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The President as Bystander: Trump Struggles to Unify a Nation on Edge

The President as Bystander: Trump Struggles to Unify a Nation on Edge
School superintendents, sports commissioners, college presidents, governors and business owners have taken it upon themselves to shut down much of American life without clear guidance from the president.
President Trump on Thursday in the Oval Office. “If I need to do something, I’ll do it,” he told reporters.
President Trump on Thursday in the Oval Office. “If I need to do something, I’ll do it,” he told reporters
WASHINGTON — As he confronts the most serious crisis of his tenure, President Trump has been assertive in closing borders to many outsiders, one of his favorite policies. But within the United States, as the coronavirus spreads from one community to another, he has been more follower than leader.
While he presents himself as the nation’s commanding figure, Mr. Trump has essentially become a bystander as school superintendents, sports commissioners, college presidents, governors and business owners across the country take it upon themselves to shut down much of American life without clear guidance from the president.
For weeks, he resisted telling Americans to cancel or stay away from large gatherings, reluctant even on Thursday to call off his own campaign rallies even as he grudgingly acknowledged he would probably have to. Instead, it fell to Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s most famous scientist, to say publicly what the president would not, leading the nation’s basketball, hockey, soccer anbaseball leagues in just 24 hours to suspend play and call off tournaments.
Mayors and county executives, hospital executives and factory owners received no further direction from the president as he talked about the virus in the Oval Office on Thursday than they did during his prime-time address to the nation the night before. Beyond travel limits and wash-your-hands reminders, Mr. Trump has left it to others to set the course in combating the pandemic and has indicated he was in no rush to take further action.
“If I need to do something, I’ll do it,” the president told reporters on Thursday. “I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about.” But he again emphasized that the crisis was not as bad as many imagine. “Compared to other places, we are in really good shape,” he said, “and we want to keep it that way.”
By contrast, Leo Varadkar, the visiting prime minister of Ireland sitting next to him, said that as of Friday, his country was closing all schools and banning indoor gatherings of more than 100 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 500 — the kind of measures that some American states and cities are taking on their own rather than wait for the president.It fell to Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s most famous scientist, to say publicly what the president would not.Mr. Trump had no hesitance to kibbitz from the side before he became president, assailing President Barack Obama for not doing enough to stop Ebola, for instance. But his own White House has separated into camps of those who think the administration needs to be doing more and those who share — and reinforce — Mr. Trump’s own view that the news media is overreacting to and creating a panic around the coronavirus.
After feeling besieged by enemies for three years, Mr. Trump and some of his advisers view so many issues through the lens of political warfare — assuming that criticism is all about point scoring — that it has become hard to see what is real and what is not, according to people around the president. Even when others with Mr. Trump’s best interests at heart disagree, they find it hard to penetrate what they see as the bubble around him.
Thomas P. Bossert, a former homeland security adviser to Mr. Trump, has tried repeatedly in recent days to be patched through to the president or Vice President Mike Pence to warn them just how dire the coronavirus pandemic really is, only to be blocked by White House officials, according to two people familiar with the events. It left him to try to get the president’s — and the public’s — attention through newspaper op-ed articles, television appearances and Twitter messages like the one that panned Mr. Trump’s Europe travel ban as “poor use of time & energy.”Mr. Bossert, who has publicly warned that as many as 500,000 Americans may ultimately die of the coronavirus, denied on Thursday that he had tried to see Mr. Trump and been unable to, but would not elaborate on his contacts with the White House. Some officials there also denied that he had made extensive efforts to speak with Mr. Trump or Mr. Pence.
Among the advisers who share the president’s more jaundiced view is his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who considers the problem more about public psychology than a health reality, according to people who have spoken with him. Mr. Kushner has gotten more involved in the response in recent days, according to three White House advisers. A person close to Mr. Kushner said his views were being misinterpreted, and that he was focused on trying to find answers to the most immediate measures to mitigate the virus’s spread.
Marc Short, Mr. Pence’s chief of staff, approached Mr. Kushner on Monday about integrating the White House teams working on the issue, as the vice president’s communications shop is overrun with media requests and the White House is changing the chief of staff. After that, Mr. Kushner seized more of a role, spending Wednesday with Mr. Trump, the officials said.
One administration official said on Thursday that Mr. Kushner, his wife, Ivanka Trump, and Hope Hicks, a presidential adviser who has just returned to the White House, favored Mr. Trump giving Wednesday night’s prime-time address to calm the waters amid rampaging uncertainty and fear.

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