On Wednesday evening, Donald Trump sat down to address the nation on the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic and the steps the U.S. government would be taking to protect U.S. citizens during the crisis. Coming a day after Trump had insisted, “It will go away” if everyone just remains calm, it was unclear what sort of rhetoric or suggestions Trump would employ. But a nearly somnambulant Trump, reading along from the teleprompter in a slow, halting manner, did manage to surprise the world with the announcement of a complete ban on travel to the U.S. from Europe. Except for the United Kingdom: The U.K. is still good to go.
Then, after Trump ended his short 10-minute address, the White House spent the next hour issuing statements to “clarify” things either that Trump had read incorrectly or that subsequent thought had indicated were just plain bad ideas. But the result was a nation anything but reassured. Trump’s speech clashed completely with the “just like the flu” rhetoric he had been using until that moment, and his reaction swung wildly toward an act that was more show than substance. Both watchers—and the closely watching markets—were left more worried than they had been before the camera went on.
In the speech, Trump announced a ban on all U.S. travel to and from Europe for the next 30 days, with that ban to begin at midnight on Friday. And, for reasons that were completely unexplained, given that the U.K. has far more cases than many of the nations on the banned list, that one nation got a special exemption. Trump didn’t quite say that he was providing an arbitrary Brexit bonus to Borisland … but it certainly seemed to be the case.
Trump did explicitly say that his ban would apply to “the tremendous amount of trade and cargo” between the U. S. and Europe. That aspect of the restriction in particular seemed to send market futures tumbling, as companies faced the prospect of not only being locked out of markets, but of also being trapped without access to parts and products necessary for factories to operate in the United States.
But minutes after Trump left the Oval Office, the White House issued two enormous clarifications. First, the White House declared that the ban was on human travel only, and that those wanting to move cargo and goods need not be concerned. So scratch that part off the list. Taking a trade freeze off the table was intended to relieve the anxiety of the markets, but only served to make it crystal-clear that policy was being created on the spur of the moment, without thought to actual consequences.
Then, even more amazingly, the White House clarified that the ban did not apply to U.S. citizens or permanent residents. So Americans are still free to fly to and from Europe as they please … so long as they don’t bring back any
Slovenian models Europeans when they do. Which completely obliterated any actual protective quality of the ban. In fact, it turned the ban not into a means of protecting Americans from the coronavirus, but into a punishment for all those European nations not on Trump’s good-guy list.
So perhaps this is a ban that’s actually about payback for world leaders laughing at Donald Trump at the last NATO summit. Take that, NATO.
To make it absolutely clear that the speech and its stated actions were more about traditional Trump xenophobia than about providing protections, Trump referred to taking all this action to guard against what he called a “foreign virus.” Because viruses now have nationalities. Trump didn’t join his Republican colleagues in the intentionally racist coinage “Wuhan virus.” Give him time.
Trump also discussed having the Small Business Administration provide money to companies hurt by shutdowns during the crisis, and expressed hope that payroll taxes would be cut, even though this wouldn’t help many hourly workers, multiple studies have indicated that this wouldn’t be a stimulus to the economy, and the “small” businesses Trump discussed are anything but small.
The whole speech seemed to be a back-of-a-Mar-a-Lago-menu production dashed off by Jared Kushner and Steven Miller, one that required multiple post-speech revisions as much because they hadn’t thought it through ahead of time as because Trump couldn’t read the words in front of him. In the end, Trump’s actions aren’t a ban on travel to Europe. They’re a ban on Europeans visiting the United States. Considering the relative rates of coronavirus … nations on the list should probably feel relieved.
But in terms of doing anything productive, either for the economy or for the health of the nation, Trump provided nothing but more cause for concern. At the end of a day that saw over 300 new cases diagnosed in the United States, bringing the total number over 1,300, Trump also managed to have Dow futures hit their “limit down” following his speech.
It was a historic moment. Just not the good kind.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.