well possible, one which could drag down the U.S. economy and with it, Mr. Trump’s re-election prospects.

U.S. President Donald Trump discusses the United States's preparedness to confront the coronavirus outbreak during a meeting at the White House on Feb. 27, 2020.


Here in Powertown, where everything – even the prospect of a humanitarian disaster – is viewed through a crass political lens, the possibility has Democrats salivating. Their impeachment campaign backfired; their Russian-collusion campaign backfired. Now, via foreign meddling of another kind, a new chance presents itself.

It’s only that, though – a chance. The epidemic could still work in Mr. Trump’s favour. It could be short-lived, the markets could fully recover and, given that the virus originated in China, the crisis could serve to validate his xenophobic proclivities, stirring a further backlash against immigration.

The greater likelihood, however, is that the U.S. economy will suffer. That prospect is what prompted Mr. Trump, after deplaning from his trip to India Wednesday, to promptly call a press conference to try to ease fears.

He put on quite a show. He was confident, in command. He spoke about being a germaphobe, suggesting that if anyone should be worried, it would be him. But everything looked okay, under control, he said. His team was doing “a great job” handling the crisis. “Other countries have not been doing great.”

But his magic didn’t work this time. The markets didn’t listen. They tumbled on Thursday for the sixth straight day, leaving the administration feeling powerless.

Mr. Trump put Mike Pence, his bellhop Vice-President, to head the administration’s response team. That didn’t reassure many either.

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The President could hope that if the epidemic worsened, the public would fix blame on China rather than his government. But in fact, the administration is open to criticism because of its major funding cuts to global health programs and to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In keeping with Mr. Trump’s obsession with kneecapping anything done by the Obama administration, he also cut the epidemic-fighting apparatus his predecessor had put in place at the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security.

A great believer in his own “genius”-level insights, Mr. Trump has never felt the need for experts or empirical evidence. His government’s level of unpreparedness for this crisis is being scorned in countless TV ads by Democratic candidate Michael Bloomberg.

Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, summed up the situation well: “You build a fire department ahead of time. You don’t wait for a fire.”

As usual, Mr. Trump is trying to put the blame on the media and the Democrats. He sent out a tweet in which he couldn’t even get the spelling of the virus right:

There has been some overstatement. The vast majority of coronavirus cases are mild. The death rate is less than two per cent, but that is much worse than the rate for the common flu, which Mr. Trump compares it to.

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As an indication of the administration’s thinking, Mr. Trump’s trade officials have let it be known that the spread of the coronavirus might be good for the United States. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said it could “accelerate the return of jobs to North America.”

More likely, unless the virus is brought under control rapidly, which seems improbable, jobs will be disappearing in large numbers.

The situation is fraught. Mr. Trump surely realizes it by now. He has had a history of getting out of jams, often via a felicitous twist of fate. The question is how long can that last? This time, the fates may have turned on him.

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