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Touch Me, I’m Sick: Trump’s Failure to Lead on COVID-19 is Likely to Infect Republicans Down the Ballot 

  • Courtesy of the White House
President Donald Trump’s efforts to reassure the public he’s got a handle on COVID-19 aren’t exactly inspiring confidence.

At press time, the U.S. death toll from the novel coronavisus stood at 19, and global markets once again plummeted amid fears of its continued reach. Meanwhile, Trump was still downplaying the disease’s significance and trying make it all about him.

On a recent Fox News appearance, the president dismissed World Health Organization data placing the death rate from the virus at 3.4%, explaining he had a “hunch” that’s “really a false number.”

Last week, at a media op aimed at shoring up confidence in the administration’s handle on the crisis, he asked health experts why doctors don’t simply use the flu vaccine to combat COVID-19. He also bragged erroneously that anyone who wants a coronavirus test can get one.

The new test kits, he continued, were as “perfect” as his phone call to Ukraine’s president. You know, the one that resulted in his recent impeachment.

“People are really surprised I understand this stuff,” Trump said during a press briefing at the Centers for Disease Control. “Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability.”

Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson sees a parallel between Trump’s so-far inept handling of the coronavirus and George W. Bush’s bungling of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

“The Trump administration has misplayed this natural disaster, particularly in the way the president has been counter-message to his own health experts,” Jillson said. “Hurricane Katrina and Bush getting caught looking out the window of Air Force One is a good model for how this could play out.”

Of course, the incident to which Jillson is referring is the photo op the Bush White House allowed of the president gazing out his plane’s window as it flew over Katrina’s devastation. Later, Bush admitted to NBC news the shot was a monumental gaffe that made him seem “detached and uncaring.”

Bush also faced bruising criticism for spending the initial days of Katrina’s landfall on vacation, isolated from news reports. More bad PR followed when the world learned Michael Brown, the political crony the president appointed head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, had zero experience in disaster relief.

The end result was the deepest damage Bush suffered during his political career. His botched record on the disaster even cost him support of some who supported his ill-advised war in Iraq.

To Jillson’s point, speculation is already swirling that the Trump administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus could be a major liability come November, especially if a symptom of the disease’s so-far relentless spread is global recession.

And the president isn’t the only Republican elected official with something to worry about, Jillson said.

If COVID-19 becomes the unmitigated disaster many predict, it will trickle down the ballot, he added. Democrats would be further energized by the incident, while a percentage of Republicans, no longer supportive of the president, just stay home.

Compounding the potential damage, it’s hard to imagine GOP lawmakers successfully distancing themselves from Trump on his handling of the outbreak. Not after voters have seen them go all in on the president on every other controversy that preceded it.

Indeed, the political repercussions may already be rolling in.

As Congress passed $8.3 billion in emergency funding to fight COVID-19, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, wore a gas mask on the House floor to mock their concerns. Two days later, his state announced two people had died after contracting the virus, including one of Gaetz’s own constituents.

“Republican elected officials are now identified with Trump, and it’s through their own efforts,” Jillson said. “It will be very difficult for them to change course if his administration is compromised by its handling of the coronavirus.”

And as news continues to break around the global spread of the coronavirus, it’s hard to envision any scenario where it doesn’t become disruptive to U.S. voters’ lives — and their livelihoods.

This month, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicted that if COVID-19 spreads from East Asia, global growth will be slashed in half. With new cases racking up daily in the United States, that scenario appears more and more likely.

It also appears to be a scenario neither Trump nor the Republicans who have bound themselves to him will want to run against come November.

“It will be difficult for Trump to pivot,” Jillson said. “We haven’t yet begun to experience the full effect of the coronavirus. If schools close, if sporting events are cancelled, it’s very likely he’ll suffer, and so will the Republicans.”

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