Nothing should really surprise us anymore. The final year of Donald Trump’s presidency has been such a deadly farce that the days following the president’s COVID-19 diagnosis would be equal parts terrible and bizarre.
Still, somehow we managed to underestimate the president again.
The drama began Saturday, when reports leaked that Trump’s condition was worsening. White House physician Sean Conley appeared before the press pool to assure them of Trump’s health, only to contradict the previously settled-on timeline of Trump’s diagnosis (which Conley meagerly corrected a few hours later). That led to a full day of speculation about whether Trump might’ve had COVID-19 at the first presidential debate last Tuesday, as well as how many people he potentially infected during trips to Minnesota and New Jersey on the following days.
Meanwhile, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows offered a much bleaker look to the press, telling the pool off the record that Trump was in bad shape and had “no clear path to full recovery.” He was swiftly revealed as the anonymous source and apparently angered the president to no end, who proceeded to hold a photo shoot making it look like he was up and working and healthy, even though he was really just signing his name on blank pieces of paper. The president also recorded some videos assuring his supporters of his health and, on Sunday, broke his medical isolation to wave at supporters outside Walter Reed Medical Center from inside a hermetically sealed jeep, potentially infecting Secret Service agents tasked with protecting him. All this happened while news of other COVID-19 infections traced back to Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s introduction ceremony, including former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway and former governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, peppered in over the weekend.
The reaction was incredulous. As predictable as Trump is, it still doesn’t seem possible that a president this brazen about a deadly virus would continue irresponsibly putting people at risk as his own health hangs in the balance. And yet it shouldn’t surprise us at all. In the bleakest of moments, even when confronted with the specter of death at the hands of the disease he’s so thoroughly downplayed and ignored, Trump kept acting selfishly and optically. A normal person might’ve felt some sense of humility or solemnity about the sheer stupidity and danger of the situation—but Trump, of course, is no normal person.
At no point in Trump’s “reassuring” videos did he acknowledge the more than 200,000 Americans who’d already died of the disease, none of them with the access to the doctors, hospital suites, experimental treatments, or generally exceptional healthcare the president has on call 24/7. As his staffers struggled to fix the PR nightmare they helped create (and he continued creating), much of the country followed along in awed silence, wondering how the hell Trump can keep getting away with things like this, risking people’s lives for photo-ops and social media posts. It’s a familiar feeling, yet somehow Trump managed to heighten it again.