Conrad Black: Will Coronavirus Help or Hurt Trump?

Is there a silver lining in the President contracting coronavirus, beyond what the President himself has described?

Do the polls reflect reality, or are they as off as they were in 2016?

In this episode, we sit down with former newspaper publisher Conrad Black, author of “A President Like No Other: Donald J. Trump and the Restoring of America.”

This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.

Jan Jekielek: Conrad Black, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Conrad Black: My pleasure. My pleasure entirely, Jan.

Mr. Jekielek: Mr. Black, I just finished reading your updated version of Donald J. Trump, “A President Like No Other.” Remarkable book, frankly, one of the most enjoyable reads that I’ve had in a while. You write beautifully and it’s an incredibly topical topic matter, obviously.

Mr. Black: He is an entertaining subject, for sure.

Mr. Jekielek: Why don’t we start there? Why don’t we start with the title, and obviously, there’re many layers to the reason you called him, “a president like no other.” Tell me about this?

Mr. Black: To start with, he is, as you know, the only person in the history of that office who had never previously sought or held any public office, elected or unelected, or a high military command. That makes it unique. The only other person to whom that can be said who was a serious major party nominee was Wendell Wilkie, who was nominated for the unenviable task of trying to unseat Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.

Secondly, he did devise a technique of self-promotion that got him into the highest office in the country, and it was original to him. It was building the celebrity of his name deliberately, systematically, and in echelons where historically, national politicians through the United States have not operated, including as impresarios of great sports spectacles, beauty pageants, and acts of what I described as unutterable hucksterism such as selling 95,000 tickets to the Pontiac Silverdome in a wrestling contest, which ended in his shearing the hair off the head of World Wrestling Federation [CEO], Vince McMahon. He, to some degree, compensated for that later by making McMahon’s wife the head of the Small Business Administration.

But in these various ways, he kept promoting himself as someone whom the public at every socio-economic echelon was very well aware. He changed party affiliation seven times in the 13 years prior to his election, had no party loyalty whatsoever. He was looking for the proper vehicle, he waited for his time, and he struck.

It was regarded by—I would have thought, your guess is as good as mine—80 or 90 percent of observers at the time that he announced he was a candidate for president as a frivolous brand-building, publicity-seeking exercise of no chance, or virtually no chance, of getting anywhere politically. As I say, the rest is history. In all of that, he was unlike anyone who preceded him in that office.

He has a temperament that is widely regarded as unsuitable to the position he holds. He is, at one and the same time, extraordinarily thin-skinned about certain insults from people well beneath the normal notice of the President of the U.S., but at the same time, apparently oblivious to tremendous waves of public antipathy in fields where he is confident of himself. So you have a temperamental, I think, distinction between him and his predecessors.

Of course, his predecessors, taken all 43 of them together, are certainly not a uniform group, but they do at least share the characteristic of not being remotely like Donald Trump as a personality.

I would also add that he does have undoubtedly an extraordinary intuition into where public opinion is. That doesn’t make him unlike any previous president, but it makes him unlike all but a very few of them. Finally, he is a classic American showman. There’s an element of P.T. Barnum in him, and there always has been throughout his career.

If you add all these together, he is really not at all like any of his predecessors. It could be said that citizens, generals, who became president, like Franklin Pierce, and Rutherford Hayes, and James A. Garfield, they weren’t look alikes, but there were similarities with them. There are people whose whole career really was moving up the ladder to be president, like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, there were similarities there.

People who had varied careers and they got to where they were like Harry Truman or Warren Harding, there were similarities there, and similarities of socio-economic background as well. Trump is one of the very few whose father was a very wealthy person, of enough compared to him, compared to most people. In all of these things, he is different. For better or worse, he’s different.

Mr. Jekielek: I have a million questions I want to ask you off of this now. The book is a kind of a play by play, and really well done play by play of Trump coming through into the presidency and then throughout the presidency.

Let’s talk about this intuition that you just mentioned. Just very recently, it appears that he is taking the position of basically telling Americans, “Don’t fear the virus.” He now has had coronavirus himself. He’s had a quick, seems like successful battle at this point with the disease, or CCP virus as we call it here at The Epoch Times. You couldn’t have a different narrative than the Democratic narrative which seems to be: wear masks, stand very, very far away from people, no public gathering, etc. What are your thoughts on this?

Mr. Black: From the moment that the coronavirus emerged as the threat it was, not at its very first emergence, but when it became clear that it was a serious problem, the Democrats leapt on like panthers as a way of demanding a total economic shutdown in order to produce an economic environment in the country that would facilitate their return to office in the White House.

I think it is generally conceded that Trump [would] have won election after the impeachment and prior to the onset of COVID-19. He had tremendously good economic figures, no unemployment, and the bottom 20 percent of wage earners advancing, and more quickly in percentage terms than the top 10 percent, a unique achievement amongst current world leaders, and an attack on the old income disparity problem.

The Democrats saw their opportunity returning, so they unctuously proclaimed that a public health crisis required a complete shutdown, an absolute strangulation of economic activity to produce this horrible recession that they could then hang around Trump’s neck like the Herbert Hoover of the 21st century.

Then they took the further step of saying that it was only caused because he had incompetently managed the COVID crisis from the beginning. They are overwhelmingly supported in the media and in fact, the national political media are running the Democratic campaign for them, because the nominee that they have is an unfeasible person who was just rescued from the ash heap of the primaries and put in by the party elders to spare them a senator’s candidacy that would be too easily caricatured by the Republicans as Marxism with elections, at least for the time being.

This sort of settled as the Democratic modus operandi to regain the White House, and at this very moment, it appears to have some prospects of success. I think that in somewhat similar measure to the bad luck that Trump had in this virus coming down on the country and the world as it did, he has what is, I think, the good luck of contracting it himself, and being able to shake it off quickly.

And then take the lead and say, “This is a serious problem, but we must not be intimidated by it. No, we’re not a nation of people that are going to hide in our basements like the Democratic nominee. We have to remember the 99 percent of people who contract the illness survive, and are thereafter substantially immune.” So instead of this doleful tale every day told by the Democratic news networks that we’ve reached a new grim milestone of 40,000 new infections a day, we’ve reached 39,600 immunities of people who will have 90 percent of them with no or minimal symptoms.

We just have to look at this as the glass filling and not empty. In fact, we’ve managed the crisis well. We’ve accelerated, to unheard of speed, the progress towards a vaccine. We’ve developed all sorts of new therapies that I myself can attest are effective. We’ve become the world’s supplier, in just a matter of a few weeks, of ventilators and other necessary equipment. We provided massively increased hospital facilities as needed and even more than were needed.

In fact, we’re coming through this well. Our economic performance is the best of the advanced Western countries and on the medical side of it, our numbers are better than most of Western Europe, of the large countries, except for Germany, and in fact, of all the large countries except for Germany. But leaving Russia because you can’t believe their numbers.

He’s got a good story to tell, and this is his way of getting off his back foot and taking the offense again in the last month of the election campaign. With that said, I’m assuming what he’s going to do, and he’s going to have to do it, as he seems to have started to do, promptly and very efficiently, or he remains the underdog.

Mr. Jekielek: You had an unorthodox perspective on the 2016 election. I recall, you called it a 50/50 show, so to speak. There’s this great anecdote in the book when you reach over to our famous Canadian anchor, Lloyd Robertson, saying, “And now for something completely different,” quoting Monty Python. I think that must have been an incredible moment.

Mr. Black: It was humorous. It was 3 a.m. in the morning, and we were ready for something amusing, and we got it.

Mr. Jekielek: In your estimation, what are the numbers in your mind, the Conrad Black expectation right now?

Mr. Black: We have to see, first of all, whether I’m correct in surmising that this is now the stance that Trump is taking. It appears to be, to judge from what he said in the last couple of days [since] coming out of hospital.

But I think, to begin with, it is much closer than the Democratic media are claiming as they did four years ago. They’re virtually clapping themselves on the back like hockey, or football players, or baseball players have just scored points or runs and pretending that they’re virtually at the point of arranging their ticker tape parades through lower Manhattan to be celebrated as champions.

In fact, I think that it is well understood that many of the polling organizations are basically Democratic front operations who front load the numbers by choosing an echelon of the electorate that is not representative, either deliberately or from incompetence.

Secondly, it’s well-known that a very large number of Trump supporters will not speak candidly about politics to strangers. So there’s an agreed 3 percent uptick in Trump figures anyway which gets up pretty good into the upper 40s, and the way the electoral map works, he could replicate pretty much what happened last time—trailing the popular vote by a few million but still win the Electoral College.

In this case with almost four weeks still to go, it’s all to play for if he executes some such strategy, as he seems to have started on which I tried to describe, and it obviously came to his mind before it did to mine. I think he could have a surge at the end because he does have a very defensible record in his first term.

My contention is, as you know, is that he’s had the best first term of any president except for Lincoln, FDR [Franklin D. Roosevelt], Nixon, and his only rival for fourth places is the little, today, remembered James K. Polk who took a million square miles from the Mexicans, adding 50 percent to the size of the country.

This is how it looks, and I think he has a good chance, and I think the Democrats, to some extent, once again, are trying to impress opinion by putting on the attitudes of certain-winners to demoralize the Republicans. But Trump supporters or Trump personally do not get so easily demoralized. They are accustomed politically to their roles as outsiders, as being unlike other campaigns, and they have a 100 percent success rating so far.

Mr. Jekielek: One of the recent announcements that the president has made is basically, “Declassify everything”—I could actually quote the Tweet if I can find it in my notes here—but essentially, everything surrounding what is described in different ways as the Russia collusion hoax, Spygate, this whole kind of question of Crossfire Hurricane. In a nutshell, in your mind, and this is something you chronicle extensively in the book, where are we at today with this question?

Mr. Black: I think all of us who suspect that really seriously bad things were done by Trump’s opponents four years ago are in a state of extreme impatience of Mr. Durham. In my opinion, he’s had plenty of time to be much more illuminating than he has been. I understand, and it’s absolutely right that he should be immune to any tampering from anyone, and I don’t question that he has earned his reputation as an absolutely fair, disinterested, non-political prosecutor. It’s pretty rare in the United States, by the way.

With that said, I think this release of intelligence [that was] previously withheld, it has abetted some of the air of consolation prize, but they’re not going to get indictments from Durham before the election. So to some extent, the electorate will not, as the Attorney General said was his ambition, be able to make an informed judgment about the highly relevant facts of what went on in the origins of the Russia-Trump collusion argument, which was a complete fiction.

There was some contact between some Russians and some representatives of the Trump campaign but they did not consist of any collusion at all or anything legally improper. Russia is a large nationality and Russians meet Americans in all walks of life, some frequently. As a, you would say, narrative, as a scenario, for rigging or influencing the election, it was a complete fraud, an absolute fraud from A to Z.

What we had instead was the Democratic candidate with some level of collusion from the FBI and the higher reaches of the intelligence agencies attempting to confect a totally unfounded counterintelligence investigation, and injecting it for partisan reasons into the election campaign after the last minute, and then propagating it to destabilize the incoming administration.

I understand that the argument from the purists in the Department of Justice is that even if Trump loses the election, Durham has a mandate that is not revocable, and he will indict who he wants to indict, when he wishes to indict them. I say this neutrally.

Unfortunately, the public will not be enlightened as to the extent, if at all, that the special counsel thinks that the present president was the victim of illegal skullduggery. In my opinion, [this] is the closest the United States has ever come to having tanks on the White House lawn. It was a serious interference with the normal constitutional process for choosing a president, and it simply has to be unearthed, and not out of vengeance against anyone but to be a very effective disincentive against any attempted repetition.

All kinds of things are said about the late J. Edgar Hoover but he never intervened in a presidential election. He did some funny things, but he never did anything like that.

Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned in the book and in our interview how Trump has had one of the most consequential presidencies, in your mind anyway. That’s the opposite of the narrative you tend to hear in the media where it’s been an effectual disaster, chaos, all these kinds of things.

There’s also this other element actually, that comes through in the book which I find really fascinating, that Trump, even in moments of actual seeming failure, these bankruptcies, and marital difficulties, and so forth that you chronicle in there, he portrays this as being a win. He transforms it this way and sees this theme come through. I’m trying to reconcile all these things into one picture. Can you do that for me?

Mr. Black: It is his nature to avoid any admission of defeat, even when he has in fact endured a defeat. If he has endured what other people might be celebrating as his defeat, he is seeing it as the necessary prelude to a great victory that is about to happen and that his critics are too obtuse to recognize.

It is a technique that obviously inspirits him and helps him retain a high morale and purposefulness, and he is a clutch player. In sports metaphor, his nerves don’t get to him. He doesn’t lose his judgment or his determination, the more difficult things get.

We saw that during the Access Hollywood Billy Bush tape. They were practically—everyone thought that he was finished. The vice presidential candidate, the current vice president, went silent for the weekend, and the party chairman, Reince Priebus, came to the edge of suggesting that he might consider retiring as a candidate. And he drove on. I think that he won that debate that weekend with Mrs. Clinton. The media naturally never entertained the thought that he could have won the debate but in fact, he did do well in the debate—not so well in the first one but those subsequent ones.

That is how he built his development business. Even though his father was a wealthy man, he gave him very little assistance. And this is what’s called in business, “blitzscaling.” As you know, for weeks in the Commodore Hotel matter, where he had no money, [Trump] didn’t even have the $250,000 as an opening fee. He had to borrow that, and he was holding press conferences practically every day in the most obscure pretext and waving a document around saying, “I have a signed agreement.” It was signed by him, not by any other party, so it had no relevance. Eventually this took.

There is that element of the huckster/New York developer in his nature, and it has worked for him, and he has a somewhat cynical belief that despite the august trappings and lore around the great office of President of the United States, in practice, the methods of achieving and holding that office are not quite so pristine and elegant as mythmaking liberal historians would have one believe. There is some truth to that. He has this knack for thinking that if he never gives up and fights hard enough, he wins, and that has been his experience all the way up to the office that he holds now.

Now, on the fact with his record, I agree that the media acting essentially as the propaganda arm of the Democrats generally portrayed that there has been chaos, but that is because they’ve created the chaos in this sleazy campaign that they run against him, and then identified him with the chaos. “If we just get rid of Trump, you won’t have chaos,” but they created the chaos—not Trump.

Through all of that, he promised to deal with illegal immigration, and he’s done it. That was a disgraceful, shameful blot on the history of the country for which both parties are responsible. The Democrats would enumerate the voters even though they aren’t citizens, and then prevent the census takers from ascertaining if they are citizens and therefore eligible to vote, and the Republican employers enjoyed the cheap labor.

Where was the government? Where were our disinterested servants in government, in both parties, in the Congresses, and the executive? They just took a hike for 20 years. Trump has dealt with that.

He’s recognized the China-threat without getting into jingo or saber-rattling. He’s pulled back from the green nonsense that was going to impoverish all the petroleum states and many manufacturers. He’s revived the concept of nuclear non-proliferation in respect of irresponsible countries, in his way revitalized the alliance that was essentially just a bunch of freeloaders, with a couple of exceptions, who were happy to have an American and military guarantee, but not paying anything for it.

He had, as I said, made progress that no one else has in combating the income disparity gap without falling into that trap that was rejected by Mr. Lincoln, among others, in the phrase, “You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.”

Mr. Jekielek: We have about a minute left. Any final words before we finish up?

Mr. Black: It’s going to be a ding dong battle. It’s been chasing a bouncing football which—I’m no sports fan, but in American football, you can’t predict how it’ll bounce because of its shape. And no one could have foreseen many of the things that have happened this year, and it would be a very incautious person who claimed to be able to predict with accuracy how it’ll finish out these last four weeks.

My own view is that he has an outstanding first term, and now has a scenario in which he can retake the initiative by pitching to the American spirit of, “We will not be defeated or demoralized by this affliction.” We now know it’s proportions; it is ugly, but it is not a threat to everyone.

We have to manage it right, we get a vaccine soon, and we have to come out of our basements, our figurative and literal basements, and recognize that 80 percent of the people are practically invulnerable. We have to be very careful for the others but the rest of us have to get on with our lives and not listen to the Democrats’ self-serving claptrap without shutting it down again, unctuously invoking the scientists as if there were any unity of opinion there.

Mr. Jekielek: Conrad Black, such a pleasure to have you on.

Mr. Black: Thank you so much, Jan.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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