Mother Jones illustration; Stefani Reynolds/CNP/ZUMA
For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones’ newsletters.President Donald Trump doesn’t like to talk about the human toll of the coronavirus pandemic. For a long time, he wouldn’t even acknowledge there was one. When the first positive tests started showing up, he predicted that within a couple of days” the number of cases in the country “is going to be down to close to zero.” Later, when the outbreak was very much happening, he predicted that it would just disappear one day “like a miracle.” We’d be back to normal by Easter. We’d come back better than ever—we might even be better for it.
The president has nodded, in recent days, to images he’s seen on TV—of body bags, for instance, being loaded into a refrigerator truck outside a hospital in Queens—and admitted that hundreds of thousands of Americans will likely die as a result of the pandemic. More than 16,000 Americans have died thus far, but few if any of these victims of the pandemic have been mentioned by name from the White House podium. It’s an invisible tragedy.
The crisis does have a human face in Trump’s telling, but it doesn’t belong to a victim or a doctor or an essential worker—it’s the face of a CEO. Over and over during the pandemic, Trump has used his platform to hype corporate America’s products, tout his relationships with its executives, and promote their bottom lines. He’s even invited the heads of those companies to speak from behind the presidential seal about the “patriotic” work they’re doing for the country. He has turned a daily briefing into something halfway between a quarterly earnings call and an infomercial.
Just consider the scene on March 30, when Trump interrupted his daily briefing on the coronavirus pandemic to introduce a special friend he referred to as “The Pillow Man.” That would be Mike Lindell, a Republican activist and CEO of MyPillow, a “vertically integrated company” that, yes, makes and sells pillows.
“Boy, do you sell those pillows,” Trump said. “That’s unbelievable what you do.”
Lindell spoke briefly about his company, and the new responsibilities it was taking on. (MyPillow is currently pivoting to making facemasks.) He closed with an “off the cuff” wish that the pandemic might bring Americans closer to God, whom he credited with granting Trump a victory in November 2016.
Darius Adamczyk of Honeywell (“somebody that I’ve dealt with in the past, and he’s a great leader of a great company,” Trump said) was joined by executives from Procter & Gamble, United Technologies, and Jockey.
“What they’re doing is incredible,” Trump said. “And these are great companies.”
Every industry gets its own mini-advertisement. One day, it was Microsoft, IBM, Amazon and Apple. (“Download the free COVID-19 app,” Trump told iPhone users.)
Another it was the patriots in telecom— Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Charter, Comcast, Altice, Liberty Media, Sprint, LionTree, Cox, and CenturyLink.
Larry Fink of the investment house BlackRock (“the smartest people in the world”) got a shout-out, as did Hilton hotels, and the Panamanian cruise-ship company Carnival. (“I know Carnival, what a great job they do—Micky Arison,” he said, name-dropping its chairman.)
FedEx and UPS. Vyaire, Hillrom, MesRed, ZOLL, Hamilton, Medtronic, Philips. Owens & Minor. Medline. Cardinal Health. Pernod Ricard (“they’re making a tremendous amount of hand sanitizer—at a very high level too”). Henry Schein. McKesson. McLane Global Logistics. Boeing. Hanes (“great company, great consumer cotton products company”).
Some products fascinate Trump more than others. “We’re looking very strongly for a vaccine,” he said. “Johnson & Johnson is doing well, and other companies are doing very well.” There was also Sandoz, Bayer, and Teva pharmaceuticals.
“Roche has been fantastic,” he said, referring to the medical-device manufacturer making COVID-19 testing equipment. “Great company.”
Chicago-based Abbott Labs is a personal favorite. “Abbott comes out and does this so quickly, it’s really unreal,” he said of the company’s COVID-19 tests; too bad Abbott is making only 5,500 of them.
“Battelle’s N95 respirator mask sterilization kits” are “an incredible thing,” Trump said last week.
Walmart has been doing great in all of this, too, just in case you were concerned. “They’re doing pretty well because people are certainly buying—buying more than even a clip at Christmas, by substantial numbers,” Trump said. “Pretty amazing. But they’re doing incredibly. They put on tremendous extra staff. You don’t have empty shelves. A lot of things have happened that are very good.” At another press conference, Trump turned to Walmart’s CEO, Doug McMillon, and marveled, “You’ve been selling a lot of—a lot of stuff!”
“They’ve been so incredible to us and to the people of our country,” Trump said on March 27. He was referring, of course, to Panera Bread.
At a press conference from the Rose Garden on March 13, in addition to Roche and Walmart, Trump praised Thermo Fisher; Target; Walgreens; CVS (“We all know CVS”); Signify Health; Quest Diagnostics; LabCorp; Becton Dickinson; and the “tremendously talented people” of the LHC Group, which provides home-health-care services.
In more extreme cases, the corporations in question are dramatis personae themselves, subject to the plot-making whims of the president. Sometimes 3M, General Motors, and Ford, are “very good companies” making ventilators, and sometimes they are intransigent holdouts that must be coerced by the strong arm of the Defense Production Act, but almost every day, they are mentioned.
Sometimes, he praises companies for things that don’t even exist. “Google is helping to develop a website,” he announced on March 13. “It’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past, to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.” There were “1,700 engineers working on this right now—they’ve made tremendous progress.”
Google had no such website and had no plans to make one. Still—would have been cool, right?
On Monday, in unusually personal remarks, Trump did finally speak at length about an individual who had been affected by the pandemic—British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was moved to an intensive care unit after his condition suddenly worsened.
“He’s been a really good friend, he’s been really something very special—strong, he’s resolute, doesn’t quit, doesn’t give up,” Trump said. He was praying for Johnson, he said. But he was doing more than just that.
“I’ve asked two of the leading companies, these are brilliant companies—Ebola, AIDS, others, they’ve come with the solutions and just have done an incredible job—and I’ve asked them to contact London immediately,” he said. “They have offices in London they’re major companies, but more than major, more than size, they’re genius.” From Trump, it was the ultimate sign of respect. The victim had a name—and for once in this crisis, the companies he was championing did not.