Haunted by an invisible pathogen that has drained trademark energy and optimism from American life, the ordeal has clearly not drawn the country together — it’s tearing it further apart. And there is still no clear path out of the darkness.
The stasis is deepened because as every state moves toward some kind of opening, there is no convincing metric to show conclusively whether the battle is being won.
At the apex of political power, a President who ought to be unifying the country seems to be using his office to indulge his own need for attention and is exclusively talking to the sizable minority that supports him no matter what.
President Donald Trump will visit a Ford production plant in the critical swing state of Michigan pursued by a controversy over whether he will wear a face mask to comply with his own government’s public health advice. The drama exemplifies sharp political and cultural divides over how to deal with the virus that the President is exacerbating with an eye on his own prospects in November’s election.
Amid crushing economic pain caused by shutdowns, a divided Congress cannot decide whether it wants to do more to help, compounding the impression that the fractured national political system and those in it are not equal to the moment.
Every four years, the instrument of political renewal, the presidential election, offers a pressure valve for partisan angst and, for all the nation’s acrimonious political divides, legitimacy to the winner.
This year the contest is stifled — with the presumptive challenger, Joe Biden, stuck in his basement. Trump is giving the distinct impression with false claims of voter fraud, which he escalated on Wednesday, that he’s trying to delegitimize an election he might lose — a scenario that could seed years of discord even if he is forced out of the White House.
In the best of times, and the worst of times, the presidency often sets the mood of the age, in Washington and beyond. But it’s as if Trump, endlessly preoccupied with his reelection prospects, is not engaged in the worst public health challenge in a century and the most debilitating economic crunch since the 1930s.
Each day, he gets further drawn into his obsessions and personal feuds. Impeachment did not slow his testing of constitutional constraints, it accelerated them, as his firing of agency inspectors general and his Justice Department’s efforts to rewrite the narrative of his abuses of power show.
Trump is making clear that he plans to use every instrument of the federal government to ensure he wins a second term. This ranges from the seemingly trivial — the use of the Lincoln Memorial as a backdrop to a boosterish Fox News town hall — to the more sinister, the declassification of intelligence to fuel conservative conspiracy theories.
On Wednesday, Trump threatened to withhold coronavirus aid from Michigan and Nevada — states trying to protect their residents by offering them the option of voting by mail in November.
Trump, who previously falsely claimed that millions of fraudulent votes cost him a popular-vote win in 2016, warned of “thousands and thousands” of fake ballots.
“This nation can’t go down that path. (It’s a) dangerous path to go down,” Trump said Wednesday.
More of CNN’s coronavirus coverage
This all came as the President — who is dosing up on hydroxychloroquine, a drug that his own government says is ineffective against Covid-19 — made yet another of his victory declarations over the virus. He seemingly regards more than 93,000 deaths in a pandemic he had said would not trouble the United States as a marker not of personal failure but great success.
“We’ve done, you know, amazingly well,” Trump said on Wednesday in a meeting with the governors of Arkansas and Kansas.
The days when the White House, by showcasing top medical officials on television, thought it had a duty to inform the states and Americans about the way forward are long gone.
“There has been very little guidance from Washington,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber on CNN’s “New Day.”
“The CDC gave us guidelines on when to open — two weeks of a downward trajectory. They have been radio silent on what should happen now. They haven’t told us what to look for with spikes. They haven’t told us when we should reconsider or tighten what we are doing,” said Gelber, one of a long list of local and state leaders from each party trying to do the best they can.
Trump seems more interested in his own political feuds.
He built his political career and bond with a particular segment of the electorate on the racist claim that his predecessor Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
With polls finding Biden in the lead, Trump has shown he plans to build another campaign on false claims about Obama — this time alleging criminality in the investigation mounted into his own 2016 campaign’s many and unusual contacts with Russia.
It’s an extraordinary spectacle: a President running for a second term and focusing not on his own record but pinning hopes on falsifying the conduct of his predecessor.
A perilous moment
It’s not news that Washington is dysfunctional. But for all the fury and division of the last three decades, the discombobulation at such a perilous moment is shocking. If ever Washington would come together, a pandemic that has thrown more than 30 million Americans out of work ought to do it. Early on, the Democratic-led House and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin did combine to produce trillions of dollars in rescue funds.
But as the crisis has dragged on, political differences have reasserted themselves. If small and large businesses and laid-off workers are looking for more help, they must wait.
The House passed a $3 trillion stimulus plan last week — but its move was a highly political gesture given the lack of agreement between Democrats and Republicans on the way forward. Republicans, who passed a massive tax cut bill that favored corporations and the well-off during 2017, are now concerned about further spending and want to see if state openings can rekindle the economy on their own.
“I don’t see the need right now,” said the top House Republican, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California. Comments like that gave Democrats the chance to complete the layup set up by the bill.
“The Republican pause is a riverboat gamble where American workers will in all likelihood pay the cost of Republican inaction with their homes, their families, their livelihoods,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York.
Some Republicans, especially those with tough reelection races, are getting antsy.
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado pledged to try to keep the Senate from going into recess Thursday.
“This place is full of people who want to do finger pointing and partisan games. The American people are sick of it,” he said.
In the absence of action, Washington is defaulting to name calling. Top diplomat Mike Pompeo, hitting back at criticism of the firing of a State Department inspector general who was investigating him, lashed out at a Democratic senator pushing for a congressional probe.
He bashed New Jersey’s Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez as “a man who was criminally prosecuted, Case Number 15-155, in New Jersey Federal District Court.” Bribery charges against the senator were dropped in 2018 after a mistrial.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — admittedly after three years of insults from the President — now seems willing to join him in the gutter, after misbranding him “morbidly obese” earlier in the week.
The California Democrat said Wednesday that Trump has “doggy doo on his shoes, and everybody who works with him has that on their shoes, too, for a very long time to come.”
The Senate might not be ready to act on another stimulus — but it’s got time to dig over the carcass of impeachment.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, a man who seems ever more out of step with his pro-Trump party, bemoaned efforts by his colleagues to go after Biden on false allegations of corruption in Ukraine — that caused Trump to become only the third impeached president.
Asked whether he thought the probe was political he said: “Yeah, I do.”
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Trump was the victim.
“You are not crazy or a conspiracy theorist if you see a pattern of institutional unfairness towards this President,” the Kentucky Republican said. “You would have to be blind not to see one.”
Biden, still stuck at home in Delaware as Trump begins to move around swing states, tried to insert himself into the action in a virtual town hall.
“He thinks he’s a builder, but he’s a destroyer of everything he touches,” Biden said of his opponent.