On Tuesday, the same Donald Trump who three weeks ago told the nation that the cases in the United States would “soon be down close to zero,” declared that he always knew that the novel coronavirus was going to become a pandemic. This kind of instant revisionism has been a hallmark of Trump from the beginning. He doesn’t have to be right about things in advance, or even as they’re happening. As with his support for the invasion of Iraq, he can simply claim later that he supported the opposite of what he actually supported. Problem solved.
Only Trump still seems to have missed the most important thing about the coronavirus pandemic. This is not an effort to bring down his poll numbers. It’s not a scheme to make him look bad. It’s a threat to the nation that, thanks to Trump’s bumbling, is becoming a genuinely existential threat. And Trump’s reluctance to recognize that difference is only making the outcome infinitely worse.
As The New York Times reports, Trump is now talking about a “whole government” approach, and starting to speak as if he recognizes the scale of the effort necessary to deal with this challenge. But Trump has had to be dragged forward step by step, reluctantly giving minimal support to efforts to integrate the military, bring in the resources of various agencies, and treat the whole pandemic seriously.
Requests to provide emergency resources from the areas hardest hit haven’t been given the kind of treatment that indicates a government in the midst of an emergency. They’ve been treated as if Trump suspects that each one is an effort to make him look bad.
Even as Seattle was pleading for help in dealing with the sudden influx of patients that needed to be isolated, and Mike Pence was lauding Washington Gov. Jay Inslee for his efforts in the first state to confront a large outbreak, Trump was calling Inslee names because the governor dared complain that Trump wasn’t being truthful about the extent of the threat.
“I told Mike [Pence] not to be complimentary of that governor because that governor is a snake,” said Trump “So Mike may be happy with him but I’m not, OK?”
Every step forward has been like pulling teeth because Donald Trump can’t seem to get something that’s absolutely true, but which he has never understood on a single issue in his whole life: This is not about him.
Even as the World Health Organization was raising every warning flag and experts warned that the threat of global pandemic was rising rapidly, Trump ignored the epidemic in China—and the first cases in the United States and around the world—all through January before finally naming Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar to head a small coronavirus task force at the end of the month. That team moved along, doing little, saying little, for another entire month, until Trump made a show of creating a bigger team on Feb. 27 under the control of Pence. And this time, Trump added … finance guys.
Not on the stage were any representatives of the military. Not on the stage were any members of the State Department, or Education Department, or Justice Department. Not on the stage was any hint that this was anything more than an effort to patch over the stock market numbers that Trump reads as a proxy on his performance.
By that point, a global pandemic was all but inevitable. That was the time to announce a major program of testing, for integrating the TSA and adding resources to institute a nationwide program to screen people on tarmacs before they even entered an airport, to release the DOD to begin assembling strike teams to deploy mobile hospitals and medical staff, and to provide clear language for how the United States would work across state and federal agencies to isolate those affected and constrain the spread.
Instead, Trump did what he’s done at every appearance of the “task force”—step on the implications, undercount the cases already in the country, deny that there was any real threat. “USA in great shape!” Trump tweeted, minutes after the cameras turned off.
At every stage, Trump has gone beyond failing to provide leadership: he’s been an active anchor preventing the nation from making any real response. He’s moving now, reluctantly, to deploy additional units of the government to the response, but the language Trump is still using shows how reluctant he is to accept the world outside his windows.
“We are starting the process,” said Trump on Tuesday. “The state is working on it very hard themselves, but we’ll probably supplement what they’re doing.”
We’re starting. We’ll probably. This is how Trump responds to a governor’s request for him to literally send in the Army to assist with a deadly epidemic. What’s not happening is any sense of urgency. Any sign of leadership.
Trump is starting to learn that a virus can’t be bullied. But he’s months too late for that to be effective.