Trump claims that he had no choice but to risk his own health. Americans disagree.
“I had no choice,” he said, “because I just didn’t want to stay in the White House. I was given that alternative. Stay in the White House. Lock yourself in. Don’t ever leave. Don’t even go to the Oval Office. Just stay upstairs and enjoy it. Don’t see people. Don’t talk to people. And just be done with it.”
“And I can’t do that,” he continued. “I had to be out front. And this is America. This is the United States. This is the greatest country in the world. This is the most powerful country in the world. I can’t be locked up in a room upstairs and totally safe and just say, ‘Hey, whatever happens happens.’ I can’t do that. We have to confront problems. As a leader, you have to confront problems. There’s never been a great leader that would have done that.”
The choice Trump presents here is as bizarre as his conclusion. It is not the case that one must either remain in a windowless room or necessarily contract the novel coronavirus — as he has. One can use social distancing and mask-wearing — as he hasn’t — in an effort to drastically limit the risk posed by the virus. The idea that the proper way to confront the pandemic is for the president to expose himself to it is like saying that Franklin D. Roosevelt should have taken on Adolf Hitler by airdropping into Dresden. FDR managed to fight World War II while not drastically increasing his chances of being shot by a Nazi.
More than 7 in 10 Americans hold a similar position. Asked by pollsters from Ipsos working with ABC News, the vast majority said both that Trump hadn’t taken the risk of contracting the virus seriously enough and that he hadn’t taken the appropriate personal protections necessary to avoid becoming sick.
The poll was conducted on Friday and Saturday, after it was known that Trump had contracted the virus. The vast majority of Democrats indicated that Trump had been lax in his approach to the risks — as did more than 40 percent of Republicans.
In the same poll, ABC and Ipsos found that about 4 in 5 Americans now say that they are concerned they or someone they know might contract the virus, up significantly from early September. Only about a third said they approved of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, a figure that’s been steady since early July.
Early July was also toward the front end of the second big surge in new infections. After the initial emergence of the virus in the late winter — which was poorly measured thanks to limited testing capacity — the country saw more than 60,000 new cases per day on average during the summer. That surge faded but increased again over the past month or so.
It’s still not clear when Trump contracted the virus or from whom. We do know, though, that he spent months arguing that he was broadly protected thanks to frequent testing of himself and those who came into contact with him. His argument before he got sick, in other words, wasn’t that he needed to take risks on behalf of the public, it was that he wasn’t really taking any risk. These arguments never held up to any scrutiny, but they did apparently convince Trump and his aides that the administration could move forward with business largely as usual.
On Sept. 26, Trump hosted a number of high-profile administration officials, elected leaders and dignitaries at the White House for his announcement tapping Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court. That event included a crowded outdoor event and several indoor receptions, including an Oval Office meeting with Trump, Barrett and her family. It was, in other words, precisely the sort of manifestation of Trump not taking the pandemic seriously that Americans have identified as problematic.
Exactly one week later, Trump was in a hospital after falling ill.