Inside Donald Trump and Jared Kushner’s Two Months of Magical Thinking
Inside Donald Trump and Jared Kushner’s Two Months of Magical Thinking
Obsessed with impeachment and their enemies and worried about the stock market, the president and his son-in-law scapegoated HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and treated the coronavirus as mostly a political problem as it moved through the country.
On the afternoon of Thursday, March 19, Donald Trump sat in the Oval Office obsessing over the beaches in Florida. CNN footage of shirtless spring breakers packed onto the sand while the coronavirus pandemic raged sparked national outrage—and pressure on Trump to act. The next morning, New York governor Andrew Cuomo would announce strict stay-at-home orders for residents, but Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis refused to close his state’s beaches, a position even Florida’s Republican senator Rick Scott called reckless. “Lots of people were telling Trump to lean on Ron,” a Trump adviser said.
Trump’s view of the situation was complicated, though. For weeks, his top medical advisers, Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, had been hectoring him about the seriousness of the crisis and the necessity of swift action, testing, lockdowns. “We knew from the beginning...we were going to get cases in the United States,” Fauci told me.
“We knew we were in for a very serious problem.”
Sometimes, Trump listened. The disease was coming closer to his own circle—chief of staff Mark Meadows and communications director Stephanie Grisham were self-quarantining—and the number of cases in New York City had reached 4,000. But the substrate of his thinking hadn’t evolved, and it kept reappearing. He worried about the economy, which was crucial to his reelection. He vented to friends that the doctors were alarmist, and that the crisis was something Democrats and the media were doing to him. “Trump was obsessed with Pelosi, Schiff, the media, just obsessed. He would say, ‘They’re using it against me!’ recalled a Republican in frequent contact with the White House. “It was unhinged.”
Florida was a test case of his magical thinking about the novel coronavirus: That it was temporary, that warm weather would make it disappear. But eight Florida residents had already died from COVID-19 and more than 400 had been diagnosed. “Given the elderly population, if that took off, it would be a nightmare,” a person close to Trump told me. At an adviser’s urging, Trump called DeSantis to tell him to shut down the beaches.
“Ron, what are you doing down there?” Trump said, according to a person briefed on the call.
“I can’t ban people from going on the beach,” DeSantis snapped, surprising Trump.
“These pictures look really bad to the rest of the country,” Trump said.
“Listen, we’re doing it the right way,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis’s intransigence backed Trump into a corner. The 41-year-old governor was a Trump protégé and a crucial ally in a must-win state. “Trump is worried about Florida, electorally,” said a Republican who spoke with Trump around this time. Trump did something he rarely does: He caved. He told DeSantis the beaches could stay open.
“I understand what you’re saying,” Trump said, and hung up.
It was inevitable that Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar would become the West Wing COVID-19 scapegoat. An avuncular Yale educated lawyer with owlish glasses and a beard, Azar was not, as Trump liked to say, out of central casting. Equally bad, Azar was a “Bushie,” as Trump called Republicans who served in George W. Bush’s administration. Azar was briefed on a new and dangerous coronavirus sweeping the Chinese city of Wuhan by CDC director Robert Redfield on January 3—but he struggled to communicate this knowledge to the president. At the time of the outbreak, Trump had soured on Azar, whom he blamed for his weak health care polling numbers.
“Trump thought Azar was a disaster. He is definitely on the gangplank,” a person close to Trump told me. Azar wasn’t able to speak to Trump about the virus for two weeks, even though Trump called him during this period to scream that the White House’s ban on e-cigarettes, a response to a health crisis that he believed could help him politically, had become a drag on his poll numbers. “I never should have done this f--king vaping thing!” Trump told Azar on January 17, a person familiar with the call told me.
When Azar finally told Trump about the outbreak on the phone at Mar-a-Lago, on the night of Saturday, January 18, Trump cut him off and launched into another e-cigarette rant. “Trump jumped his sh-t about vaping,” a person briefed on the phone call told me.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, shared Trump’s view that the media and Democrats were hyping the crisis for political purposes. And for both of them, the biggest worry was how the response to the coronavirus might impact the health of the economy. According to sources, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, a fierce China hawk, and deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, a former China-based Wall Street Journal reporter who’d covered the 2003 SARS pandemic, argued to officials in mid-January that the White House needed to shut down incoming flights from China.
Kushner pushed back. “Jared kept saying the stock market would go down, and Trump wouldn’t get reelected,” a Republican briefed on the internal debates said (a person close to Kushner denies this). Kushner’s position was supported by Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council chief Larry Kudlow. Trump sided with them. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Trump minimized the threat in his first public comments. “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control,” he told CNBC. (The White House and Treasury Department deny Mnuchin and Kudlow were against closing flights.)
When the coronavirus exploded out of China, Kushner was the second most powerful person in the West Wing, exerting influence over virtually every significant decision, from negotiating trade deals to 2020 campaign strategy to overseeing Trump’s impeachment defense. “Jared is running everything. He’s the de facto president of the United States,” a former White House official told me. The previous chief of staff John Kelly, who’d marginalized Kushner, was long gone, and Mick Mulvaney, a virtual lame duck by that point, let Kushner run free. “Jared treats Mick like the help,” a prominent Republican said.
Kushner’s princely arrogance had been a fixture in the West Wing since Trump’s inauguration. “The family has a degree of trust and protection that no one else enjoys,” the former West Wing official said. Kushner can appear mild-mannered, but, like his father-in-law, he seemed to relish the power he derived from crushing adversaries. After Trump’s acquittal, Kushner helped orchestrate a purge of national security officials that testified against the president. According to a source, Kushner provided the White House’s 29-year-old personnel director, John McEntee, with a list of names to be fired. ("In no way shape or form did Jared provide a list to Johnny McEntee on people to be fired," a source familiar with the matter said).
During his time in the West Wing, Kushner had become hardened to a degree that was sometimes shocking. The days of selling the notion that he and Ivanka were moderating forces were long gone—combat was everything. A New York business executive recalled a meeting with Kushner at the White House last fall. “I told Jared that if Trump won a second term, he wouldn’t have to worry about running again and you can really help people. Jared just looked at me and said, ‘I don’t care about any of that.’” The executive came away shaken. “I wanted to tell Jared you don’t say that part out loud, even in private,” he later said. (A source close to Kushner says he has no recollection of making the comment.)
Kushner had an enemies list as long as Trump’s, and at times it played into his response to the crisis. He scoffed when his old nemesis, Steve Bannon, launched a podcast called War Room: Pandemic in January. “Steve’s a dead man. Last he was seen, he was standing on the side of the FDR Drive with the squeegee guys,” Kushner told a Republican around this time.
Kushner also had a famously unshakable belief in his own judgment. According to sources, Trump’s former Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert told Kushner in early March that the White House needed to step up its coronavirus response. “Tom tried sounding the alarm with Jared,” said a person who spoke to Bossert at the time. (Bossert denies this.) Kushner, according to the person, dismissed Bossert’s concerns. Bossert later published his advice in a Washington Post op-ed. “Tom was hammering him: ‘You have to get on this.’ No one listened, so he wrote the op-ed,” a former West Wing official said. Bossert later told people that Kushner icily told him the op-ed was a mistake. (Bossert denies this.)
Navarro and Pottinger finally convinced Trump to stop the flights when they showed him that more than 400,000 people had entered the U.S. from China since early January. “Trump was stunned by the sheer scale,” a Republican briefed on the meeting told me. “Navarro banged on the table enough to get the flights stopped.” On January 31, Trump barred travel from China. Even then, it was a half measure: the ban only applied to non-Americans who had traveled to China in the previous 14 days. American citizens could come and go.
Trump saw this as the end of the story—he’d taken strong public action, built his China Wall. Now, he looked forward to hitting the campaign trail and trumpeting the booming stock market. “He just wanted to hold rallies and watch television,” a former West Wing official said. “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China,” Trump told Sean Hannity during a pre–Super Bowl interview on February 2. He held a half dozen rallies over the next month.
But it was just the beginning.