Last July, a former campaign official for President Donald Trump, who is a declared germaphobe, told Politico: "If you’re the perpetrator of a cough or of a sneeze or any kind of thing that makes you look sick, you get that look. You get the scowl. You get the response of — he’ll put a hand up in a gesture of, you should be backing away from him, you should be more considerate and you should extricate yourself from the situation.”
The previous month, Trump was visibly shaken by then-chief of staff Mick Mulvaney coughing during a presidential interview with ABC News. "If you're going to cough, please leave the room. You just can't, you just can't cough," Trump said, shaking his head. "Boy, oh boy."
So it may be surprising that the president did not seem to recoil on behalf of the country when coronavirus came along. “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away," Trump told reporters on Feb. 10. “I really believe they are going to have it under control fairly soon. You know in April, supposedly, it dies with the hotter weather. And that’s a beautiful date to look forward to."
Given such certainty from on high, states and federal agencies couldn't have felt any White House pressure to mobilize for a problem. Quite the opposite: When Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar warned Trump of a possible pandemic for the second time more than week earlier, the president dismissed it as alarmist, according to several published accounts.
Did Trump just refuse to face facts, let alone spin them? Bad news, after all, would threaten his campaign and the markets.
Consider the opinion of one mental health professional, Dr. Justin Frank, a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center. "A germaphobe is a person who is frightened of germs, and they see them everywhere. The germs unconsciously represent parts of the self that have split off from the whole," Frank told the Salon website last month.
"It is another manifestation of deeply troubled feelings and beliefs that in some way are poisonous," said Frank. "For Trump, those germs are his destructive impulses."
Surely, that's an arms-length interpretation, so Frank can't say for sure what Trump thought. No fewer than 27 years ago, however, Trump bantered lightly on E! with radio host Howard Stern about his problem. The 1993 dialogue went like this:
Trump: "I do have germ phobia.”
Stern: “You wash your hands how many times a day?”
Trump: “As many times as possible."
Stern: "But you realize that’s a psychological problem?"
Trump: "It could be a psychological problem … "
Stern: "But you cannot overpower this problem?”
Trump: “So far I haven’t left to wash my hands."
Stern: “Have you ever gone to a psychiatrist to eliminate that problem?”
Trump: “No. I like it. I like cleanliness. Cleanliness is a nice thing. Not only hands, body, everything.”
The president's revulsion goes even farther back. According to the recent book "The Fixers," Trump hosted a dinner in 1986 for his reputed mentor, the late lawyer Roy Cohn, then known to be dying of AIDS. As president-elect, according to the book, "Trump recalled to guests at Mar-a-Lago that after Cohn left, ‘I had to spend a fortune to fumigate all the dishes and silverware.’ ”
Unlike COVID-19, AIDS isn't transmitted casually. Nowadays, it may look better for the president if it turns out he made up this little "fumigation" story to impress his well-heeled guests. Otherwise it would show he has a long history of misunderstanding viruses.