Opinions Live with Eugene Robinson: We the people will get us a new president

Apr 14, 2020

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Hello, everyone, and welcome to our weekly conversation. (No mask required, unless you're chatting while also making a quick run to the grocery store.) I hope everyone is staying healthy and safe. Well, here we still are, socially distanced and riding out the covid-19 storm. The good news is that we may -- emphasis on may -- be bending the curve of the pandemic. The bad news is that both cases and deaths continue to rise, and remain at horrific levels. It's reasonable to begin thinking about how we will begin to wake the economy from its induced coma, and it's clear at this point that no sensible, workable plan is likely to come from the federal government under President Trump. When I saw Trump's unhinged briefing yesterday, I wondered if the craziness was some kind of tactical ploy or a reflection of his actually losing it. After his "Mutiny on the Bounty" tweet this morning, I'm leaning toward the latter. If the president comes out today wearing a Napoleon hat with MAGA embroidered on the sides, I won't be surprised. We the people, led by governors and local officials, will get through this. And then we'll get us a new president. Let's get started.

If I were a White House reporter I would ask why, if the cupboards were truly bare as the president alleges, supplies were not purchased in the three years since Trump has been in office. Obviously there could be no vaccine, as the virus had not yet been known, but other supplies should have been at the ready. One reporter ask this, the next follows up, and they all ask until a true answer is received.

That's a good question, but President Trump won't answer it. He just won't, and it doesn't matter how many times the question is asked. That's the problem with the press conference format: It assumes that the person at the podium is capable of feeling shame, and will eventually be shamed into giving an honest answer. When has this ever worked with Trump? What makes anyone think it will work today, tomorrow, or ever? I'd be tempted not to ask him any questions at all, and seek answers only from the experts like Fauci and Birx.

Trump is pontificating that the only person that can open the country is HIM. And he will make the decision, he says with the governors. On the face of it, it seems like an exaggeration of the powers he claims to have. Businesses are not going to open until they feel it is safe, people are not going to go out and eat in restaurants until they feel safe and governors are going to protect their states and their people. And then there is the pesky Tenth Amendment... So how do you weigh in on this? Thanks and be well.

I did weigh in, with today's column, though it was written before yesterday's l'etat c'est moi briefing. The president's claim of absolute power is of course ridiculous. He does, however, have the power to grant or withhold federal assistance that governors sorely need, so maybe that's how he hopes to enforce any coming edicts. But you are right -- we will decide when it's safe to come out, and that decision will be based on actual conditions, not on whatever Trump may say. 

Why do you think Trump has refused to lead on PPE procurement? Is he afraid that he would fail?

Two reasons, I think: Incompetence and an unwillingness to take the blame if it doesn't go right. So we ended up with the absurd situation in which the states are scrounging to find the equipment and FEMA is at times outbidding them or outright seizing the supplies the states have managed to buy.

Some Republicans feel his daily briefings are now hurting him, but he continues doing them. Do you think he knows no one else can obfuscate reality as effectively as he does (with Presidential imperiousness)? That he knows his Administration would look even worse if anyone else were trying to hide the facts?

I think he believes he's helping himself with his base by being out there every day, praising himself and picking fights with his critics, including the media. I think he's wrong. He's damaging himself politically and would be better off staying in the Oval Office and letting Pence take the heat.

1. As in the rebuttal format with Presidential "State of the Union" addresses, why can't there be a response identifying the misinformation presented in his Press briefings, that follows his talk and Q's and A's? 2. Why can't a "shadow" administration be organized, representing a significant number of states, funded by independent sources, with a centralized structure whose focus is on supporting, and responsive to, the needs of the states, rather than competitively driven?

Or else we in the media could cover these briefings without showing them live, and then inform readers and viewers of actual news, paying no attention to the nonsense. Just a thought.

Two questions: What would have happened to our country if, during the Depression, FDR had said to America’s governors, “ You find what you each need. We are not a supply depot. We are not the bank. We are not an employer. We are not entrepreneurs. You do it.? Where would we be today? Maybe we are headed there now because Covid 19 may come back and back again with a vengeance.

It would have been a disaster had FDR taken that attitude. We're not heading there now -- I hope and pray -- because we have an election coming up in November and a chance to elect an actual president instead of Wannabe Napoleon IV.

Hi Gene, how are you handling physical distancing? Are you reading or watching things you can share with us? Anything in particular you're doing to keep up your spirits? I'm beginning to sink into a perpetual rage depression seeing this inept, lying administration mishandle this crisis so thoroughly. Anything you recommend will help me cope. I enjoy your columns and TV appearances and appreciate this chance to ask you questions. Thank you!

My colleague Alyssa Rosenberg and I are conducting a book-club reading of "Wolf Hall," the first book in Hilary Mantel's acclaimed Thomas Cromwell trilogy, and you're invited to join! I'm also always in the market for binge-worthy television and would welcome recommendations.

Mr. Robinson, have you discovered the link between Trump, Guiliani, and other Republicans and the French drug company that manufactures hydroxychloroguine? Have you wondered how Trump would even know how to pronounce this drug unless it was to make him money? I always enjoy your insights, but I think you underestimated Trump’s only concern in ever promoting anything, it is always about his bank account. Keep up the great writing, it is good for my spirits anytime.

As I noted in last week's chat, my understanding is that some Trump family trust have a stake -- though perhaps a very small stake, maybe just four figures -- in that French company. But I'd love to see more reporting about whether any of Trump's cronies are more heavily invested in the drug. And I really, really want to see how much money Trump family properties are going to get from the bailout.

How about comparing the ongoing White House briefings to the "Five o'clock Follies" during the Vietnam conflict. I believe there is an apt comparsion to the level of honesty and resultant disbelief by the reporters (ultimately the population at-large) as to the "information" provided by the briefers.

I saw someone make this comparison on Twitter, but I think these briefings -- at least Trump's part in them -- may be even worse than the Vietnam-era follies. Those earlier briefings were full of lies that could not be immediately exposed as lies. These virus updates are full of lies that everyone can immediately recognize as lies, in real time. "That is not true" the CNN correspondent said of Trump's claim of absolute imperial power.

I think what scares me most about Trump's incessant touting of Hydroxychloroquinine is that his true believers will "drink the Kool-Aid." Then, because they believe it's either a preventive or an easy cure, they will no longer believe in the need for social distancing, resulting in more infections. Am I being too pessimistic?

No, that looks quite likely to happen. Even worse, a lot of people may seriously harm themselves by taking hydroxychloroquine, which is so toxic to heart health in high doses that researchers in Brazil and Sweden halted studies of the drug.

With the Supreme Court not allowing the Governor of Wisconsin to delay primary, will Trump have the ability to delay the election in November allowing himself to stay in office?

No. Congress sets Election Day by law. The president can't change it. The fight isn't about when the election will be held, it's about how far Trump and the Republican Party will go in voter suppression.

Please ask President Trump and republican lawmakers how and when they will erect tent cities to house all the working people who are now, or about to become, homeless? All of the US citizens and existing homeless people, who will in effect, become refugees within our own country.

I hope we don't get to the point of needing tent cities for millions and millions of homeless. But we do need long-term solutions for families who have no way of paying their rent or mortgages. And we will need some kind of long-term solution for the hospitality industry in particular, which under any reasonable scenario will be very slow to rebound.

How surprised were you at the Wisconsin Supreme Court Judge election results?

The liberal candidate who won had been expected to win, but nobody knew what would happen in an election conducted under those circumstances. And in any event I was surprised by the big victory margin.

Hi Eugene, I asked the question last week about Jared Kushner becoming the next IG for the stimulus package. Then Trump put together his "economic" team for jump start the economy. And lo and behold not only Jared but Ivanka is on the panel. What is the purpose of this panel? I scratch my head sometimes, when we open back up, I pretty much feel the economy will plumb back up and this is even more, excuse me, BS to keep those two busy.

This restart-the-economy task force is some kind of cruel joke, it really is. Not a single member knows anything about medicine or epidemiology. Not a single member is an economist. It looks like a group of relatives and cronies designed to give Trump the answer he wants. Incredible.

Why has media not challenged Trump when he says his administration was “left with nothing” by the Obama administration to deal with a pandemic and thus he had nothing to work? He had to start from scratch. Yet he now claims that his administration, in just 2 months, has stockpiled everything that’s needed for the pandemic, and more. Well, he’s been in office for three full years already! If it only took two months why didn’t he implement plans and stockpile in preparation for a pandemic during any of the previous 36 months? Don’t let him get away with blaming Obama.

We have no power to keep the president from telling bald-faced lies. We don't have to broadcast these lives live and in color if we don't want to, however, and we don't have to waste our breath asking him questions we know he won't answer truthfully.

Why reporters didn't walk out of the virus update after the lies and garbage Trump spewed yesterday. At some point we need to stop giving airtime to this destructive nonsense. And that point is NOW

Walking out in a huff would be a stunt and wouldn't make things any better. Some news organizations do not send reporters to those briefings. Others attend because Drs. Fauci and Birx may have important information to share. What I don't understand is why the reporters bother to ask Trump questions they know he won't truthfully answer.

Trump put up a really bizarre tweet about the movie Mutiny on the Bounty. Shall we now call him Captain Bligh?

That would be an insult to Bligh, who may have been a cruel and crazy martinet but was also a brilliant mariner.

doesn't have the ultimate authority to send the country out of quarantine. Besides, he never shut things down, so it is hard to see what he can do that will reverse the governors. An executive order to disallow state leaders from protecting their citizens and the ability of their health care systems to manage? Can't happen. Anything he could do to enforce it (withholding money is about all that he could do) would be struck down by the courts. Here is something he can do, though. He can order the federal workforce back to the office. Get rid of the enlarged work from home rules that some of us who are fortunate to have computer based job are using. Put us back into the public transportation system to get to our offices. Refuse to provide protective equipment. Unions will try to negotiate, but not everyone has one. There are enough federal employees in this country and they are distributed widely enough to create a second surge with just that action. Starting to wonder if that is a feature (dead federal employees not getting replaced) not a bug.

That is an alarmingly plausible scenario. Maybe there is some way Congress or the courts could step in to prevent it.

Hi Gene -- thanks as always for taking questions today and for being the highlight of my Tuesday. Most of Trump's appearances at the daily briefings have been hot messes, and while I didn't watch a lot of yesterday's, by all accounts it was messier than usual. The whole business of "I have absolute power" would be laughable if it wasn't so frightening given who the president is and our current circumstances, and Pence, a trained lawyer who clearly knows better, upped the sycophancy quotient into new levels, if that is possible. And meanwhile nary a peep from Trump's Republican enablers: Graham and McConnell (also lawyers), many others. What do you think their game is? Do they somehow hope people don't see what's going on, and the plan is to just keep their heads down, hope that soon this will be over and forgotten and Trump can still prevail in November? Have they given up on trying to mount any sort of defense for their guy? I don't know how they can sleep at night, but I know we've all been asking that same question for three years now.

Same question, same answer. They're afraid to cross Trump because he has the loyalty of the Republican base. The only GOP senator I've seen refute the "absolute power" nonsense is Rand Paul -- but he won't actually buck the president on anything important. The only remedy for this breakdown of our democracy is a Blue Wave election in November.

Because of Trump's egregiously bogus claims and toddler-like tantrum during yesterday's press conference, several media outlets are being very blunt in their reporting (especially CNN). Do you think other outlets will follow that path? I think it's past time for reporters to treat Trump like the unprepared second-rate celebrity he is.

He's an unprepared second-rate celebrity who happens to be president of the United States. For the media to be more contemptuous toward him would not solve the problem. Only an election, impeachment or the 25th Amendment can do that.

Hi, Gene. It is now clear to everyone with a brain that the president is non-functional. That might fly when the nation was not in an existential crisis. Can you see any way in which he might be displaced and someone else--Pence, say--become the de facto decision maker?

If the Cabinet decided he was impaired and unable to perform his duties, the Cabinet could vote to relieve him of his duties. Pence would take over, and Trump could appeal his removal to Congress. This provision of the 25th amendment was written to cover situations such as Woodrow Wilson's debilitating stroke, but it's there if Pence wants to use it.

Since Trump has taken office is there anything he has said or done that makes you feel confident that if he loses the election that he will accept the results and leave office? Personally, I have zero confidence that he will leave office if he loses. What would happen then?

I think I've answered this question at least a dozen times over the months and years. If he loses, and I assume he will, he won't like it. He may try to reject the results. But I am confident that there will be an inauguration next Jan. 20, and that Trump (if he's the loser) will then be escorted from the White House, bodily if necessary.


That's it for today, folks. Once again I apologize for not getting to everyone's questions. Thanks as always for a lively hour, and please join us again next week!

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2009, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for his columns on the 2008 presidential campaign that focus on the election of the first African-American president. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America" (2010), "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson lives with his wife and two sons in Arlington.
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