Today was the day the seriousness of the novel coronavirus finally sank in at the level of the federal government. On Monday, NBA player for the Utah Jazz Rudy Gobert touched every microphone at a media event, seemingly to show he was not concerned about the coronavirus; tonight he tested positive for it, and the NBA suspended the remainder of the season.
Gobert’s rapid swing from flippancy to involvement looked a lot like that of the administration. We learned today that the National Security Council within the White House has classified all top-level meetings about the novel coronavirus. This is unusual and, of course, meant the numbers of people in the room was small (you needed a security clearance to be there), and the chance of leaks low, so that much of the official discussion of this public emergency remains secret. Nonetheless, the NSC’s spokesman says that ““From day one of the response to the coronavirus, NSC has insisted on the principle of radical transparency.”
After weeks of downplaying the dangers of Covid-19, the administration today changed its approach. This morning—a million years ago—Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the president’s coronavirus task force, repeatedly told the House that the president was wrong to downplay the virus, and then, abruptly, the hearing ended when the expert witnesses were called to a meeting at the White House. By afternoon, though, it was no longer possible to stifle bad news: a staffer in the office of Washington Senator Maria Cantwell’s Washington, D.C. office tested positive for the virus, and married actors Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks announced that they have contracted Covid-19. (Their son Chet tweeted a video saying they were both doing well.)
The stock market today officially entered a bear market, which means a falling market (a bull market goes up; a bear market goes down-- I always remember which is which by remembering that a bull tosses things up on its horns while a bear claws things down). A bear market is one that has dropped 20% or more from its peak. By the end of the day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had dropped 1,464 points, almost 6%.
At 9:00 tonight, Trump made the second public address of his presidency, this time to announce the measures his administration would take to combat the viral infection the World Health Organization is now calling a pandemic. The speech was more a performance than a set of policies; his people had to correct the misstatements right afterward.
In the speech, in a monotone except for one short moment when he went off script and seemed to come alive, Trump took credit for acting quickly early on to stop flights from China. He went on to announce a ban on flights from Europe for 30 days beginning Friday (the policy is actually quite a bit more limited than he suggested), blaming Europe for “seeding” the virus in America-- his focus still seems to be on containment. He made it sound as if there would be an embargo on cargoes from Europe, too, but that was a misstatement. There was no mention of more testing, which is key to controlling the spread of the coronavirus which is obviously already spreading domestically within the country, except to say that he had arranged for health insurers to drop the co-pays on the tests (that no one can get). There was no mention of testing for uninsured people.
Trump also said that the government would defer tax payments for some businesses, but made no mention of unemployment benefits, food assistance, or paid leave, and he reiterated that the economy is strong.
As soon as he finished speaking, stock futures began to drop. And drop. And drop. By midnight, it looked as if the Dow will open tomorrow with a decline of about 950 points or 4%.
While we are all focused—with excellent reason—on the pandemic, I cannot help but worry about what is happening when our eyes are elsewhere. Trump has always cared primarily about money, and this sudden drop of the market at night, thanks to his words, seems to me terribly opportune. I am 100% willing to accept that I am just too cynical about politics and money, but “follow the money” has always stood me in good stead when trying to figure things out. I do not know what it means that the market took such a tumble thanks to words that pretty clearly were going to make it fall—perhaps Trump just made an embarrassing mistake, not realizing it would tank the markets—but I think it bears watching.
Two days ago, I missed altogether something else that bears watching, and the fact that I missed it suggests it was barely covered—I’m generally all over the news. On March 9, 2020, the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov met Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and, according to the press release from the Russians, discussed “implementation of the arrangements reached by Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump during the summits in Helsinki in 2018 and Osaka in 2019.” There was virtually no coverage of this meeting in the United States; the only record I found was a readout from the Treasury Department, saying just that the meeting had happened. The Helsinki meeting is the one where Trump and Putin met for two hours alone with only their interpreters in the room. The Osaka meeting came just after Putin declared western liberalism obsolete.
Perhaps this meeting was nothing. But, coming as it does in the midst of Russia’s oil war with Saudi Arabia, and alluding to the two-hour conference that so irregularly cut all the usual advisors and staff out of the room, it would sure be nice to know a bit more about it.
All this to say that I am skeptical that all the intrigue over money and power that has plagued this administration since its beginning have suddenly ended as the president and his people turn their attention to the coronavirus. It has seemed to me he saw the pandemic as a media crisis rather than a public health crisis, and if so, there is no reason to think his priorities have changed.
As I say, perhaps I’m just too skeptical. But I suspect it’s more likely I’m a realist.