How Trump may have flattened the political curve of coronavirus

Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — No one needs to "flatten the curve" more than President Donald Trump, and he may have begun to bend the politics of coronavirus on Friday.

Before Trump declared a national emergency, critics insisted, and some allies worried, that his response to the pandemic posed a greater threat to the health of the American public and the stability of the national economy than the disease itself.

If the two-track crisis gets worse, his protestations that he's not to blame for a slow federal response — "I don't take responsibility at all," he said — won't spare him the wrath of voters or the judgment of history. He will look like he shirked accountability after failing to see the threat as it gathered and then spread through society.

But if Americans are able to slow the outbreak of coronavirus — to "flatten the curve" of infection, as epidemiologists say — if equity markets bounce back and the overall hit to the economy is contained, his Rose Garden news conference on Friday could amount to a turning point in which he finally signaled to the public that he would take the threat seriously enough to lead the fight against it.

His relatively somber and focused remarks accompanied a bear hug of congressional Democrats that could help him stabilize his standing if all goes well from here on out. Graded on a curve, Friday was a good day for the president, according to longtime observers of Washington politics.

"America only has one president at a time, and, whatever your partisan affiliation, you should want the one we have to be as efficient and successful as possible — especially in a crisis like this one," said Michael Steel, a former aide to then-Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

For those watching the news conference on cable stations with stock-market tickers on the screen, it was obvious the president had done nothing to reverse a rally on Wall Street. It's hard to pin broad gains or losses on any single event, but the Dow Jones Industrial Average dipped briefly during the president's remarks before gaining nearly 1,200 points while he continued through the closing bell.

Trump's new attitude toward the coronavirus appeared to result from — or at least coincide with — a rare bipartisanship around the response from other officials in Washington.

Little more than an hour after his declaration, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced that two days of intense negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin over a second emergency spending bill on the coronavirus had produced a deal.

"We are proud to have reached an agreement with the administration to resolve outstanding challenges, and now will soon pass the Families First Coronavirus Response Act," she said in a statement sent to the media. That came on the heels of a quick pivot from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the previous day, who went from attacking Pelosi's plan on the Senate floor to lauding her work with Mnuchin on Twitter in the span of a few hours. Trump was expected to sign off on the deal — though the ink wasn't quite dry yet.

Likewise, Trump won praise from Democrats on Capitol Hill for declaring the national emergency, freeing up $50 billion in aid for states and granting extraordinary authorities to federal agencies to help the health care system respond to contingencies. As they worked with officials in his administration on emergency spending legislation, congressional Democrats had been troubled by the president's uneven public posture on a pandemic he often dismissed as "low risk."

"We have a public health crisis in this country and the best way to help keep the American people safe and ensure their economic security is for the president to focus on fighting the spread of the coronavirus itself," Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a joint statement after Trump delivered an Oval Office address on the disease response Wednesday. "Alarmingly, the president did not say how the administration will address the lack of coronavirus testing kits throughout the United States."

At the time, they called on him and Republican lawmakers to help them pass the legislation Pelosi negotiated with Mnuchin.

But Trump's decision to give only his second-ever Oval Office address this week was taken by some observers, even amid his misstatements, as a strong signal that he wanted the public and investors to view him as taking the coronavirus threat very seriously.

The slope of everything looked straight down, from historic market drops to suspended major league sports seasons and the availability of hand sanitizer.

It's unlikely that Trump reversed all that by managing to complete a press conference without giving off the impression he's unconcerned about coronavirus.

But right now, just flattening the curve a bit is a victory for him.