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OPINION

The unmasking of Donald Trump

A president who can’t acknowledge error blunders forward.

Trump removes mask after returning to White House
President Donald Trump on Monday left the hospital where he has been receiving an unprecedented level of care for COVID-19.

President Donald Trump is frantically trying to recast callousness as courage — and in doing so, he’s sending a life-threatening message to America.

This cynical move insults not just the intelligence of the American people, but also the memory of the more than 211,000 Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19.

The president’s return to the White House Monday evening was a tinny spectacle of the sort that appeals to strongmen and fanatic followers everywhere: a helicopter flight from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to the White House lawn, with the Washington Monument as a photographic accent point. A walk up the South Portico staircase to the Truman Balcony. A tearing off of his mask before a long salute for the cameras.

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But it was the smaller moments that will stick with people: the Sunday joyride to wave at the crowd outside Walter Reed — a ride that put several Secret Service members at risk of infection — and his unmasked entrance into the White House, apparently repeated for a camera crew.

Those acts demonstrated the political solipsism that defines the soul of this president: He is the only reality, his needs virtually the only thing that matters.

Trump would have Americans believe otherwise, of course. In twin messages from Walter Reed on Sunday and then from the White House on Monday evening, the president tried to market his callous course as a sacrifice he had undertaken for the American people.

In the first video, he spun a tale that is almost certainly untrue: Advisers had urged him to isolate himself upstairs in the White House residence during the pandemic, to see no one, to save himself from any exposure.

“I had no choice. I just didn’t want to stay in the White House. I was given that alternative. Stay in the White House. Lock yourself in, don’t ever leave, don’t even go to the Oval Office, just stay upstairs and enjoy it, don’t see people, don’t talk to people.”

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If the only real options Trump’s team presented him were complete isolation or maskless mingling in close proximity to others, his advisers would have to be stunningly ignorant of basic cautionary measures that have long been familiar to virtually everyone.

By the time he recorded his White House video, Trump had abandoned that claim, but not the assertion of self-sacrifice.

“I stood out front. I led,” he said. “Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did. And I know there’s a risk, there’s a danger, but that’s OK.”

Then, of course, there was the repeated coda to his carelessness: Don’t be afraid of COVID. Don’t let it “dominate” your life. Tell that to the families of the more than 211,000 people who have lost their lives to a pandemic this president dismissed, downplayed, and lied about.

Some of Trump’s team had reportedly hoped for a reset. After all, an array of top aides and associates and several US senators have all tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a largely mask-less, unsocially distanced White House event related to Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

But that would require at least a tacit admission of error, and admitting error is something Trump simply can’t do. He has no compunction about dishonesty, though, and so we got Tuesday’s dishonest comparison of COVID-19 to the flu, something Trump’s taped conversations with Bob Woodward show even he knows isn’t true.

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Republican officials who have followed Trump this far will defend the president when they can’t dodge or dissemble. Similarly, Fox News’s shameless prime-time propagandists will engage in pretzel logic defending this snake-oil salesman. After all, the longer you have been a sycophant, the longer you have defended ridiculous behavior, the harder it is to reverse yourself without an enormous loss of face.

But more and more Americans see the truth. According to a new CNN poll, some 63 percent of Americans say the president acted irresponsibly when it came to the possibility of transmitting COVID-19 to others. Sixty percent disapprove of his handling of the pandemic. Several surveys show Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a double-digit national lead as the campaign enters its final month.

Nov. 3 can’t come soon enough.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.