President Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House on Sept. 16. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
After battling months of withering criticism for his response to the coronavirus crisis, President Trump is relying on a new defense — it was Joe Biden, not him, who failed during a pandemic.
His evidence: the so-called swine flu pandemic, which killed 12,469 Americans in 2009 and 2010, when Biden was vice president. That’s a tiny fraction of the nearly 197,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19 in the last six months.
“They did so bad on swine flu, you wouldn’t even believe it,” Trump said Wednesday, mentioning Biden by name.
Trump has long sought to divert attention from own misjudgments and mistakes by blaming his enemies. Now, as he struggles to overcome Biden’s lead in the polls, the president has turned familiar schoolyard taunts like “I’m rubber, you’re glue” into a campaign strategy.
“I suspect he’s been doing it since the third grade, and I suspect it’s always worked for him,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican political consultant and critic of the president. “It’s a difficult technique for grown adults to counter.”
Deflecting criticism is a normal part of politics, but Trump stands out for how frequently and reflexively he redirects his opponent’s attacks. In psychology, the tactic is known as projection — a defense mechanism to deny one’s faults and attribute them to someone else.
“There’s a long and deep record of him understanding his own vulnerabilities and externalizing them,” said Michael D’Antonio, who wrote a biography of Trump. “It hurts a little less if you can throw the criticism on someone else.”
The tactic was clear during Trump’s final debate with Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, in 2016. At one point, she warned he would be a “puppet” for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“No puppet, no puppet, you’re the puppet,” he indignantly shot back.
Trump is using a similar approach against Biden this year.
The president now describes negative news stories as “disinformation,” echoing his critics’ complaints about the flood of falsehoods from the White House.
Trump obfuscates about his health, including a still-murky visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in November 2019, and he routinely mangles or mispronounces words on his teleprompter.
But he mocks Biden for his verbal stumbles and claims without evidence that Biden is hiding medical and mental problems that make him unfit to serve as president.
President Trump has defied health experts by packing supporters into indoor spaces, such as this one in Phoenix on Sept. 14, during the pandemic. (Associated Press)
Trump has defied public health officials by staging indoor campaign rallies without requiring masks or social distancing during the pandemic. In July, three weeks after he addressed an indoor rally in Tulsa, Okla., health officials reported a record surge of COVID-19 cases in the state.
Trump has never acknowledged that danger, pointing to his opponent instead. “Biden’s perfectly happy to endanger the lives of other people by doing something that he thinks is going to help him politically,” he said last week.
The president long has questioned the utility of wearing masks to limit spread of the virus, and has repeatedly pushed back at the idea of directing Americans to do so during the pandemic.
But at a town-hall-style event in Philadelphia on Tuesday, he reversed course and accused Biden of failing to implement a national mask mandate.
“He didn’t do it. He never did it,” Trump said. Biden later pointed out that he’s a private citizen and — unlike Trump — cannot require people to wear masks.
During the same event, Trump cited the medical advice of restaurant waiters over the counsel of his own medical advisors.
Trump also accuses Biden of undermining the search for a reliable coronavirus vaccine. Biden has questioned whether the White House is putting politics before science in hopes of boosting the president’s reelection bid.
On Wednesday, Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a Senate committee that even if a vaccine were approved this year, it wouldn’t be ready to be widely distributed to Americans until next summer or fall.
Hours later, Trump called Redfield’s statements “a mistake” and insisted research is proceeding so quickly that a vaccine could be announced in October — just before the Nov. 3 election.
The president’s support for vaccines is a shift. Before the pandemic, he spent years raising baseless concerns that childhood vaccines cause autism.
D’Antonio, the biographer, said Trump’s political malleability — he has flip-flopped on abortion, party loyalty and other issues — removes inhibitions about attacking people for things he done himself.
“He doesn’t have any commitment to facts or to a previously voiced belief or opinion,” he said.
Trump announced this month, for example, that he would bar new drilling off the coast of Florida. He did not acknowledge that his administration initially proposed expanding offshore oil and gas drilling.
Sam Nunberg, who worked for Trump when he launched his first White House campaign, said the president likes “offensively being defensive.”
Trump compensated for his lack of military service by aggressively promoting his support for the Pentagon and veterans, Nunberg said.
“It’s not projection,” Nunberg said. “It’s strategic and tactical.”
Trump’s critics say he was just mean-spirited, however, when he said in 2015 that Sen. John McCain of Arizona was “not a war hero.” McCain was shot down and tortured during the Vietnam War, a conflict that Trump avoided by claiming he had bone spurs.
Paul Begala, a veteran Democratic strategist, says Trump’s attacks on McCain, who was the Republican presidential nominee in 2008 and died in 2018, show he isn’t pursuing a grand political strategy.
“I think it’s more of a reflex,” he said. “He’s a terrible poker player. Anything he accuses someone else of, he’s guilty of.”
Dr. Bandy X. Lee, a psychiatrist at Yale University who edited a book about Trump’s mental health and its impact on the country, calls Trump’s attacks “unconscious confessions” in which he projects his weaknesses onto others.
“This is different from political strategy,” she said. “This is how mental pathology works.”
Lee fears that Trump is harming the ability of Americans to separate fact from fiction by spewing falsehoods and conjuring alternative realities.
“To cover up his incapacity, he will resort to any manner of harm to the public, the nation or the world at large,” she said.