The president is failing, and Americans are paying for his failures.
I don’t take responsibility at all,” said President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden on March 13. Those words will probably end up as the epitaph of his presidency, the single sentence that sums it all up.
Trump now fancies himself a “wartime president.” How is his war going? By the end of March, the coronavirus had killed more Americans than the 9/11 attacks. By the first weekend in April, the virus had killed more Americans than any single battle of the Civil War. By Easter, it may have killed more Americans than the Korean War. On the present trajectory, it will kill, by late April, more Americans than Vietnam. Having earlier promised that casualties could be held near zero, Trump now claims he will have done a “very good job” if the toll is held below 200,000 dead.
The United States is on trajectory to suffer more sickness, more dying, and more economic harm from this virus than any other comparably developed country.
That the pandemic occurred is not Trump’s fault. The utter unpreparedness of the United States for a pandemic is Trump’s fault. The loss of stockpiled respirators to breakage because the federal government let maintenance contracts lapse in 2018 is Trump’s fault. The failure to store sufficient protective medical gear in the national arsenal is Trump’s fault. That states are bidding against other states for equipment, paying many multiples of the precrisis price for ventilators, is Trump’s fault. Air travelers summoned home and forced to stand for hours in dense airport crowds alongside infected people? That was Trump’s fault too. Ten weeks of insisting that the coronavirus is a harmless flu that would miraculously go away on its own? Trump’s fault again. The refusal of red-state governors to act promptly, the failure to close Florida and Gulf Coast beaches until late March? That fault is more widely shared, but again, responsibility rests with Trump: He could have stopped it, and he did not.
The lying about the coronavirus by hosts on Fox News and conservative talk radio is Trump’s fault: They did it to protect him. The false hope of instant cures and nonexistent vaccines is Trump’s fault, because he told those lies to cover up his failure to act in time. The severity of the economic crisis is Trump’s fault; things would have been less bad if he had acted faster instead of sending out his chief economic adviser and his son Eric to assure Americans that the first stock-market dips were buying opportunities. The firing of a Navy captain for speaking truthfully about the virus’s threat to his crew? Trump’s fault. The fact that so many key government jobs were either empty or filled by mediocrities? Trump’s fault. The insertion of Trump’s arrogant and incompetent son-in-law as commander in chief of the national medical supply chain? Trump’s fault.
For three years, Trump has blathered and bluffed and bullied his way through an office for which he is utterly inadequate. But sooner or later, every president must face a supreme test, a test that cannot be evaded by blather and bluff and bullying. That test has overwhelmed Trump.
Trump failed. He is failing. He will continue to fail. And Americans are paying for his failures.
The coronavirus emerged in China in late December. The Trump administration received its first formal notification of the outbreak on January 3. The first confirmed case in the United States was diagnosed in mid-January. Financial markets in the United States suffered the first of a sequence of crashes on February 24. The first person known to have succumbed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in the United States died on February 29. The 100th diedon March 17. By March 20, New York City alone had confirmed 5,600 cases. Not until March 21—the day the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services placedits first large-scale order for N95 masks—did the White House begin marshaling a national supply chain to meet the threat in earnest. “What they’ve done over the last 13 days has been really extraordinary,” Jared Kushner said on April 3, implicitly acknowledging the waste of weeks between January 3 and March 21.
Those were the weeks when testing hardly happened, because there were no kits. Those were the weeks when tracing hardly happened, because there was little testing. Those were the weeks when isolation did not happen, because the president and his administration insisted that the virus was under control. Those were the weeks when supplies were not ordered, because nobody in the White House was home to order them. Those lost weeks placed the United States on the path to the worst outbreak of the coronavirus in the developed world: one-fourth of all confirmed cases anywhere on Earth.
Those lost weeks also put the United States—and thus the world—on the path to an economic collapse steeper than any in recent memory. Statisticians cannot count fast enough to keep pace with the accelerating economic depression. It’s a good guess that the unemployment rate had reached 13 percent by April 3. It may peak at 20 percent, perhaps even higher, and threatens to stay at Great Depression–like levels at least into 2021, maybe longer.
This country—buffered by oceans from the epicenter of the global outbreak, in East Asia; blessed with the most advanced medical technology on Earth; endowed with agencies and personnel devoted to responding to pandemics—could have and should have suffered less than nations nearer to China. Instead, the United States will suffer more than any peer country.
It didn’t have to be this way. If somebody else had been president of the United States in December 2019—Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Mike Pence, really almost anybody else—the United States would still have been afflicted by the coronavirus. But it would have been better prepared, and better able to respond.Through the early weeks of the pandemic, when so much death and suffering could still have been prevented or mitigated, Trump joined passivity to fantasy. In those crucial early days, Trump made two big wagers. He bet that the virus could somehow be prevented from entering the United States by travel restrictions. And he bet that, to the extent that the virus had already entered the United States, it would burn off as the weather warmed.
At a session with state governors on February 10, Trump predicted that the virus would quickly disappear on its own. “Now, the virus that we’re talking about having to do—you know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat—as the heat comes in. Typically, that will go away in April. We’re in great shape though. We have 12 cases—11 cases, and many of them are in good shape now.” On February 14, Trump repeated his assurance that the virus would disappear by itself. He tweetedagain on February 24 that he had the virus “very much under control in the USA.” On February 27, he said that the virus would disappear “like a miracle.”
Those two assumptions led him to conclude that not much else needed to be done. Senator Chris Murphy left a White House briefing on February 5, and tweeted:
Just left the Administration briefing on Coronavirus. Bottom line: they aren’t taking this seriously enough. Notably, no request for ANY emergency funding, which is a big mistake. Local health systems need supplies, training, screening staff etc. And they need it now.
Trump and his supporters now say that he was distracted from responding to the crisis by his impeachment. Even if it were true, pleading that the defense of your past egregious misconduct led to your present gross failures is not much of an excuse.
But if Trump and his senior national-security aides were distracted, impeachment was not the only reason, or even the principal reason. The period when the virus gathered momentum in Hubei province was also the period during which the United States seemed on the brink of war with Iran. Through the fall of 2019, tensions escalated between the two countries. The United States blamed an Iranian-linked militia for a December 27 rocket attack on a U.S. base in Iraq, triggering tit-for-tat retaliation that would lead to the U.S. killing General Qassem Soleimani on January 3, open threats of war by the United States on January 6, and the destruction of a civilian airliner over Tehran on January 8.
The preoccupation with Iran may account for why Trump paid so little attention to the virus, despite the many warnings. On January 18, Trump—on a golf excursion in Palm Beach, Florida—cut off his health secretary’s telephoned warning of gathering danger to launch into a lecture about vaping, The Washington Post reported.
Two days later, the first documented U.S. case was confirmed in Washington State.
Yet even at that late hour, Trump continued to think of the coronavirus as something external to the United States. He tweeted on January 22: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
Impeachment somehow failed to distract Trump from traveling to Davos, where in a January 22 interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box, he promised: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
Trump would later complain that he had been deceived by the Chinese. “I wish they could have told us earlier about what was going on inside,” he said on March 21. “We didn’t know about it until it started coming out publicly.”
If Trump truly was so trustingly ignorant as late as January 22, the fault was again his own. The Trump administration had cut U.S. public-health staff operating inside China by two-thirds, from 47 in January 2017 to 14 by 2019, an important reason it found itself dependent on less-accurate information from the World Health Organization. In July 2019, the Trump administration defunded the position that embedded an epidemiologist inside China’s own disease-control administration, again obstructing the flow of information to the United States.
Yet even if Trump did not know what was happening, other Americans did. On January 27, former Vice President Joe Biden sounded the alarm about a global pandemic in an op-ed in USA Today. By the end of January, eight cases of the virus had been confirmed in the United States. Hundreds more must have been incubating undetected.