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There appear to be a few proven ways to influence the labile decision-making process of the president: His advisers can appeal to television or approval ratings, be Jared Kushner, or warn him that a certain action can harm his chances at reelection. Over the weekend, White House officials reportedly took that third approach, informing Trump that his idea to open up American life so that there’d be “packed churches all over our country” on Easter could result in the additional deaths of many thousands of voters — an option that might not look so great come November.
According to the Washington Post, White House officials told the president that “a spike in deaths could be even more politically damaging in November than the current economic downturn,” an argument that helped encourage Trump to extend social-distancing guidelines until the end of April. Public health experts also reportedly warned Trump that rural areas — from which the president garners much of his support — do not have the medical capacities to handle a large outbreak that would be made more likely by opening the economy back up this soon. Administration officials also showed the president a Yahoo News/YouGov poll in which 59 percent of Americans considered an Easter deadline for opening “the country for business” to be “too soon.”
Electoral prospects aside, the potential death count itself also influenced Trump. According to the Post, on Sunday, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease director Anthony Fauci and White House Coronavirus Task Force response coordinator Deborah Birx “showed Trump models predicting that in a best-case scenario, as many as 100,000 to 200,000 Americans could die of COVID-19 … Trump was similarly taken by a study two weeks ago from the Imperial College in London, which found that as many as 2.2 million Americans could die absent any mitigation measures.” Shortly after the briefings, the president said that keeping the death count to 100,000 would mean his administration did a “very good job” handling the crisis — a sea change in tone from his “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself” messaging last week.
Though, for now, Trump moved on from his rhetoric dismissing the health crisis as less important than the economic one, not all Republican leaders have picked up on the shift. On Monday morning, Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson wrote an op-ed in USA Today encouraging the economy to remain as open as possible. He picked an odd way of encouraging those who may face coronavirus exposure at their jobs: “Every premature death is a tragedy, but death is an unavoidable part of life.”