COMMENTARY: Recent statements on soldiers and pandemic may cost Donald Trump the election

Donald Trump has fired another poison dart into his re-election prospects.

Days after The Atlantic magazine caused a sensation when it reported that the president had allegedly called American troops “losers” and “suckers,” it was revealed on Wednesday that as far back as early February, Trump knew how deadly the coronavirus was and that it was airborne but chose not to tell Americans.

“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told journalist Bob Woodward. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”

At about the same time that Trump was assuring his countrymen that the coronavirus was no worse than the flu, Woodward was recording the president saying that it was “deadly stuff.”

Carl Bernstein, who teamed up with Woodward on the reporting of the Watergate break-in, which was instrumental in bringing down Richard Nixon 46 years ago, accused Trump of “homicidal negligence” on CNN.

Trump’s egregious deceptions about a disease that has now infected about 6.5 million Americans and killed nearly 200,000 will add to his growing political woes. Even before the double whammy of the COVID-19 revelations and Trump’s grossly insensitive alleged comments about veterans, polls were showing that the president was trailing Democrat Joe Biden by at least four per cent in this fall’s race to re-elect the incumbent or chose a new one.

“The facts here are even greater than in Watergate,” Bernstein said. “Thousands and thousands and thousands of people died” because Trump had put “his own re-election before the safety, health and well-being of the people of the United States.”

Trump’s grave misrepresentation about what he knew about the lethality of COVID-19 fits a well-established pattern of lies and erratic behaviour. It is an interesting question whether this abhorrent lapse will have a more telling effect on voters than when the president mocked his own troops and asked his then-chief of staff, Marine Gen. John Kelly, why those who died fighting for the U.S. bothered to risk their lives.

Trump allegedly put this question to a fighting general who had led from the front during the final battle of the Iraq War in which Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, fell. Worse than that, Kelly, who was regarded as an avuncular presence by his troops, was the most senior American officer to lose a son during the war in Afghanistan.

Trump’s alleged remarks about those willing to fight and die on his orders have sparked a controversy that now competes for the headlines with the president’s deceit about the lethality of the COVID-19 disease.

Judging by what was written on the web pages of those contemporary arbiters of truth and fiction, Twitter and Facebook, a lot of Canadians gloated over Trump’s insensitive remarks about the troops. But such pious superiority can get a bit rich.

Far fewer Canadians than Americans have familial or personal ties to the military. So, far fewer Canadians have a personal reason to be offended by what Trump is alleged to have said. But Canadians vicariously follow the Americans’ political dramas as if they were their own and are never short of opinions about them.

Trump has hotly disputed what was reported about his opinion of the troops. The problem is that the remarks attributed to him sounded so much like the vintage Trump that some Americans love and some Americans hate. Those comments dovetail with an older story that Trump got out of the draft lottery for the Vietnam War by claiming there were bone spurs in his heels. The daughter of his podiatrist at the time claims this finding was made not because the future president actually had a medical problem but because the Trumps were her father’s landlord.

Perhaps twigging to the folly of infuriating the U.S. military establishment and the larger, equally influential veterans’ community, Trump may have tried to atone for his blunder by correcting another one. After insisting for months that he intended to kill the Stars and Stripes newspaper — which has been the soldier’s daily since the Civil War — he gave it a miraculous last-minute reprieve just after the loud quarrel over his opinion of the military erupted.

Many Canadians, whose contempt for Trump is deep and abiding, have likely been chortling about the president’s latest messes. But Trump may not be done quite yet. Until a few days ago, he was slowly rising in the polls and Biden’s performance has often been shaky.

Never to be forgotten is that Trump has until now been impervious to criticism. He also remains the only hope and the darling of the well-funded gun lobby, many religious evangelicals and those Americans vehemently opposed to immigration and blind to racial inequalities in the U.S.

Taken together, these groups may still have enough votes to get the Great Survivor out of his most recent colossal blunders.

It may be wishful thinking, but Trump’s difficulties somehow feel different this time. Acknowledging that he grossly misinformed the public about the coronavirus is not a mere trifle. Some Americans may regard what he said about that as tantamount to murder. And he will test the support of part of his conservative base for having disparaged the intelligence and the life choices that patriotic young Americans make when they sign up.

Trump does not have a lot of time left to deal with his self-inflicted wounds and foolishness. A presidential election that has Canada and the world transfixed in wonder and in horror is less than eight weeks away.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas

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