Trump, reckless and behind the wheel

The president of the United States is acting like a drunk driver, and the press needs to cover him that way.

He demonstrated last week a callous disregard for those around him—most critically, those who work for him and those who are assigned to protect him—and there is no benefit of the doubt that can justify his actions. Anything that journalists write or broadcast needs to reflect that reality.

While some might apply this standard to an array of the president’s actions over the past four years, let’s limit it to this one:

On the morning of Thursday, October 1, the White House learned that Trump adviser Hope Hicks had tested positive for covid-19 , hours after she had accompanied him on a campaign tour to Minnesota and begun feeling symptomatic on the way home.

The news of Hicks’ diagnosis didn’t stop Trump from flying off to his Bedminster, New Jersey golf club to raise millions of dollars for his cash-strapped campaign. He spoke, unmasked, to about 100 donors, after his own employees had prepared and served “a buffet lunch and pumpkin cheesecake.” ABC News also reported that up to 50 guests “later met the president inside the clubhouse for a photo—an honor reserved for couples willing to pay $50,000.” And he met privately with another group of about 20 donors, for around 45 minutes.

Let that marinate for a moment: Knowing he had been in close contact with an aide who was covid -positive, Trump then flew more than 200 miles for a fundraiser, and knowingly put at risk the health of hundreds of people—not just his supporters (the more generous of whom were, in a bit of Karl Marx-ian irony, allowed to hover closer to Trump), but also the Secret Service agents who are sworn to protect him, the flight crews aboard Marine One and Air Force One, and his resort’s own waiters, cooks, and custodians. Plus, by extension, all of their families and friends.

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As Bloomberg News, which broke the story of Hicks’ diagnosis, has reported, “there was never serious thought given to canceling the Bedminster fundraiser, expected to raise $5 million.”

And now that all these people have been exposed, what is the White House doing? Very little. As the Washington Post reported, “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had a contact tracing team ready to go … but had not been asked to mobilize.” CNN reported yesterday that tracing efforts remain mostly opaque, “and do not include many who attended their intimate meetings or crowded events.

Trump further endangered his retinue Sunday afternoon with a joyride—or as he called it, “a little surprise visit”—for a smattering of fans near Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. There he was, in the back seat, waving to fans, while vulnerable Secret Service agents sat in the front seats of their hermetically sealed SUV.

Trump’s recklessness is eerily similar to drunk drivers’: They knock back a few too many, then get on the road. Are they intentionally trying to maim or kill others? Usually not. Are they acting in a negligent manner, indifferent to others’ safety or health? Absolutely.

In New Jersey, where the fundraiser took place, civil law describes gross negligence as “a person’s conduct where an act or failure to act creates an unreasonable risk of harm to another because of the person’s failure to exercise slight care or diligence.” You can’t find a clearer description of Trump’s conduct that day.

Why would Trump behave so recklessly? There’s his endless need to be center stage, of course. But there’s another possibility: In the most recent reporting period, his campaign had fallen $141 million behind Joe Biden’s in cash on hand. And Trump’s campaign knew that such fundraising showed no signs of slowing. Biden’s campaign raised nearly $10 million during and immediately after Tuesday night’s raucous debate. That was around 36 hours before the president’s trip to New Jersey.

As one Washington correspondent told me, “If we can see with our own eyes that the president is recklessly endangering the lives of others, we should not shrink from saying it. Our assessments should meet the gravity of the moment, though it makes some of us uncomfortable to say it and some in our audience uncomfortable to take it in.”

Presidents put their fellow citizens at risk for all kinds of reasons. They send them into battle to defend our country or our allies. Or they endanger Americans’ lives through incompetence, as George W. Bush did during Hurricane Katrina. Or, people get sick and die because of honest policy differences, such as the degree to which the government should fund health care. But it’s hard to think of any presidential conduct, at least in recent history, that falls to Trump’s level of negligence.

We won’t know for weeks who got sick because of his conduct. covid-19 takes days to manifest itself, and it can be difficult to determine how someone got infected.

But we do know this much: The president is behind the steering wheel, weaving carelessly down an uncertain road. Our coverage ought to reflect that.

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Bill Grueskin is on the faculty at Columbia Journalism School. He has previously worked as founding editor of a newspaper on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, city editor of the Miami Herald, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and an executive editor at Bloomberg News. He is a graduate of Stanford University (Classics) and Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies (US Foreign Policy and International Economics).