Five months ago, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpProtesters tear down statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore 'Independence Day' star Bill Pullman urges Americans to wear a 'freedom mask' in July 4 PSA Protesters burn American flag outside White House after Trump's July Fourth address MORE was an even bet for reelection: The Senate was about to reject his impeachment; the economic outlook was pretty bright, and Democrats were on the verge of an ideological electoral jihad. This all had to come together for him, as his approval ratings never advanced beyond the mid 40s.
By a month later the Democrats miraculously coalesced behind the 77-year-old former vice president, the safest of all nominees.
But Trump sealed his own fate.
Engage in a moment of fantasy to imagine how a responsible Republican president — a Jeb Bush or a John Kasich — might have responded to impeachment, the pandemic and racial explosion.
After the Senate acquittal, an adult president — who wouldn't have committed impeachable offenses in the first place — would have tempered his fury and declared: This was unfortunate and unnecessary. But let's look ahead not back. As Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCongress eyes tighter restrictions on next round of small business help The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday MORE (R-Maine) said, I have “learned” from this and am ready to work with Democrats.
Instead, Trump validated the opposition, lashing out, punishing those inside the administration who told the truth, delivering a childishly bitter State of the Union speech after refusing to shake hands with the Speaker of the House.
There might still have been time to recoup within a month as the COVID-19 virus started to spread around the world; health specialists, intelligence experts and even his own trade adviser warned the pandemic was coming here.
The Trump message could have been: This is exactly the time America needs a strong leader; that's why you elected me. There is a looming threat, we're going to get ahead of it. I am invoking the National Defense Production Act for a crash program for more ventilators, testing and Personal Protection Equipment; masks will be mandatory in larger gatherings, social distancing will be the order of the day. We will lead a global, Manhattan-type project to develop and distribute a vaccine as soon as possible. This effort will be led by retired Gen. Stanley McCrystal working with Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciTrump hits 'radical left,' news media, China in Independence Day address White House looks to make 'we need to live with it' the new tone on coronavirus: report Rand Paul's exchange with Fauci was exactly what America needed MORE and the Centers for Disease Control. Americans know I have created the greatest economy of our lifetime. There may be a temporary interruption as we guard against this threat, but if we're smart, we will come roaring back.
Instead he and his son-in-law decided that nothing, including a deadly pandemic, could get in the way of a robust economy, his reelection calling card.
So, Trump insisted there was no problem, lied about what was being done, attacked Democratic governors who were taking it seriously, refused to accept any responsibility, blamed the Chinese after he had praised them, undercut Tony Fauci, and — in a display of symbolic recklessness — still refuses to wear a mask.
On March 6, when he could have been whipping into action, there were 317 cases and 17 deaths in the U.S. Four months later, there are more than 2.9 million cases and approaching 130,000 deaths.
Anyone who doubts that presidential leadership could have mitigated the crisis, sparing tens of thousands of lives, should read James Fallows's piece in the Atlantic, "The 3 weeks that changed everything."
After the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a normal Republican president would have summoned civil rights activists and law enforcement officials and called for peaceful protests while acknowledging a crisis and trying to fashion changes.
It would be like South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottSenators push foreign media to disclose if they are registered as foreign agents The Memo: Trump grows weak as clock ticks down GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday MORE, author of a police reform measure. On the important question of accountability, Scott's proposal is inadequate and justifiably criticized. But it's a serious and sincere effort.
Trump, by contrast, has sought to sow more racial discord for the past six weeks, threatening military action against largely peaceful protestors, praising memorials to pro-slavery leaders of the Confederacy, even retweeting a call for white power. There have been few, if any, more grotesque presidential gestures than Trump marching across Lafayette Square, after first having racial justice demonstrators dispersed with tear gas, to stand in front of a church holding up a Bible like a fresh-caught fish. Friday night’s screed in front of Mount Rushmore is perhaps a close second.
Ok, pretending Trump could have risen above his insecurities and displayed leadership is like depicting Willie Sutton as a bank teller, not a bank robber, or Bernie Madoff as an investor champion rather than a Ponzi scheme cheat.
Still, it's worth recalling.
When Trump is trounced in November — or, as my podcast partner James Carville has been predicting, quits to avoid humiliation — he'll first blame it on fake news and the deep state. Then it'll be he was given an impossible hand.
Truth is: If he had played his hand with any skill and integrity, it would have made a big difference for the health of the country and maybe for his own political fate.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.