President Trump sent out a number of tweets today demanding liberation, but he probably wasn’t thinking of his old fixer Michael Cohen. Cohen, who squealed on Donald Trump before Congress, went to jail for a variety of financial and campaign finance crimes. Thanks to the coronavirus, his own problem is largely fixed. He’s getting an early reprieve from his three-year jail sentence at a medium-security prison in Otisville, New York and headed for home confinement. Another member of Trump’s rogues gallery, Paul Manafort, has asked to be released from Loretto federal prison in Pennsylvania because of the pandemic, but there’s no word yet whether his request will be granted. Unlike Cohen, Manafort remained unflinching.
Trump would never grant Cohen a pardon, but Manafort and Roger Stone remain likely candidates for a president who has an elastic sense of what’s legal. Consider Trump’s latest fulgurations. After issuing a meaningless three-stage plan to reopen the economy, he is now issuing tweets demanding resistance against the lockdowns in Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia. They indicate that he remains at heart an insurrectionist. He’s siding with the rebels who are painting the economic shutdown as a plot not just against America but preeminently Trump himself. At his Thursday press conference Trump noted that ‘they seem to be protesters that like me’ — the highest compliment he could pay to them.
Trump may have been temporarily boxed in by his goody-two-shoes advisers, but he always finds a way to revert to his old habits. Put otherwise, Trump wants to stick it to the establishment, not adhere to established ways: he has about as much enthusiasm for promoting public health measures and guidelines as Huck Finn did for living with the Widow Douglas and donning new clothes, learning to spell properly and giving up smoking.
Trump is spoiling for a brawl over the shutdown. He wants to blame the governors for destroying the economy, a maneuver that is supposed to mask his own dilatory response to the spread of the coronavirus. Some of the governors did not take Trump’s bait. Virginia’s Ralph Northam said: ‘I do not have time to involve myself in Twitter wars.’ New York’s Andrew Cuomo, by contrast, traded punches with Trump, mocking him for watching the press conference on television. Trump fired back on Twitter. Trump, who loves to brawl rather than govern, was surely delighted by the spectacle. For Trump, distractions are the very essence of his presidency.
As Susan Glasser points out in the New Yorker, Trump is a master of elision. He ‘offers a “science-based reopening” plan, which includes a vague and uncertain three-stage path for states to resume everyday life. Yet the main precondition for doing so — widespread testing — is not only not in place but, according to Trump, not his problem. “The federal government shouldn’t be forced to go and do everything,” he said on Thursday evening. This might as well be his slogan for the crisis, and for his entire presidency: ultimate power and no responsibility.’
The real problem for Trump could arrive if rural areas get hit hard by the coronavirus. CNN is reporting that they are. The number of cases is jumping in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota. Trump kept telling his base that fears of the coronavirus were baseless. Now he could be hoist by his own petard.