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In unsettling ways, the crisis is working for him as previously untenable policy options are becoming essential to curtailing the coronavirus.
Last month, Donald Trump retweeted a doctored photo of himself playing the fiddle that was labeled “My next piece is called: nothing can stop what’s coming.” It was clearly an homage to the Emperor Nero who so infamously made music while Rome burned. To it, the president added this comment: “Who knows what this means, but it sounds good to me!”
Whether Trump is fiddling these days or not, one thing is certain: in a Nero-like fashion, he continues to be irresponsibly unresponsive to the crisis caused by Covid-19. One reason may be that, however inadvertently, the arrival of the pandemic has helped green-light plans and projects he’s held dear to his heart and that had, before the crisis, repeatedly encountered opposition.
Here are six examples of how the coronavirus, like a malign magic wand, has helped cast a disempowering spell over that opposition and so furthered Trump’s long-term goals.
1. The Southern Border: Since the day he entered the Oval Office, Trump has been focused on closing and sealing the border between Mexico and the United States. Incrementally, his administration had moved from incarcerating upwards of 50,000 migrants and asylum seekers attempting to enter the United States at that border to — in the wake of the coronavirus — closing it completely to nonessential traffic and anyone trying to claim asylum. Migrants who enter the U.S. illegally now will be returned to their native countries illegally. “Border security is health security,” the president claims.
In his persistent determination to close the border and punish migrants and asylum seekers alike, Trump has long allied with the Department of Justice to clear a path for his policies. Attorney General William Barr’s department has, for instance, fought battle after battle to counter legal challenges to the prolonged detention of both migrants and asylum seekers, to prevent aid to sanctuary cities that offer protection to such migrants, to overrule Board of Immigration Appeals decisions, and to withhold bail from detained asylum seekers. Until the coronavirus pandemic hit, however, the courts had increasingly been blocking some of these policies or putting them on hold.
Now, although judges, lawyers, and legal organizations have urged that immigration courts be closed until the pandemic lifts, they have generally remained open even, in some cases, after people in them had tested positive for the virus. The danger, not to say inhumanity, of all this, should be undeniable, but it does reflect President Trump’s ongoing immigration urges.
In addition, the administration has doubled down on an existing policy of denying medical services to detained immigrants. This past winter, for instance, doctors were prevented from delivering flu vaccines to those in immigration detention camps. Now, with more than 37,000 men, women, and children confined, the dangers of the virus spreading among them are obvious and inevitable. As a former acting director of ICE puts it, the crowded conditions of detention, “which are designed to have people remain in close contact,” are “the opposite of the social distancing that is needed to save lives.”
2. The Census: The census has long been a source of contention for this president. He waged a campaign to exclude non-citizens from participating in it only to be stalled in his efforts by the justices of the Supreme Court who decided that they needed more information to make a final decision on the subject. The issue at hand is that census results are used to determine how many congressional seats (based on population) are to be given to each state. If immigrants, both legal and undocumented, are not counted — and estimates are that roughly 6.5 million people fall into those two categories — then fewer politicians and less federal funding will be distributed to areas with more sizeable populations of them.
Originally, Trump responded to the Supreme Court’s decision by advocating that the census simply be put off. Eventually, the administration backed down and the census was not delayed. Now, however, the sands have shifted. Covid-19 has turned the largely door-to-door gathering of census information into so many online, phone, and mail responses. The consequences of an inaccurate census could indeed prove dire. As National Public Radio’s Hansi Lo Wang reported, citing data collected by the Urban Institute, the 2020 census could result in “the worst undercount of black and Latino and Latina people in the U.S. since 1990.” According to one local San Francisco paper, “If the Census count is artificially low, the ramifications in this and every city will be real. It is estimated that each undercounted person costs his or her municipality $2,000 in federal resources.” Funding for public schools would reportedly be severely hit by such cuts in federal funding.
3. Global Conflicts: In his three years in office, Trump has escalated tensions with numerous powers, China and Iran in particular. In the period leading up to the global spread of the virus, China had already taken on special enemy status. In January, the president imposed yet more tariffs on that country’s products while sanctions on $370 billion worth of Chinese imports were left in place even though his administration claimed to have successfully concluded what he called “phase one” of a future trade deal.
Now, he’s labelled Covid-19 the “Chinese virus,” using that label to escalate tensions with China (and provoke a xenophobic backlash here at home). He recently mentioned a friendly hour-long conversation with that country’s president, Xi Jinping, about combatting the virus. But while reportedly preparing temporary relief when it comes to tariffs generally, Chinese imports are expected to be exempted from the proposed pause in payments.
So, too, the virus has been used to escalate tensions with Iran. Trump had already increased the drumbeat to war with that country by ordering the drone assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani in Iraq, leading to retaliatory missile strikes on U.S. military bases in that country. Congress then passed a law aimed at preventing the president from further attacks on Iran without its approval. Nevertheless, in the early days of the devastating spread of the pandemic in Iran, the Trump administration launched several attacks on pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and continued to uphold its economic sanctions on Iran itself. And there are reports of more to come from his administration.
4. Isolationism: Since the onset of his presidency, Trump has sought to separate the U.S. from allies and diminish its participation in international treaties and agreements of all sorts. He, for instance, withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran and announced his intention to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord. As if to put a fine point on his disapproval of global engagement, there has also been a wholesale reduction in the size of the State Department in his years in office. A hiring freeze from the spring of 2017 to the spring of 2018 was reinforced by recommendations from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his successor, Mike Pompeo, which reduced the State Department’s operating budget by one-third, while many key ambassadorships went unfilled. Today, 13% of them remain vacant.
The spread of the coronavirus gave that urge new oomph. In the post-Covid world, the America First-style isolationism that Trump values has become even more emphatically the name of the game. The border with Canada is now closed. He’s banned travel from European countries. Visa offices are shut worldwide. Using the virus as its excuse, the State Department has even halted indefinitely the addition of a new class of 179 foreign-service officers to the diplomatic corps. During the Covid-19 outbreak, American disengagement from the world has taken another step forward.
5. Prosecutions: The coronavirus has also put on hold an array of investigations into the president’s personal and professional dealings. As of March 16th, the Supreme Court closed its doors to the public and postponed oral arguments in pending cases. It is now operating in remote capacity. This means a Supreme Court argument scheduled for this session about whether New York prosecutors and the House of Representatives can have access to the president’s financial records will not take place in the foreseeable future. In addition to their subpoenaing his financial records, New York prosecutors launched multiple investigations last spring into the president’s businesses, some of which continue to this day. Recently, Trump called upon Governor Andrew Cuomo and state District Attorney Letitia James to “stop” all of their state’s “unnecessary lawsuits & harassment.” Now, he may get his wish as the state courts, like the federal courts, are proceeding with reduced speed, staff, and activities.
Meanwhile, inquiries into Trump’s political misdeeds have also been put on hold due to the pandemic. Attorney General Barr, for instance, had been called to testify before the House Judiciary Committee at the end of March. It would have been his first appearance before that committee. Now, however, Congress has adjourned. As its chairman, Jerrold Nadler, explained as March ended, Barr was to have faced questioning about “the misuse of our criminal justice system for political purposes” — specifically, “a pattern of conduct in legal matters… that raises significant concerns,” including interference in the prosecutions of Trump Deputy Campaign Manager Rick Gates, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and long-time associate Roger Stone. Bottom line, the investigations and proceedings against Trump, personal and presidential, are on hold for the foreseeable future.
6. Rigged Elections: Trump has long cast doubts on the viability of presidential elections. As the 2016 campaign played out, for instance, he was already expressing his fears of a “rigged election.” He accused the media of misreporting and twisting the preferences of voters in support of Hillary Clinton, while later claiming her campaign had meddled in the election process. The 2018 election only brought a further sense of distrust to the proceedings, as accusations of voter fraud, voting machine malfunctions, and voter suppression marred the process in states like Florida and Georgia. The result: the groundwork has been laid for ever greater distrust of such elections even though they are the sine qua non of a functioning democracy.
Now, the future of the November presidential election is uncertain owing to Covid-19. As numerous pundits and experts have reminded us, the social distancing necessary to halt the spread of the virus has called into question the logistics of normal voting and even the future viability of a full and fair election in November. Already primaries have been delayed, and expectations of turnout have diminished. Even in some of those that did take place in March, turnout was clearly diminished. Moreover, it was difficult to find people willing to staff polling places and sign in the thousands of voters who would ordinarily pass through on primary day. Solutions like balloting by mail have been proposed, but the ability of Trump and others to challenge the results have undeniably grown in the wake of the virus’s spread across the nation.
With some of his long-stymied plans now falling into place as the devastating pandemic hits, how telling of the president to tweet a picture of himself as Nero, as he delays or refuses to provide adequate amounts of medical supplies from reaching needy states. In unsettling ways, the crisis is working for him as previously untenable policy options are becoming essential to curtailing the coronavirus.
Whether it comes to air travel, the courts, the census, or the voting booth, keeping people apart and grounded makes perfect sense right now, but all of this is also providing dangerous opportunities for the president. Once past this crisis, it will be crucial for Americans to remind one another of the fundamentals of a secure democracy in which respect for immigrants, the desire for peace, election safeguards, and a respect for internationalism can be allowed to thrive even in times of turmoil. Otherwise, Covid-19 could usher in the ultimate success of Donald Trump’s destructive agenda.
Karen J. Greenberg is the Director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law. She is the author of The Least Worst Place, Guantanamo’s First 100 Days (Oxford University Press). She is also the co-editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, among other works.
© 2020 Karen J. Greenberg. First published in TomDispatch.com. Included in Vox Populi with permission.