WASHINGTON (AP) — One month from Election Day, President Donald Trump is facing a credibility crisis as yawning as his health crisis, at a moment when he needs the public’s trust the most.
The president’s coronavirus infection, as well as the illnesses of several aides and allies, has imperiled the highest levels of the U.S. government. The White House’s efforts Saturday to project calm backfired in stunning fashion, resulting in a blizzard of confusing and contradictory information about the health and well-being of the commander in chief.
It’s a moment months in the making, the collision of Trump’s repeated defiance of his own administration’s guidelines for staying safe during the pandemic and his well-known disregard for facts. The result: deep uncertainty for Americans over who and what to believe about the health of the nation’s leader at a perilous moment in U.S. history.
“This is bigger than Donald Trump. It’s about the institution of the presidency,” said Robert Gibbs, who served as President Barack Obama’s first White House press secretary.
For any president, credibility in a crisis is paramount — the ability to rally Americans of every political persuasion around a commonly accepted understanding of the situation. For a president on the brink of an election, particularly one held in as tumultuous a year as 2020, it could be the difference between serving one term or two.
Yet Trump has squandered widespread credibility from the very start of his presidency, spending his first full day in office disputing official tallies of the crowd size at his inauguration and asking Americans to disregard photographic evidence showing that he drew fewer people to the National Mall in Washington than his predecessor.
The episode set the tone for the rest of his administration, with Trump creating alternate realities around issues big and small, amplified by the help of friendly media outlets. He frequently touts records and milestones that don’t exist. He spreads baseless rumors about his political opponents, including declaring without evidence that Joe Biden, his Democratic rival in the 2020 presidential campaign, might be on drugs in their debate.
Yet Trump’s credibility has come under even greater scrutiny during the pandemic, the single biggest test of his presidency. He’s repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus in public, despite telling journalist Bob Woodward privately in February that COVID-19 was more deadly than the flu. He’s floated unverified and harmful treatments, including suggesting Americans could inoculate themselves by injecting bleach.