His autocratic tendencies are well-known. His sudden absence from public view prompted fierce speculation and rumour. One headline suggested that he was “brain-dead”.
The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s whereabouts remain unknown. But after a lost weekend, Donald Trump bounced back into the spotlight on Monday determined to prove that he is not only healthy but working very, very hard.
“The people that know me and know the history of our Country say that I am the hardest working President in history,” Trump had tweeted on Sunday, apparently stung by a New York Times report that said he spent all morning watching TV and clocks into the Oval Office around noon. “I don’t know about that, but I am a hard worker and have probably gotten more done in the first 3 1/2 years than any President in history. The Fake News hates it!”
Trump’s aides fell into line with a Pyongyang-like lockstep. Mark Meadows, the new White House chief of staff, told the New York Post he got a call from Trump at 3.19am. “I can tell you that the biggest concern I have as a new chief of staff is making sure he gets some time to get a quick bite to eat,” he said.
It was the Gordon Gekko argument from the 1987 film Wall Street: “Lunch is for wimps.”
Kayleigh McEnany, the new White House press secretary, duly quoted Meadows on Fox News and added: “Make no mistake about it, it’s why I watch this president get up early in the morning and work until late into the evening to ensure to that end America’s workers get paid and American lives are protected.”
Yet like Kim, Trump was nowhere to be seen over a weekend that included his wife Melania’s 50th birthday and a barrage of angry tweets. Some wondered if he had retreated to a hermit-like existence following bleach-gate, his bizarre riff last Thursday musing aloud that disinfectant could be injected into coronavirus patients.
The sorry episode generated open-mouthed disbelief and derision around the world. Coronavirus taskforce members were said to be stunned. For White House aides and Republican allies, it was reportedly the straw that broke the camel’s back: these daily briefings had become a political liability that could cost Trump the presidential election.
So there was no briefing on Saturday, nor on Sunday. The official White House guidance said there would be one on Monday. At 9.41am, Trump, whose very self-conception is based on what he sees reflected back through the media, tweeted: “There has never been, in the history of our Country, a more vicious or hostile Lamestream Media than there is right now, even in the midst of a National Emergency, the Invisible Enemy!”
At 10.52am, the briefing was abruptly cancelled without explanation. But at 1.32pm, it was officially back on again, scheduled for the rose garden at 5pm. As a poet once wrote, “Who is in charge of the clattering train?”
It turned out the rose garden was decked out with a red carpet and US national flags. Corporate chief executives gave remarks. Trump did not advise anyone to inject disinfectant into their veins, nor did he berate some hapless journalist as “a third rate reporter”, but it could hardly be described as the long-yearned-for “pivot” to a presidential mien.
Stung, perhaps, by a Washington Post analysis that found over the past three weeks of briefings Trump spent two hours on attacks, 45 minutes praising himself and his administration and just 4½ minutes expressing condolences for coronavirus victim, he read scripted remarks as usual before adding: “We do grieve.”
He went on to script a political attack ad against himself: “There has been so much unnecessary death in this country. It could have been stopped and it could have been stopped short, but somebody a long time ago, it seems, decided not to do it that way. And the whole world is suffering because of it. 184 countries, at least.”
In his old self-promotional style, he boasted: “I built the greatest economy in the history of the world. I built it.”
Dr Deborah Birx outlined the taskforce’s new guidelines for state testing. Trump said the US has carried out 5.4m tests, more than double any other country. He did not mention how far it still lags behind per capita, nor how the prominent taskforce member Dr Anthony Fauci has warned that testing levels need to at least be doubled before lockdown restrictions can be relaxed.
The president was told that at least one governor reports an increase in the improper use of disinfectants. He said: “I can’t imagine why. I can’t imagine why.”
Asked if he accepts responsibility for the sharp rise, he answered bluntly: “No, I don’t.”
Someone else wondered if Trump might try to change the date of the November election. “No, I would never change the date of the election,” he said. “November 3rd. It’s a good number.”
There was a memorably pointed question: “Does a president deserve another term after more Americans die in six weeks than the entire Vietnam war?”
Trump, who was reportedly warned about the coronavirus by US intelligence agencies more than a dozen times in January and February, replied: “We’ve lost a lot of people. But if you look at what original projections were … we’ve made a lot of good decisions.”
Another reporter inquired about Kim’s condition. “I do have a very good idea but I can’t talk about it now,” Trump teased, gameshow-style. “I just wish him well … I hope he’s fine. I do know how he’s doing, relatively speaking. We will see, you’ll probably be hearing in the not too distant future.”
If only the victims of the coronavirus were afforded such presidential compassion. But empathy, like lunch, is for wimps.