Cartoon by Chip Bok

Trump's coronavirus conversion

CNN: "Beautiful day outside," President Donald Trump gushed on Sunday from the White House podium. "I think we have some great things to talk about," he added, explaining he was "very happy," because the Federal Reserve had just cut interest rates to near zero in an emergency response to the looming economic devastation of a fast-spreading coronavirus pandemic. "Relax," he advised anxious shoppers. "We have tremendous control" over the crisis.

We were watching a president trying to hold on to his old ideas, to his old ways. He would soon let go. In the hours that followed, the education of Donald Trump came into full view.

On Monday, a different Trump stood on the podium. "It's bad. It's bad," a grim President told the nation, announcing a new national plan to try to mitigate the exponential growth of the contagion.

Gone was the man who had denied and downplayed for weeks. From the earliest days he had acted as if by force of will, as if with just the right boast, he could make the news turn his way. As if all the markets needed to climb was a dose of Making America Great, and a few hearty -- potentially contagious -- handshakes with CEOs of "great companies" pledging to help in the crisis. Everything was going well, he insisted, hoping to get investors excited and reignite the stock market he has used as a gauge of his presidency.

It had taken several weeks, much too long during an epidemic, but the efforts of public health experts, and a stubbornly pessimistic stock market, finally tore apart the President's standard tactic that the best defense is always verbal pugilism and relentless boosterism.

Day by day, public health luminaries fighting the pandemic, people like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, were trying to educate America. But their most important pupil was the President himself.

Trump was an exasperating student, claiming to know as much as his teachers and propagating all manner of misinformation wrapped in self-aggrandizement. But eventually, he seemed to have got it. At least for that moment.

A UK study projecting more than a million deaths in the US, sent to the White House Coronavirus Task Force by its authors at Imperial College, apparently helped get his attention.

On Tuesday, Trump started sounding almost, almost, like a normal president in a crisis. He still bragged and dissembled ("I felt it was a pandemic long before other people called it that") but his tone was of seriousness and determination. He conceded that the problem is monumental and the timeline uncertain.

Trump, whose marketing and self-promotion propelled him to the world's most powerful position, discovered that not all problems respond to PR solutions; that no matter how he and his acolytes praised his performance, the virus kept barreling forward.

The President who gave us "alternative facts" appears to have discovered that an alternative reality is no reality at all. The bubble he built, the wall of sycophants he constructed to protect himself from criticism, was at last obliterated by realization that a bad situation is about to get worse, much worse. And that the only way to prevent a calamity of unthinkable proportions -- one that could doom his re-election -- is to listen to the experts.

It was late, very late. But better than never.

Imagine what his shock must have been when the day after the Fed cut interest rates, the market plunged to its largest point loss in history. For a president who has market performance as a measure of his success, it must have sent chills down his spine. The November election is less than eight months away.

Since the day he took office, experts have been warning that a pandemic was a threat. "Who could have ever predicted a thing like this," Trump bemoaned on Tuesday, as an anxious nation looked for guidance during a surreal time. The answer is, many experts. His administration was told. But Trump has not been a fan of experts. Until now.

By Tuesday afternoon he couldn't find enough words to praise the members of the coronavirus taskforce. He called them, "total pros. All over the world they're respected," saying Fauci has become "a major television star for all the right reasons."

The President, who came to office as a vaccine skeptic, an enemy of science, has apparently undergone a conversion. You could see it in his attentive focus on the words of renowned experts whose guidance he had been contradicting for weeks. When experts had said the case count would inevitably go up, he suggested the opposite. With only 15 cases in the US, he said, "We're going to be pretty soon at only five people. And we could be at just one or two people."

The number of coronavirus infections in the US is now more than 6,100.

Until Tuesday, Trump's public appearances with scientists have been unsettling, showing a disturbing lack of knowledge for someone in his position. His earlier missteps likely slowed the response and hurt his credibility. An NBC poll showed most Republicans ignoring the advice of experts, while Democrats understood the seriousness of the situation. An NPR/Marist poll showed only 37 percent of Americans believed they can trust the coronavirus information coming from Trump.

The President's jarring encounter with reality appears to have snapped him out of showman mode, at least for now.

For the sake of the country, for the sake of our health, let's hope the newfound respect for science and expertise from the President will outweigh his partisan and ideological instincts. Perhaps his look into the abyss can produce that miracle. But nothing will erase the record that before Trump had that awakening, his behavior muddied the urgent message that public health officials needed to convey in order to stop this deadly pandemic.