Letter from Trump’s Washington

Trump Retreats to His Hannity Bunker

Donald Trump and Sean Hannity.
The general theme of Trump’s conversations with Sean Hannity has been the President’s increasingly urgent need to tout his own brilliance at handling the coronavirus.Source: Fox News / YouTube

June began poorly for President Trump, and it’s ending worse. Despite Trump’s optimistic pronouncements about the coronavirus, the pandemic is surging across the American South and West. His poll numbers against Joe Biden2020欧洲杯体育在线网址 are cratering. His former national-security adviser is selling a book that calls him a corrupt fool who’s unfit for office. The number of jobless Americans continues to climb. But, luckily, there are some things Trump can still count on—like the Fox News host Sean Hannity.

On Thursday night, with America deep in a crisis that shows no sign of easing, Trump appeared at a Fox News “town hall” led by Hannity. It was a reassuringly safe space for the President. There was not a single mention of the terrifying spike of COVID-19 cases in Texas or Arizona or anywhere else. No one so much as alluded to the hundred and twenty-five thousand or so Americans who have already died from the disease. And Hannity—Trump’s close friend and confidant, who has been called his shadow White House chief of staff—refrained from citing the recent wave of national polls, including one by Fox, that show Trump losing to Biden by double-digit percentage points. The audience of Trump superfans, many of whom wore pro-Trump “Make America Great Again” gear, obliged as well. When Hannity got around to taking questions from them, twenty-five minutes into the forty-three-minute broadcast, a woman named Linda asked Trump, “What do you think is your greatest accomplishment?”

Hannity’s latest in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign was perfectly predictable, of course. The TV host, who is paid a year by Fox, is so reliable a wingman to the President that my colleague Jane Mayer reported2020欧洲杯体育在线网址 that Trump bragged he was a ten out of ten on the loyalty scale. Before the 2018 midterms, the President had Hannity appear onstage at his big preëlection rally, a faux pas even for Fox that earned Hannity a reprimand from his bosses. Before Thursday’s event, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Trump hosted Hannity as his guest on Marine One, and photographers snapped a picture of U.S. Marine guards saluting as Hannity walked on the tarmac to the plane’s steps. In a pre-town-hall interview, at a Wisconsin airplane hangar, the two looked like co-stars in a buddy movie; they were even dressed in matching long red ties and dark suits. When the show got going, Trump saluted Hannity as a “great journalist.” Hannity’s show is the Fox bunker that Trump retreats to when everything else is going wrong.

Not surprisingly, some of Trump’s most outrageous comments about the ongoing pandemic have been uttered on Hannity’s program. In early March, just a little over a week before he declared a national emergency and shut down the country, Trump told Hannity that the coronavirus was “very mild,” that it was similar to the annual flu, and that hundreds of thousands of people could recover from it while still going to work. On March 26th, the President touted the malaria treatment hydroxychloroquine as a miracle drug to combat the coronavirus. “This could be the big answer,” he told Hannity. On April 7th, Trump was back on the show, promoting himself and hydroxychloroquine. “We have millions of doses that I bought,” Trump said, before correcting himself, “that the country bought.” He added, “It’s not like it’s something unsafe.” A few weeks later, medical studies suggested that the drug was risky, and U.S. government health officials recommended it not be given to COVID2020欧洲杯体育在线网址-19 patients. The general theme of all these conversations with Hannity—which are better characterized as rambling monologues by Trump in which Hannity occasionally figures—has been the President’s increasingly urgent need to tout his own brilliance at handling the pandemic. “We’re way under . . . in terms of death,” he told Hannity, in April. But it wasn’t true, then or now.

In the past three months of the pandemic, Trump’s virus-spin cycle has become as familiar as it is mind-numbing, an endless loop of denial, magical thinking, blame-shifting, and fearmongering. Often, he seems to do all of this in the same day: We beat the invisible enemy. The country is transitioning to greatness. The virus is fading away. Cases are only going up because we are testing more. A miracle vaccine will be ready soon, probably, maybe, likely by the end of this year. People are wearing masks just because they want to hurt me politically and the media is lying to them. We did a great job. It’s the “kung flu.” It’s the “ChinaVirus.” These are all real points the President has made, just in the past few days.

The virus, however, does not care what Trump has to say about it. It’s a virus. It doesn’t watch Fox or care about ratings. “The virus is not going to disappear,” Anthony Fauci2020欧洲杯体育在线网址, the nation’s chief infectious-disease expert, said, at a congressional hearing on Tuesday. “We have a long way to go,” Admiral Brett Giroir, the Administration’s testing czar, said. The virus has “brought this nation to its knees,” Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said.

On Wednesday, the U.S. set a record for new coronavirus cases, according to the COVID Tracking Project, of 38,672. The previous record was set two months ago, on April 26th. American deaths from the virus are, by far, the most that have been recorded anywhere in the world, and are predicted to reach some two hundred thousand by October. The curve has not flattened. There is no summer respite. This awful spring, the Trump Administration declared that the country had “thirty days to stop the spread,” a chirpy slogan repeated by Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence, and the rest of the coronavirus task force back in March. But the thirty days ended and the spread did not. America failed.

No wonder Trump retreated to his Hannity bunker on Thursday, to talk about the border wall and Barack Obama’s “treason” and the deep state. About the “persecution” of Michael Flynn, and how much of a “disaster” his former Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, was. About the “rioters” and “terrorists” destroying America’s cities in the wake of George Floyd2020欧洲杯体育在线网址’s killing. This is a week when even Trump ought to have a hard time denying the reality of the disaster the country is facing, and his own political predicament. The virus is spiking in Republican-led states, such as Arizona, South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas, which are must-wins for Trump in the fall. Texas alone reported six thousand new cases on Thursday, and its Republican governor, Greg Abbott, who had spent months aligned with Trump in downplaying the threat, is now urging state residents to shelter at home. On Thursday, he announced that he was pausing the state’s plans to reopen. So did the equally pro-Trump Republican governor of Florida. Not exactly on-message for their President.

Shortly after 6 P.M. on Thursday, Trump sent out a tweet promoting his conversation with Hannity, taped earlier that day in Wisconsin, where a new Times poll shows him trailing Biden by eleven points. Minutes after Trump’s tweet, Fox News released the results of its in key battleground states. It showed Trump behind Biden in every single one, including, for the first time in a Fox News poll, the Republican bastion of Texas. In the lead-up to Trump’s Hannity interview, Tucker Carlson’s show opened with this banner: “PRESIDENT TRUMP MAY LOSE THIS ELECTION.”

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All of this is why I can’t stop thinking about that catastrophic rally on Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the heart of Trump country, when an anemic turnout left Trump ranting to thousands of empty seats at an event meant to mark his triumphant return to pre-pandemic politics as usual. The photograph of a dejected Trump as he left Air Force One on his return from Tulsa was an instant classic. There was the blustery salesman slumped over in defeat, tie off, head hanging, for once, not bothering to sell us his bullshit. One can only imagine the rage and fury that Trump had vented at his aides for the rally debacle.The photograph showed him as a cranky, exhausted septuagenarian coming home in the middle of the night after a terrible day on the job.

2020欧洲杯体育在线网址Did the picture mean that Trump knows what trouble he’s in? Was it a sign that he realizes his act is wearing thin, that his flimflammery might no longer be working? Is it possible that he might be a bit more reality-based than his ridiculous all-caps tweets and absurdist public discourse suggest? Several times in his conversation with Hannity on Thursday, Trump seemed to acknowledge that Biden might be beating him. “It’s so crazy, what’s happening,” the President said, at one point. Referring to Biden, he added, “Here’s a guy, doesn’t talk. Nobody hears him. Whenever he does talk, he can’t put two sentences together. I don’t want to be nice or un-nice. O.K.? But, I mean, the man can’t speak. And he’s going to be your President because some people don’t love me, maybe.”

Certainly, it’s a different moment for Trump from a couple of months ago, when the that he had recoiled in outrage and disbelief when presented by his campaign with internal polls that showed him losing to Biden. Perhaps even more revealing was Trump’s answer when Hannity asked him what should have been an easy question for any candidate: What, exactly, does he plan to do in a second term if he wins? Sometimes, even propaganda can be unintentionally revelatory. Trump had nothing to say, no agenda to offer, only recriminations and some vague words about “experience”—and a reassurance that everything “will be really great.”

The weary post-Tulsa photograph of Trump shows the President as a man alone, a narcissist in trouble with no one to blame but himself. If Trump ultimately does lose to Biden this fall—and that is still a big “if”—I believe that we will look back on June as the month when it really began to unravel for him. The huckster showed Sean Hannity on Thursday night that he is still selling the same old, same old message of lies, hate, and division, but it may be that America is finally wising up to the con.