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Used to meeting challenges with bluster and force, Trump confronts a crisis unlike any before

WASHINGTON — During his campaign for the White House in 2016, President Trump’s advisers briefly tried to run through with him how he would address a large-scale disaster if he won. What, for instance, would he have done during Hurricane Katrina?

“I would have fixed that,” Trump replied with certitude, referring to the government’s bungled rescue and recovery efforts, according to a campaign official who was present for the exchange. “I would have come up with a much better response.”

How? He did not say. He just asserted it would have been better, and advisers did not press him to elaborate.

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Trump is no stranger to crisis. He has spent a lifetime grappling with bankruptcy, fending off creditors, evading tax collectors, defending lawsuits, deflecting regulators, spinning reporters, and dueling with estranged wives, usually coming out ahead, at least as he defines it. But these were crises of his own creation involving human adversaries he knew how to confront. Nothing in his background in business, entertainment, or multiple marriages prepared him for the coronavirus pandemic now threatening America’s health and wealth.

Trump’s performance on the national stage in recent weeks has put on display the traits that Democrats and some Republicans consider so jarring: the profound need for personal praise, the propensity to blame others, the lack of human empathy, the penchant for rewriting history, the disregard for expertise, the distortion of facts, the impatience with scrutiny or criticism. For years, skeptics expressed concern about how he would handle a genuine crisis threatening the nation, and now they know.

“When he’s faced a problem, he has sought to somehow cheat or fix the outcome ahead of time so that he could construct a narrative that showed him to be the winner,” said Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer. “And when it was all about feuds with other celebrities or contests over ratings or hotel branding, he could do that, and no one cared enough to really check. And the bluster and bragging worked.”

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“But in this case,” D’Antonio added, “he tried that in the beginning, and you can’t brag or bluster your way out of people dying. And I think more than the suffering, the human suffering, it’s been the inexorable quality of the data that’s forced him to change.”

Only after viral projections grew more dire and markets began to tank did Trump shift tone and appear to take the threat more seriously, finally adopting a more aggressive set of policies to compel Americans to stay away from one another while trying to mitigate the economic damage.

Some in the public seem to have responded. Fifty-five percent of Americans approved of his handling of the crisis in a poll by ABC News and Ipsos released Friday, up from 43 percent the previous week. A Reuters poll, also conducted with Ipsos, put approval of his handling of the pandemic at 48 percent, up from 38 percent a couple weeks earlier, while surveys by The Economist and YouGov showed a smaller rise, from 41 percent to 45 percent.

But even as he has seemed to take the crisis more seriously, Trump has continued to make statements that conflicted with the government’s own public health experts and focused energy on blaming China, quarreling with reporters, claiming he knew that the coronavirus would be a pandemic even when he was minimizing its threat only a few weeks ago, and congratulating himself for how he has managed a crisis he only recently acknowledged.

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“We’ve done a phenomenal job on this,” he said the other day. Even Democratic governors agreed, he said. “I mean, they’re saying we’re doing a great job.”

The next day he grew irritated when Peter Alexander of NBC News asked if he was giving Americans a “false sense of hope” by promising immediate delivery of a drug that experts said is not proven. Trump said he disagreed with them.

“Just a feeling,” he said. “You know, I’m a smart guy. I feel good about it.”

The White House rejects any criticism of the president as illegitimate.

“This great country has been faced with an unprecedented crisis, and while the Democrats and the media shamelessly try and destroy this president with a coordinated, relentless, biased political assault, President Trump has risen to fight this crisis head-on by taking aggressive historic action to protect the health, wealth and well-being of the American people,” Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, said in a statement.

Trump acted at the end of January to restrict travel from China, where the outbreak was first detected, and repeatedly points back to that decision, arguing that he saved lives as a result. But he resisted stronger action for weeks. Even as governors, mayors, and businesses decided on their own to curb large gatherings and eventually close down schools, restaurants, and workplaces, the president at first offered no guidance about whether to take such action.

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He has repeatedly misrepresented the state of the response — promising a vaccine “soon” that will actually take at least a year to develop, insisting that tests were available while patients struggled to find any, boasting about the availability of millions of masks while health care workers took to stitching together homemade versions. And dismissing the threat for weeks may have led to complacency among some Americans who could have acted much sooner to take precautions.

Trump’s defensiveness over the pandemic has become a central dynamic inside the White House as officials wrestle with difficult policy choices. Aides have long understood that Trump needs to hear support for his decisions, preferably described in superlatives. He often second-guesses himself, prompting advisers to ask allies to tell him he made the right call or go on Fox News to make that point in case he might be watching.

Over the past week, as Trump has faced ever more draconian and expensive options, Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, sought to coax him into action by using bits of praise in news coverage or from other officials as a motivator, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Officials have learned that the president craves a constant diet of flattery, which they serve up during daily televised briefings. Vice President Mike Pence makes a point of repeating it day after day, sometimes repeatedly in the course of a single briefing.

“Mr. President, from early on, you took decisive action,” he said during one.

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“Thank you, Mr. President, for gathering your public health experts here today and for your strong leadership in keeping America safe,” Alex Azar, secretary of health and human services, told him at one point. “I want to thank you for your leadership during this coronavirus outbreak,” Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told him at another.

Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the veteran infectious diseases expert known for his just-the-facts style, has sometimes joined in praise of the president, at one point referring to Trump’s “proactive, leaning-forward, aggressive, trying to stay ahead of the curve” approach. While Fauci does not hesitate to correct the president’s facts, as he did Friday over the unproven drug, he does so politely, careful to maintain his viability within a political team. Still, many noticed that he put his hand to his face in seeming disbelief when Trump referred to his diplomats as the “Deep State Department.”

Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, said Trump had been unfairly criticized for his handling of the virus.

“The media virtually ignore the president’s massive effort mobilizing the federal government, our industrial base, and the scientific and medical community to combat this pandemic, rivaling FDR’s arsenal of democracy,” he said.

King said that Trump was working with Democrats but the news media “prefer to dwell on initial failure of CDC test kits and low inventory of masks and ventilators going back two administrations.” Still, he said of Trump, “He too often takes the bait.”

None of which comes as a surprise to those who have dealt with Trump or studied his life before he became president. In real estate, he found he could overcome crises by bluffing his way past regulators, bullying the bankers, and bamboozling the tabloids.

When banks came after him for overdue loans, he pushed back, arguing that it was in their interest that his brand not be harmed by calling him out. When contractors demanded to be paid, he found complaints about their work and refused, leading in part to more than 3,500 lawsuits. When his first two marriages fell apart, he took a scorched-earth approach against his wives, leaking to New York’s gossip columnists even if it meant his children watched ugly divorces play out in public.

“The typical modus operandi from him is to bluff, is to fake, is to deny,” said Jack O’Donnell, former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City.

When Trump prepared to open the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in 1990 and ran into trouble with authorities, he summoned O’Donnell.

“He told them I was an expert in operations and I could fix this,” O’Donnell recalled. “And they believed him. I was dumbfounded. He was completely bluffing them.”

To Trump, most of his crises were about paper and money, not people. The self-described “king of debt” treated loan repayments almost as if they were optional and made it a mantra never to back down.

“I figured it was the bank’s problem, not mine,” he wrote in one of his books. “What the hell did I care? I actually told one bank, ‘I told you, you shouldn’t have loaned me that money.’ ”

“I actually think he handled that situation about as well as you could expect from him,” O’Donnell said. “It was such a shock to him. It was the first time I heard fear in his voice. It was the first time I saw empathy, that I saw emotion from him, because he realized the human loss there.”

Even then, Trump could not help inserting himself into the story, suggesting falsely that he almost boarded the helicopter himself. And within months, with his Taj project flailing, Trump began publicly attributing problems to the dead executives. In a crisis, “he always was more focused on who he could blame versus fixing the problem,” said O’Donnell, who quit in disgust.

Nor did Trump exhibit much empathy for the workers who lost their jobs when his casinos went bust. Instead, when asked about his failed Atlantic City ventures, he emphasizes his own ability to escape unharmed.

“The money I took out of there was incredible,” he once told The New York Times.

The closest analog to the current situation may be the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, another national trauma. Trump tried to thrust himself into the news coverage, telling an interviewer by phone that day that with the destruction of the World Trade Center he now had the tallest building in New York City, a claim that was not even true. He also has said he spent extensive time around the site trying to help the cleanup, a claim that has never been verified.

With the airports closed at the time, Trump was asked to provide his private plane to fly Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki to Washington for President George W. Bush’s address to Congress. Trump agreed — but in return asked for help getting permission to travel from Washington to another destination when others were grounded.

By his own account, Trump never imagined that he would be facing a pandemic, an invisible killer immune to bluster.

“In every previous occasion, he was facing a human being or groups of human beings,” said Gwenda Blair, author of a biography of the Trump family. “And obviously, the coronavirus — it’s not a person — can’t be bullied.”

So Trump, with his recent descriptions of a war to be won over a “foreign enemy,” is seeking a dynamic that he is familiar with, personifying the virus as an opponent to be beaten, framing it as the kind of crisis he knows how to tackle.

“He’s trying to make it into a win-lose situation,” she said. “That’s how he sees the world — winners, him; losers, everybody else. He’s trying to make the coronavirus into a loser and himself the winner.”