WASHINGTON – In the rubble of buildings and lives, modern U.S. presidents have met national trauma with words such as these: “I can hear you.” “You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything.” “We have wept with you; we’ve pulled our children tight.”
As diverse as they were in eloquence and empathy, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama each had his own way of piercing the noise of catastrophe and reaching people.
But now, the known U.S. death toll from the coronavirus pandemic is fast approaching 100,000 on the watch of a president whose communication skills, potent in a political brawl, are not made for this moment.
Impeachment placed one indelible mark on Donald Trump's time in the White House. Now there is another, a still-growing American casualty list that has exceeded deaths from the Vietnam and Korean wars combined. U.S. fatalities from the most lethal hurricanes and earthquakes pale by comparison. This is the deadliest pandemic in a century.
Actual deaths from COVID-19 are almost certainly higher than the numbers show, an undercount to be corrected in time.
At every turn Trump has asserted the numbers would be worse without his leadership. Yet the toll keeps climbing. It is well beyond what he told people to expect even as his public-health authorities started bracing the country in early April for at least 100,000 deaths.
“I think we’ll be substantially under that number,” he said April 10.“ Ten days later: ”We're going toward 50- or 60,000 people." Ten days after that: “We’re probably heading to 60,000, 70,000.” Though critics have said the toll shot up because he was slow to respond, he contended Tuesday it could have been 25 times higher without his actions.
The scale and swiftness of the pandemic's killing are unlike anything that confronted Trump's recent predecessors. Yet the calamity offers no where-were-you moment — no flashpoint turning blue skies black, no fusillade at an elementary school. Instead the toll unfolds in stages of sickness.