Almost every day for the past week and a half the White House has held a briefing on the coronavirus, and the message that emerges from them is clear: Whatever happens in the outside world, as far as his administration is concerned, President Trump is doing a tremendous job.
The transcripts of the briefings show administration officials appearing to engage in a competition to pay the most fulsome tribute to the “leadership,” “vision” and “strong actions” of the president. Surprisingly, Vice President Mike Pence, whose experience in praising Trump should have made him an odds-on favorite, appears to be in a dead heat with Health and Human Services Secretary Alexander Azar.
The tone was set at the briefing on Feb. 26 at which Pence was introduced as the head of the coronavirus task force, and took pains to praise Trump for recognizing that the situation was, in fact, an emergency: “This team has been, at your direction, Mr. President, meeting every day since it was established.” At every public appearance since then, Pence has been scrupulous to attribute every action taken by the task force to Trump’s “direction” or “leadership,” including such minutiae as revising federal inspection protocols for nursing homes.
Then Azar got on board during the Feb. 26 briefing with this encomium:
“Thank you, Mr. President, for gathering your public health experts here today and for your strong leadership in keeping America safe. Because of this hard work and the president’s leadership, the immediate risk to the American public has been and continues to be low.
“The president’s early and decisive actions, including travel restrictions, have succeeded in buying us incredibly valuable time. … The president’s actions taken with the strong support of his scientific advisors have proven to be appropriate, wise, and well-calibrated to the situation.”
At another briefing on March 3, Azar seized the honor of announcing that Trump’s quarterly paycheck, which he regularly turns over to worthy causes within the government, had been donated “to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health at HHS to fund the coronavirus preparedness and response activities.”
The vice president volleyed back the next day at a briefing with airline executives, as a transcript of the meeting shows:
PENCE: You know, Mr. President, you said from early on that we were going to have a whole-of-government approach. But the truth is, as evidenced by all these great industry leaders, it’s really a whole-of-America approach.
PENCE: And the American people deserve to know that, according to all of our experts, the risk to the average American of contracting the coronavirus remains low. And that’s largely owing to your decision, Mr. President, to suspend all travel from China into the United States and to quarantine all Americans that are returning. … We’re grateful for that, Mr. President.
Trump of course is well-known for his fondness of praise from any source, no matter how patently self-interested or insincere: from his own Cabinet and members of his own party in Congress; from friendly media sources and even those he thinks are hostile, when they say something he likes; from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, who sent him a “beautiful letter” and from Vladimir Putin, who bestowed on him one of Trump’s favorite accolades: “He called me a genius, OK?” (That translation of Putin’s comment is disputed.)
And, of course, no one can praise Donald Trump with as much enthusiasm as Donald Trump. “I like this stuff, I really get it,” he said, while touring the Centers for Disease Control. “Every one of these doctors said, How do you know so much about this? Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”
One consistent theme in his remarks on the coronavirus has been his foresight and courage in stopping travel to the United States from China in the early stages of the outbreak.
“My great responsibility — I think the biggest decision we made was going very early,” Trump said on Feb. 29. “And that was a decision made against a lot of people that thought we shouldn’t do that. That’s why we’re at 22 instead of a much higher number. It would have been a much higher number. That was a big decision. It was a hard decision because it had never been done before anyway. I mean, not even early or late. It had never been made, a decision like that. So that was big.”
Trump has contrasted this “big decision” with the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014, which he denounced at the time as putting the whole country at risk.
The U.S. must immediately stop all flights from EBOLA infected countries or the plague will start and spread inside our "borders." Act fast!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 2, 2014
Only two people died of Ebola in the United States, both patients who contracted it in Africa and were brought to the U.S. for treatment. There were no instances of transmission within the country apart from two nurses who came into contact with patients, and both recovered.
With coronavirus cases still emerging in the U.S., the benefits of Trump’s travel ban are still unclear. Public health experts said travel and trade restrictions are counterproductive, and the World Health Organization opposed it. But Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, said on Friday, as Trump toured the agency’s offices in Atlanta, that “the overall risk to the American public does remain low, and I think we owe a lot to the decisive decisions initially to have travel restrictions.”
As early as the Feb. 26 briefing, Trump expressed confidence in the response, insisting that with his guidance and thanks to the people he appointed, “We’re very ready for it.”
“We’re ready for it. We’re really prepared. We have — as I said, we’ve had — we have the greatest people in the world. We’re very ready for it. And again, we’ve had tremendous success — tremendous success — beyond what people would have thought.”
And just in case, Pence said, in remarks that perhaps said more about his priorities than he intended, “We’ll be adding additional personnel here at the White House to support our efforts on the President’s behalf.”
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