George W Bush declared mission accomplished in Iraq just before the war fell off a cliff. Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, has just gambled the same on coronavirus.
The US economy would be “rocking by July”, Mr Kushner promised Fox News. The Trump administration’s handling of the epidemic had been a “great success story”, he said. “We’ve achieved all of the different milestones that are needed.”
It is possible Mr Kushner knows something others do not — a breakthrough vaccine, for example, or a new therapy. Failing that, America’s milestones are not the type any country should emulate.
Having lost more than 60,000 people, the US accounts for a quarter of the world’s Covid-19 deaths with just 5 per cent of its population. America has a third of global infections. Forty-two countries have higher per capita rates of testing than the US — some by a considerable multiple.
Other countries, notably Belgium, Italy, Spain, the UK, France, Sweden and Switzerland, have higher death rates. America is on course to catch up with most of them. It took two months for the US to go from its first infection in late January to 1,000 deaths in late March. From there it took 15 days to reach 10,000 deaths. In the three weeks since then, the US has lost more than 50,000 people. America’s curve is not yet bending downwards. Now is not a good time to declare victory.
What was Mr Kushner thinking? He was speaking to an audience of one: the US president. Mr Trump is encouraging US states to reopen. Some, such as Texas, Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina, are lifting restrictions. This is a high-risk strategy.
Florida has more infections today — 33,000 — than the US did nationally when Mr Trump announced his travel ban from Europe. Ditto for Texas. Both states’ testing rates are below the national average.
The signs are that the virus is heading southwards from America’s biggest outbreak on the east coast. A new outbreak of infections would be more damaging to state economies than remaining closed until their testing and tracing systems are up to scratch.
When news of coronavirus began to spread beyond China in early January, Mr Trump’s White House split into two camps. The China hawks, led by Peter Navarro, Mr Trump’s trade adviser, argued for harsh restrictions. By the end of the month they had convinced Mr Trump to shut down flights from China.
Mr Kushner’s camp, which included Steven Mnuchin, US Treasury secretary, said coronavirus was exaggerated and overreaction would damage Mr Trump’s re-election prospects.
For most of the time, Mr Kushner’s side has had the upper hand — as it does now. Mr Trump took no serious additional steps for almost six weeks after the China ban. This was despite the fact that Beijing had cancelled several lunar new year celebrations, which was a clear sign of its panic about the spread of the disease. In other words, the China hawks were right from the start.
The Financial Times has written about the world’s “ostrich alliance” of countries dismissing the epidemic threat — notably Brazil and Belarus. Mr Kushner heads the ostrich camp in the White House.
He also personifies what has gone wrong. Despite having no pandemic experience, Mr Kushner took charge of a “shadow coronavirus task force” that has undercut the official one headed by Mike Pence, vice-president.
As he did for his stillborn Middle East peace plan, Mr Kushner recruited business friends — and McKinsey consultants. Instead of co-ordinating supply to states according to need, Mr Kushner said America’s federal resources were “supposed to be our stockpile”, not the property of the states. Without states, it is unclear to whom “our” could mean. It is, after all, the United States.
The world is dealing with a different America than the one it knew. Foreign leaders — and US governors — that want to influence the president must go through his family. This includes China, which sees Mr Kushner as its “point of interest”.
Such lines of communication used to be the rule book only in places such as sub-Saharan Africa. Covid-19 has crystallised Washington’s descent into patrimonialism. The word of the ruling family holds more weight than science. For now America must live with government of the Trumps, by the Trumps and for the Trumps.