Cartoon by Gezienus Bruining

Trump Confronts a New Reality Before an Expected Wave of Disease and Death

The New York Times: Five weeks ago, when there were 60 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the United States, President Trump expressed little alarm. “This is a flu,” he said. “This is like a flu.” He was still likening it to an ordinary flu as late as Friday.

By Tuesday, however, with more than 187,000 recorded cases in the United States and more Americans having been killed by the virus than by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the president’s assessment had rather drastically changed. “It’s not the flu,” he said. “It’s vicious.”

The grim-faced president who appeared in the White House briefing room for more than two hours on Tuesday evening beside charts showing death projections of hellacious proportions was coming to grips with a reality he had long refused to accept. At a minimum, the charts predicted that 100,000 to 240,000 Americans would die — and only if the nation abided by stringent social restrictions that would choke the economy and impoverish millions.

A crisis that Mr. Trump had repeatedly asserted was “under control” and hoped would “miraculously” disappear has come to consume his presidency, presenting him with a challenge that he seems only now to be seeing more clearly.

The numbers publicly outlined on Tuesday had forced him over the weekend to reverse his plan to reopen the country by Easter, but they were hardly new or surprising. Experts have been warning of a possibility like this for weeks. But more than ever before, Mr. Trump seemed to acknowledge them.

“I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead,” the president said, the starkest such effort he has made to prepare the country for the expected wave of disease and death. “We’re going to go through a very tough two weeks.”

Afterward, he added: “We’re going to start seeing some real light at the end of the tunnel. But this is going to be a very painful — very, very painful — two weeks.”

Under the best-case scenario presented on Tuesday, Mr. Trump will see more Americans die from the coronavirus in the weeks and months to come than Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon saw die in the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined.

The lowest estimate would claim nearly as many Americans as World War I under President Woodrow Wilson and 14 times as many Americans as Iraq and Afghanistan together under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

That is a daunting realization for any president, one that left Mr. Trump now anticipating “the worst thing that the country has probably ever seen.”

A pandemic is not a war, of course. Mr. Trump did not choose to have a pandemic. But he will be judged on how he responded, and the reviews from many quarters have been scalding even as polls have shown rising public support. While he conceded the bleak picture more fully than before on Tuesday, he continued to rewrite the history of his handling of it.

Despite comparing it to the ordinary flu and saying for weeks that it would pass, the president insisted on Tuesday that he understood all along that it could be a killer of historic proportions. “I thought it could be,” he said. “I knew everything. I knew it could be horrible, and I knew it could be maybe good.”

Mr. Trump said he played down the seriousness of the threat because he chose to be positive. “I want to give people hope,” he said. “You know, I’m a cheerleader for the country.”

He said his friends in business were advising him not to react aggressively to the virus, presumably out of concern for what it could mean for the economy, which now faces certain recession.

“I’ve had many friends, businesspeople, people with great actually common sense — they said, ‘Why don’t we ride it out?’” Mr. Trump said without identifying them. “A lot of people have said, a lot of people have thought about it, ride it out, don’t do anything, just ride it out and think of it as the flu. But it’s not the flu. It’s vicious.”

The president said that whatever his critics say, he himself had not been riding it out, pointing again, as he often does, to his decision at the end of January to limit travel from China, where the first major outbreak occurred, a move that came as airlines were already cutting back flights on their own. Experts like Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have credited that decision with slowing the spread of the virus to the United States >>>