Dr. Anthony Fauci this week sounded sensible as usual. The most prominent member of the White House coronavirus task force said the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 could reach 400,000 if action isn't taken in the fall and winter. The number already is near 211,000 as the infection continues to spread in "hot spots" nationwide.
This is not a second wave, Fauci said. "We're facing a resurgence of the wave we began with," he said Tuesday in an online event hosted by American University in Washington. And don't expect any vaccine to be available to most Americans until next summer or fall, he warned, echoing projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Honest assessments like these from federal advisers won't inure to President Donald Trump's political benefit because Trump has distanced himself from Fauci and, for that matter, the facts. That's the way this bizarre drama has gone all along. Sadly, it's too late to turn back.
Trump could have looked like a leader just by sharing basic information and attempting to shape policy around it.
Most recently, Trump's engagement with the virus consisted of having it send him to the hospital for elite treatment. Strangely, he tried to spin his COVID-19 infection as an experience in which he’d somehow "won" even though there are concerns he's shedding virus upon his return to the White House, and he vaguely credited his administration for medical advances.
Any common-sense, sympathetic message would have been easy, but Trump instead gave people patently useless advice — that they shouldn't let COVID "dominate" their lives.
Trump could have prepared the White House for his absence by orderly delegation. Instead, his return produced more West Wing chaos than usual, with his first day back to the Oval Office on Wednesday just the latest farce.
He could have made a point of trying to protect staff, family and friends from infection, but he apparently took no such measures. It even remained a mystery as to when, before his positive test last week, he'd been previously tested for COVID-19.
Trump chose to undermine his public health officials' messaging on masks, schools and closures in a way that tells his loyalists not to take a national emergency too seriously — and to take local restrictions even less seriously if they come from Democrats.
For months, the president wasted airtime nattering about chloroquine and miracles, ultraviolet light and disinfectant, as well as recurring claims of the nation turning the corner in the pandemic. He could have told the truth about what he knew in January to be a deadly virus, but he chose to "downplay" it as if nobody would figure it out.
Trump even could have won over a few Democrats by wiping the partisan slate clean and earnestly negotiating virus stimulus packages. He could have at least showed effort.
It is too late now.
From here on, attempts to spin the pandemic into something useful against Joe Biden will sound absurd, whether coming from Trump personally or from his depleted staff. There is no way to avoid the evidence that Trump simply chooses not to lead, except perhaps when he turns the conversation in the wrong direction.