WASHINGTON, DC – For the first three years of his administration, US President Donald Trump focused on consolidating power. And yet, as the United States approached its greatest domestic peril in a century, he refused to use that power. Instead, as a deadly coronavirus was poised to invade the country, the president opted for denial and delay.
But toward the end of March, Trump’s science advisers presented him with evidence from a voluntary 15-day experiment indicating that where social distancing measures were taken seriously, the disease spread less rapidly than in places where such restrictions were not observed. At the time, the number of COVID-19 infections was over 100,000 and deaths exceeded 1,000. Science advisers’ models indicated that if people behaved perfectly, 100,000-240,000 US residents would die, and Trump’s political advisers told him that polls showed the public wanted to extend social distancing. For once, he took the sensible approach, extending the federal government’s recommendation of social distancing for another 30 days, until the end of April.
At long last, Trump, who just days earlier proclaimed that he would lift all restrictions and “reopen” the US economy by Easter (April 12) – which he couldn’t do because the business shutdowns had been ordered by state governors – seemed to be taking the pandemic seriously. Earlier, he had also dismissed the Democrats’ criticism of his handling of the crisis as “their new hoax.” He took over the daily news briefings when he noticed that Vice President Mike Pence, whom he had put in charge of the emergency task force, was winning praise for conducting the sessions. And then he bragged about the TV ratings. But his behavior remained uneven, and he continued his harsh attacks on reporters who pressed him on his slow response.
In denying responsibility for the appalling state of unreadiness the country was in, Trump sometimes claimed, falsely, that “nobody knew” there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion (at another point he claimed that he had known all along a pandemic was coming). As usual, he blamed his predecessor, Barack Obama. In fact, as early as January, intelligence agencies had warned the Trump administration of the imminent approach of the coronavirus.
But despite persistent efforts over this period, administration officials were unable to get the president to focus on the looming crisis. To the public as well, he dismissed the coronavirus and the resulting disease, COVID-19, as less deadly than the seasonal flu. When he had reason to know better, on February 24, he assured the public that the coronavirus rampage “is very much under control in the USA.” Trump said on March 31 that he had been upbeat previously because he “wanted to give people hope,” but according to press reports he was just as dismissive of the problem privately as he was in public.
Trump is precisely the wrong person to lead the US at such a moment. Neither the brightest nor the most focused of presidents, he’s clearly out of his depth. His resistance to reality left doctors and nurses without sufficient personal protective equipment, and as a result, some have died. Moreover, the stunning lack of test kits left policymakers flying blind about where and how many infections were occurring. Trump’s bottomless need for praise led him to make preposterous claims, such as that the number of tests being performed in the US was “very much on par” with that of other countries.
This denial of reality affected the administration’s working relationships with state governors. Donald Trump listened too much and for too long to his economic advisers, who for weeks convinced him to put business interests ahead of the public’s health. And he refused to invoke the Korean War-era Defense Production Act, which allows a president to order a business to meet a national emergency, before finally relenting on March 27 and ordering General Motors to begin manufacturing desperately needed ventilators.
There were also signs of political favoritism, with certain governors – such as Trump’s fellow Republican, Ron DeSantis of Florida – receiving more federal assistance than Democratic governors, with whom Trump picked fights. The US federal system has been both an obstacle and a salvation in dealing with the coronavirus: it has led to policy confusion and has also been a smokescreen for Trump’s incompetence.
Donald Trump still refuses to nationalize the crisis, leaving the states to take different approaches and bid against one another for emergency equipment. The key to his approach may well lie in something he said when asked at a mid-March press conference if he took responsibility for the shortage of face masks. “No,” he said, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” In other words, let the governors take responsibility for any failures.
Such blame-shifting has become the norm for Trump and Republican leaders, Pence, for example, blamed China, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By late March, Republicans had begun arguing that the Democrats’ January impeachment of Trump had distracted him from the pandemic threat. But the timing doesn’t work: the impeachment episode was over by early February. Bill Clinton was legislatively active while he was being impeached.
We may never know what Donald Trump actually thinks about the pandemic. What we do know is that COVID-19 is taking an ever-increasing toll. By April 2, the death count in the US had climbed to more than 5,000, and the number of infections had risen to nearly 217,000. Worldwide, nearly one million people have been infected by the virus, about which much remains a mystery – including how long it will torment us.
On the economic front, US unemployment claims increased by a stunning 6.6 million in the week ending April 1 (a figure that includes only those who filed for benefits, which is increasingly difficult to do, because labor offices have been overwhelmed). A deep and long recession is all but certain.
Whenever the crisis has passed, there will be numerous studies of what happened and why. The hardest question to face, and one that will be long debated, is how many people died needlessly as a result of Donald Trump’s leadership.
Elizabeth Drew is a Washington-based journalist and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.