A dark and disorientating weekend that stretched federal and local governments, the economy and the health care system to a breaking point, served to clarify the mind-numbing scale of the worst domestic crisis to hit the nation since World War II.
It ended with deeply ominous questions about the economy — which appears to be tumbling into the abyss, and with fresh doubts over the President’s capacity to lead and reassure the nation.
New York state alone now has more than 15,000 cases — more than all but seven of the world’s countries, and with millions of Americans living under lockdown or stay-at-home orders.
A disease that is highly contagious, has no vaccine, to which humans have no immunity and has far higher rates of critical illness than influenza is advancing at a staggering rate.
Desperate pleas for help
Trump announced a raft of new measures Sunday evening — listing large hauls of masks and other vital gear for three hotspot states, Washington, California and New York.
His promise followed a day of increasingly angst-ridden calls from health workers who are running out of protective equipment and fear they will get infected.
“I am a wartime President. This is a different kind of war than we have ever had,” Trump, who for weeks denied and downplayed the scale of the pandemic, told reporters in a White House briefing.
But there is still mystery over why a President who won power vowing “I alone can fix it” is still unwilling to fully flex the wartime powers of the government to fight the crisis.
The President presided over a 90-minute news conference Sunday evening at which the full spectrum of his tumultuous political arsenal was on display. He flashed real moments of leadership and compassion. But his past recent record of overselling government action raised doubts over whether his commitments would be delivered. And he, as usual blamed problems in the effort on his predecessor and lashed out at criticism of his refusal to be more transparent about his finances.
‘No time for playing games’
The failure of the stimulus bill lawmakers spent all weekend negotiating on Capitol Hill added to the sense of crisis. It recalled the moment when a bank rescue failed in the 2008 financial crisis sending stocks tanking.
Still, there is the prospect that another slump in the markets will push both sides towards a compromise on Monday.
Democrats argue that the bill, drawn up by the Senate Republicans as it stands, does not do enough to help hundreds of thousands of laid off workers.
“The American people are watching this spectacle. I’m told the futures market is down 5%,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“The notion that we have time to play games here with the American economy and the American people is utterly absurd.”
But Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warned that the legislation had many problems.
“At the top of it includes a large corporate bailout with no protections for workers and virtually no oversight. Also very troubling in the bill were significant shortfalls of money that our hospitals, city, states and medical workers desperately needed,” the New York Democrat said.
Democrats and staff for Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin continued talks into the night on Sunday. There had been hopes — had Sunday’s procedural vote succeeded — that a final vote on the package could follow Monday.
The political impact of a day of anguished warnings by health care professionals and local leaders appeared to be reflected in Trump’s effort to showcase supplies on Sunday night.
“Health care workers on the front lines are scared. We are terrified of bringing back Covid-19 to our families,” Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore city health commissioner and emergency room physician, told CNN Sunday.
Columbia University Irving Medical Center’s Surgeon-in Chief, Dr. Craig Smith wrote in a letter to staff Saturday: “To think we could mimic Italy seemed risible a week ago. Not today.”
Another physician, Dr. Megan Ranney from Rhode Island said she was “thrilled” to hear of the dispatch of large stocks of preventative gowns, gloves and masks to hard-hit areas.
“I do hope I will be delivered on as promised during these remarks, and there are certainly a lot of questions out there that we are looking for answers for and were not yet addressed in this conference.”
Trump announced the provision of hundreds of thousands of surgical masks, face shields, gloves and gowns to New York and Washington states in recent days.
But there are still questions about the government’s capacity to make up for the shortfalls when the worst of the pandemic hits in the coming weeks.
Governors plead for help
Governors took to Sunday talk shows pleading with the President to supercharge the federal response. Some said they were competing with one another on marked up markets for medical supplies to get their hospitals what was needed.
The calls appeared to anger the President, and he accused governors of conspiring with the media.
“We are there to back you up should you fail, and always will be!” Trump tweeted.
States are not just desperate for protective supplies, they are warning of a shortfall in ventilators for an expected rush of sick coronavirus patients in the next few weeks.
“If we don’t get the equipment we could lose lives that we have otherwise saved.”
“I believe the federal government should immediately implement the Defense Production Act.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that if his city did not get more ventilators within 10 days “people will die.”
“April will be a lot worse than March and I fear May could be worse than April,” de Blasio told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
But Trump’s policy adviser Peter Navarro told reporters Sunday night that the administration was still not fully implementing the Defense Production Act since Trump’s invocation of the law last week had produced voluntary offers of help from industry leaders.
“When you have a strong leader, you can take a light hand initially … we are getting what we need without putting the heavy hand of government down,” Navarro said.
The comment was not only notable for its extreme flattery of the President. It will raise new concerns that the White House is more concerned with appeasing political and business influences than catching up after a slow start to the crisis.
Trump’s management of the fight against the pandemic will define his presidency — and likely decide whether he will win reelection in November.
He did his best on a grim day to instill confidence in his country and to promise better days ahead for the ravaged economy — at the start of a week that is certain to be desolate.
“The greatest thing we can do is win the war. The war is against the virus. That is the war. We do that — everything is going to fall into place,” Trump said.