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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Trump's coronavirus publicity often proves less than useful for the public

President Donald Trump signs the $2.2 trillion coronavirus

President Donald Trump signs the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package Friday in the Oval Office. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

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The massive federal government under the Trump Administration undoubtedly serves millions of people in this emergency in various routine ways. But you might not know that from the sideshows President Donald Trump chooses to stage about medical equipment, malaria drugs, political skeptics, China and news media coverage.

Whether his extraneous chatter helps Trump politically is beside the point in an emergency.

New York State and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are reportedly pushing ahead with tests to determine if administering antimalarial drugs could help seriously ill patients fight COVID-19. Onisis Stefas, chief pharmacy officer for Northwell Health, told The Washington Post: “Everybody’s questioning it, and that’s why these studies need to be done to confirm it. There aren’t a lot of other options out there.”

That could indeed be big.

But it may not have helped that Trump prematurely advertised the combination of substances as a "game-changer," in the style of some late-night infomercials. There are serious health warnings and cautions against its unauthorized use.

For the sake of promotion, Trump said incorrectly the medicines were approved for COVID-19 by the FDA, which had cleared them only for testing against the disease. It was his latest factual distortion without walk-back, and all it accomplished was to associate him with an experiment.

Trump's weekslong resistance to using his emergency defense power to force companies to produce medical supplies drew bipartisan criticism. If there was a reason he thought it better to wait for private companies to volunteer supplies and production lines, he never made it clear.

Finally he pulled an about-face on Friday, dubiously using General Motors as a foil to justify the flip-flop. It marked another delayed response by the administration. The effect of the announcement and order remains unclear.

Trump said that, in New York State, "I don't believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators" as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was seeking. How many did he think New York needed? 10? 1,000? But on Sunday, coronavirus task force expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said: "Bottom line, he’s got to have the ventilators. Period....There are a lot of different calculations. My experience, I tend to believe Gov. Cuomo."

But first, Trump deflected the production issue by getting political enablers to blame Cuomo for the shortage.

None of this discord at the top produces prompt, practical help for anyone. But it did put extra media focus, relevant or not, on the president.

On Saturday, Trump attracted new attention with another of his apparent nonstarters. "We're thinking about certain things," he said at a photo op in Virginia. "Some people would like to see New York quarantined because it's a hot spot. ... We might not have to do it, but there's a possibility that sometime today we'll do a quarantine, short-term, two weeks on New York. Probably New Jersey, certain parts of Connecticut."

What purpose is there to say he may or may not do something? Why now? Why here and not Florida or Texas? Dark suspicions were raised about his motives and plans — without any questions being answered. It united nobody. Then suddenly, overnight, Trump said there will be no such lockdown, and a Centers for Disease Control travel advisory would be issued instead, which is in line with what states have already done.

On Friday, Trump tweeted about Chinese President Xi Jinping: "Just finished a very good conversation with President Xi of China. Discussed in great detail the Coronavirus that is ravaging large parts of our Planet. China has been through much & has developed a strong understanding of the Virus. We are working closely together. Much respect!"

One can only guess what he means by "discussed in great detail." How China's "strong understanding" could help the U.S. at this point is just as unclear. Xi said he offered help. The chat drew public attention and understandably made its way into media accounts. But it didn't seem to serve any governmental purpose.

Trump's frequent heckling habit resumed Friday when he piled on Rep. Tom Massie (R-Ky.) for trying to block an economic relief package in the House.

In tweets, the president called Massie a "third rate Grandstander" and a "do nothing Kentucky politician" who should be booted from the Republican Party.

Massie's procedural demand was defeated, and the relief bill was approved. He is unlikely to be booted from the Republican Party.

The grandstanding on both sides of that little tempest is now over with. It created brief noise. How did that noise serve the people?


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