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‘To be near Trump is toxic’: Covid-19, chaos and the election

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It was more like a scene out of the film Contagion than an episode of The West Wing.

Dressed in hooded white hazmat suits, workers sanitised the White House at a frantic pace, in an attempt to keep the disease further at bay.

Inside the Oval Office, only two officials were allowed access to the president — Mark Meadows, chief of staff, and Dan Scavino, Donald Trump’s director of social media. Both men had to dress head-to-toe in protective garb.

The rest of the White House was largely empty after swaths of top staff, from the White House press secretary to the architect of the president’s immigration policy, tested positive for coronavirus. In order to avoid new infections, the joint chiefs of staff — the country’s senior military commanders — were reduced to meeting by video conference.

“I wouldn’t go anywhere near the White House,” Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the daytime television programme The View on Wednesday. “It’s one of the most dangerous places in the country both in terms of the assault it makes on truth as well as health.”

The Trump presidency has hardly been devoid of drama, chaos and intrigue, but little can compare with the most recent chapter. Only 10 days ago, Mr Trump used a raucous election debate to mock his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, for wearing “the biggest mask I’ve seen”. Three days later, he was admitted to hospital after catching the deadly virus himself.

The president’s physician Sean Conley has invoked US patient privacy law when confronted with questions about America’s leader © Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

By the following Thursday, Mr Trump was back in the White House and calling into a cable news programme, claiming that he felt “perfect” and blaming his infection on the families of fallen US service members with whom he had attended an event.

In the process, Mr Trump’s illness has upended the past month of an election campaign in which the president was already well behind his rival. After needling Mr Biden for spending the early weeks of the pandemic confined to his Delaware home, suddenly it was Mr Trump who was under confinement and watching his poll numbers drop precipitously. According to an average of polls by RealClearPolitics, Mr Biden’s nationwide lead over Mr Trump has risen to 9.7 per cent and he is ahead in all of the nine key battleground states.

“People are afraid to be standing next to [Trump] for fear of getting sick and Biden is able to proceed [as normal],” says Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian. “It makes it look like to be near to Trump is toxic.” 

A number of the president’s top aides have now tested positive for coronavirus, leaving briefing rooms empty © Alex Brandon/AP

Patient privilege

A week after the president went into hospital, there are still many questions about his illness. The day after he was admitted, Mr Trump’s doctors suggested he had been sick with Covid-19 at least 24 hours before his diagnosis had become public — raising questions about whether Mr Trump had known he was infected when he flew to a Minnesota rally on September 30 and New Jersey fundraiser the following day.

A few hours later, the president’s physician Sean Conley revised the timeline, saying he had misspoken, one of a series of confusing messages from the doctor who has invoked the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act — a US patient privacy law — when confronted with hard questions.

At one stage, Dr Conley suggested he had offered an overly upbeat assessment of Mr Trump’s condition for fear of upsetting the president and making him worse. “Didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction,” he said. “And in doing so, came off like we’re trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true.”

Both the White House and Mr Trump’s medical team have repeatedly refused to confirm when he had received his last negative Covid-19 test before testing positive.

Kayleigh McEnany, press secretary, who also tested positive this week, wrote on Twitter that she loved seeing the president return to the White House and ‘stand strongly on the balcony!’ © Drew Angerer/Getty

Amid the confusion, Mr Trump attempted to take matters into his own hands. On Saturday, the president appeared in a photo-op at Walter Reed hospital, signing his signature to blank sheets of paper at the hospital’s oversized desk. On Sunday, he exited the premises to cruise the perimeter in a motorcade, infuriating critics who noted that Mr Trump was putting the car’s driver and secret service agents at risk.

On Monday, Mr Trump returned to the White House by helicopter and made his way up the steps to the South Portico before dramatically ripping his mask off “like a burlesque artist”, as Mr Brinkley puts it.

The appearance prompted social memes comparing him to former Argentine first lady Eva Perón and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, although close-up footage revealed the president panting for air. However, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who also tested positive this week, wrote on Twitter that she loved seeing the president return to the White House and “stand strongly on the balcony!”.

“In American life, we’re used to having at least a public facing level of stability from the commander-in-chief even among our more unstable and lawless presidents like Richard Nixon,” says Matthew Dallek, a political historian at George Washington University.

Questions remain over whether Mr Trump had known he was infected when he flew to a Minnesota rally on September 30 © Craig Lassig/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The country faces a “surreal situation”, he says, where the administration puts forward public health guidelines “based on medical evidence and every recommendation is not just ignored by Trump and Fox News but belittled as being weak, unnecessary and open to question.” It is, says Mr Dallek, “a recipe for . . . dystopia”.

“We’ve never had a president so unfamiliar with the truth and so willing to say things that are factually incorrect,” says Jeffrey Engel, the director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “I’m old enough to remember when the president of the United State said something wrong and that was a headline. Now it’s: which sentence would you like to choose?”

Cocktail of medication

Stuck in a 132-room-residence that Ronald Reagan once described as a “gilded cage”, Mr Trump has attempted to resume reaching the outside world through his traditional channels.

On Wednesday, the president returned for the first time to the Oval Office and released a video in which he declared his illness and hospitalisation had been a “blessing from God” and a “cure”, as well as claiming that it had been he, the patient, who had suggested to the medical professionals that they put him on an experimental antibody treatment, which he described as “Regeneron”, regularly confusing the name of the company for the treatment.

Trump’s lap around Walter Reed in a motorcade drew criticism for risking the health of his driver and security personnel © Tia Dufour/White House /dpa

On Thursday, the president called into the television programme of Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo — a favoured interviewer — where he degraded Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee as a “communist” and a “monster”, and railed that his own administration had failed to prosecute his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton.

A few hours later, Mr Trump tweeted a video of himself from the White House lawn. Social media sleuths were quick to speculate it had been filmed on a green screen, given the lighting and lack of shadows, and the fact that the president, under quarantine, is meant to be confined indoors.

Line chart showing how Trump and Biden are doing in the US national polls

Mr Trump is currently under the influence of a heavy steroid as well as experimental drugs whose interaction has not been studied in a patient before.

“He is on three different medications that have never interacted before . . . that alone should have kept him in the hospital,” says Shirley Anne Warshaw of Gettysburg College, an expert on presidential decision making. “Dexamethasone leads to manic behaviour,” she says, referring to the steroid that Mr Trump was treated with during his hospital visit. “The fact that he is tweeting 50 times in an hour should tell you something.” 

“You’re seeing in public the Donald Trump that I saw in private and that people who left the White House staff saw in the Oval Office every day,” says David Cay Johnston, author of The Making of Donald Trump. “Irrational. Angry. Unfocused. Unable to process information that doesn’t fit with his existing view.”

Other people who know Mr Trump’s suggested a bigger breaking point for the president had been his first presidential debate with Mr Biden on October 7. One person involved with both the president’s campaigns expresses exasperation at Mr Trump’s performance, where he appeared belligerent and frequently interrupted Mr Biden to his own detriment.

“Instead of being the classic, witty, funny Trump, he was basically pure anger. That’s going to turn off even some of his supporters . . . He’s basically going to have one more shot at this in front of a national audience. He can’t go into that second debate and have a similar performance as the first.” Mr Trump has said he will not join the virtual debate with Mr Biden scheduled for October 15. The final debate is scheduled for October 22.

The person adds that Mr Trump had further damaged his standing with his recent comments on Covid-19, and the fact that the president did not appear to take the disease seriously. “Where Trump has hurt himself is purely on the messaging.”

The president has dropped out of the next election debate with opponent Joe Biden, left, seen here with running mate Kamala Harris © Carolyn Kaster/AP

Publicly, the president, White House officials and campaign surrogates have played down Mr Trump’s polling numbers, suggesting that he can still win on the economy — even if the pandemic has caused widespread economic damage to the US.

“When it comes to pocketbook issues, the president continues to win,” says Kelly Sadler, a former Trump White House aide who now serves as spokeswoman for the pro-Trump political action committee, America First Action. “[In] the media, at this time, it’s just corona, corona, corona, while these swing states have moved beyond corona and are now looking at how they’re going to rebuild and who’s best positioned to support them.”

Fox anchor Maria Bartiromo was one of the first journalists to interview the president after he was released from hospital © Juliet Thomas/FT

HIs supporters are hoping for a reset. Dr Conley, the president’s physician, has said it is safe for Mr Trump to resume “public engagements” this weekend, just nine days after his positive test. Mr Trump has suggested he will host a Saturday night rally.

The president returns to public life with just over three weeks until the November 3 election. More than 7.9m Americans have already voted, according to the US Elections Project — a higher number than have ever voted at this point in the election cycle, giving Mr Trump an even narrower window in which to recover, says William Galston, who served as a domestic policy aide to President Bill Clinton.

“If the president plays out the hand he is now holding, he will lose,” says Mr Galston. “He needs a reshuffle of the deck and a new deal [of cards]. And I’m not sure how he can bring that about.”





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Analysis

Iranian TV action thriller delivers warning to Zarif

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It is hardly surprising that Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and nuclear negotiator, is not a fan of Gando, a popular television drama that depicts an incompetent minister who scuppers nuclear talks with world powers by hiring dual nationals who turn out to be spies for MI6.

The series — made by an institute believed to be affiliated to the elite and hardline Revolutionary Guards — “is a lie from the beginning to the end” that “damages foreign policy more than me” by fuelling public mistrust, Zarif said.

By focusing on the nuclear talks, the Guards’ motive goes beyond creating compelling drama, reformist analysts say. Iran is in discussion with western powers about reviving the nuclear deal, a key reformist achievement, and hardliners want to deter the popular foreign minister from declaring his interest in the presidency in what is a crucial election year.

“I’ll be grateful to Gando-makers to let us continue our current job,” Zarif said this month, and commented that he would not run for the presidency.

The possibility of nuclear talks with the US and other powers has complicated an already fraught Iranian political scene ahead of the June election. Many reformists are pinning their hopes on Iran’s top diplomat to reinvigorate the nuclear deal and boost support at the ballot box. Hardliners might prefer to negotiate the deal themselves after the election. The polls are also seen as particularly crucial in case supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 81, dies during the next president’s term.

Pendar Akbari, left, and Ashkan Delavari, right, in a scene from ‘Gando’
Pendar Akbari, left, and Ashkan Delavari, right, in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’. The series title refers to an Iranian crocodile able to distinguish its friends from its enemies © Bahar Asgari/Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute via AP

The purpose of Gando, which refers to an Iranian crocodile able to distinguish its friends from its enemies, “is to tell Zarif that should he dare to announce his candidacy, he will be destroyed immediately,” said one reformist analyst. “When the intelligence service of the Guards truly believes in the Gando plot lines, it means even if Zarif decides to defy such warnings, he will not be allowed to run.”

Centrist president Hassan Rouhani is due to step down this year after two terms and it is not yet clear who the presidential candidates will be. Politicians register as late as May and then have to be vetted by the Guardian Council, the hardline constitutional watchdog, which can disqualify nominees. Potential hardline candidates include Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the parliament speaker and a former guards commander; Ebrahim Raisi, the judiciary chief; and Ali Larijani, a former speaker of parliament. On the reformist side, speculation has centred on Es’haq Jahangiri, first vice-president, Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of the founder of the Islamic republic, and Zarif.

A US-educated career diplomat widely respected in the west for his pragmatism, Zarif was instrumental in the historic deal in 2015, under which Iran curbed its nuclear activity in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But Donald Trump abandoned the accord in 2018, imposed sanctions, including on Zarif, and said he would pursue a new accord to contain Iran’s regional and military policies. The US move emboldened hardliners, confirming to them the untrustworthiness of the US.

Zarif’s background in the US both as a university student and as Iran’s head of mission at the UN — during which he met US politicians including then senator Joe Biden — has long made him a source of suspicion for hardliners.

This wariness of both Zarif and the west is evident to viewers of Gando, as is the heroism of the Revolutionary Guards. Mohammad, the action hero protagonist, warns that western negotiators may sabotage refineries as part of nuclear talks. Mohammad works out of elaborate facilities akin to those in a James Bond film. The fictional foreign minister is advised by a media adviser, the main culprit, “to enter into direct talks with the US and accept the conditions of the leader of the global village”.

Vahid Rahbani in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’
Vahid Rahbani in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’. State TV abruptly stopped broadcasting the series that was less than halfway through its 30-episode run © Hassan Hendi/Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute via AP

The dramatic scenes reflect, in part, the worldview of some of Zarif’s critics. “Reformists, Mr Zarif and his lobby group in Washington [Iranian dual nationals] should be wiped out from Iran’s politics,” said an aide to a senior hardline politician who is a potential presidential candidate. “We have to get rid of this cancerous tumour once for good.”

Gholamali Jafarzadeh, a former conservative member of parliament, said Zarif “is not a good statesman and should not run for president” while “reformists should know that their choices have no chance to be allowed to run”. 

This month, state TV abruptly stopped broadcasting the series that was less than halfway through its 30-episode run. Local media said broadcasts would resume when the presidential race was over. Iran’s centrist president Hassan Rouhani, whose signature achievement is the nuclear deal — alluded to the show on Wednesday and said “people’s money” should not be spent on “fabrication of the truth” and “distortion of facts”.

After three years of sanctions, many voters are disillusioned by the infighting and the prospect of real change, whatever the outcome of the election. “Whether Zarif or a figure more senior than him runs or not, I’m not going to vote,” said Hamid, a 40-year-old engineer. “Let the Guards win the election as they are the ones who are running the country anyway. Why shall I make a fool of myself?” 



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Rising inflation complicates Brazil’s Covid-19 crisis

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After seven months in lockdown, Michele Marques received some unwelcome news when she returned to work: while she was away the prices of almost all the products she uses as a hairdresser had soared.

“A box of gloves rose 200 per cent. Colouring products increased at least 100 per cent,” said the 37-year-old from São Paulo, underlining how costs were rising while her revenue had collapsed. “I had to raise the price of my services, too.”

It is a dynamic that is playing out across Brazil, adding an extra layer of complexity to the country’s coronavirus crisis, which has already claimed the lives of almost 350,000 individuals and pushed hospital services to the brink.

With much of Latin America’s largest economy being shuttered, inflation is surging to its highest level in years, fuelling a silent scourge of hunger among poorer citizens that has run in parallel to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The high price of staple foods — rice and beans, for example — has led to the disappearance of these items from the table of millions of Brazilians,” said Ana Maria Segall, a researcher at the Brazilian Research Network on Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security. In the 12 months to the end of March, the price of rice increased 64 per cent and black beans 51 per cent.

“In Brazil currently food inflation has penalised the very poorest, preventing them from having adequate access to food and in many situations leading to hunger,” she said, adding that rising unemployment and the curtailment of social programmes were also contributing factors.

Volunteers hand out food in São Paulo © Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Less than half of Brazil’s population of 212m now has access to adequate food all the time, with 19m people, or 9 per cent of its inhabitants, facing hunger, according to a recent report by Segall’s group.

“I’m doing some odd jobs, but it’s not enough to keep us going,” said Jonathan, a 28-year-old who lost his job in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in São Paulo when the pandemic began. He said he now struggles to provide enough food for his three young children and pregnant wife.

On a 12-month basis, inflation in June is expected to surpass 8 per cent, far above earlier estimates. In the 12 months to March, food prices jumped 18.5 per cent, while the price of agricultural commodities in local currency surged 55 per cent and the cost of fuel increased almost 92 per cent.

Line chart of Percentage increase over past 12 months showing The price of rice in Brazil is soaring

The developments pose a fresh challenge to President Jair Bolsonaro, who is already under fire for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Across Brazil’s biggest cities, graffiti has sprung up labelling the populist leader “Bolsocaro” — a portmanteau of his name and the Portuguese word for expensive.

The rising prices are also likely to provide useful ammunition to leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who returned to the political fray last month and may challenge Bolsonaro in elections next year.

“Bolsonaro is to blame for the increase in food prices, he is to blame for everything. They have to remove this guy,” said Maria Izabel de Jesus, a retiree from São Paulo.

Armando Castelar, a researcher at the Brazilian Institute of Economics, said the government had underestimated inflation both in terms of the numbers and also “how much a concern it should be”.

He attributed the rising prices to the devaluation of the Brazilian currency, triggered in part by the stimulus packages passed by the US government — which helped to bolster the dollar and led to higher Treasury yields — and the brighter economic outlook outside Latin America.

“You have a situation where commodity prices are going up because the global economy is going to grow a lot this year. With the growth in the US, interest rates are going up and the dollar is strengthening. This puts a lot of pressure on the exchange rate in Brazil and emerging markets in general,” he said.

As the spectre of inflation loomed last month, the Brazilian central bank raised its key interest rate by 75 basis points, higher than the half-percentage point many economists had expected. A further rate rise is expected next month.

“The central bank acted correctly, but it cannot stop there. It is important not to be too lenient in dealing with this,” said Castelar.

Silvia Matos, a co-ordinator at the Brazilian Economy Institute, also pointed to Brazil’s weakening currency as a contributing factor to inflation. But she said the slide in the real was triggered by investor concerns over Brazil’s deteriorating public finances.

Following the creation of two separate stimulus packages to mitigate the impact of Covid-19, government debt has risen to about 90 per cent of gross domestic product, a high level for an emerging market economy.

The rollout of the second of these packages began this month, with 45m Brazilians set to receive $50 a month for four months.

Critics said, however, these stipends were not nearly enough to keep people both fed and at home in lockdown.

“It is essential that the emergency aid is of a greater value, so that people do not leave the house but no one also stays at home starving,” said Marcelo Freixo, a federal lawmaker with the leftwing PSOL party.

“We need to reduce the circulation of the disease. Brazil is already experiencing 4,000 deaths per day. We will reach 500,000 total deaths by the middle of the year.”

Matos says that inflation had hit poorer citizens much harder than middle-class and rich Brazilians because a larger portion of their income was dedicated to food, the price of which has increased substantially.

“The only thing that could help right now is to get out of this pandemic,” she said.

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Can CVC pull off a $20bn ‘deal of the century’ at Toshiba?

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Proposed management buyout looks like an improbable win for the Japanese conglomerate’s embattled CEO



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