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Will President Trump escape accountability in November for the worst crisis leadership in American history? It depends on how strongly and cogently the rest of us frame the true historical record.
In his Feb. 5 State of the Union address, Trump said of the spreading coronavirus, “My administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.” This did not happen.
“Necessary steps” were not taken, “safeguards” were neglected. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Americans will die unnecessarily as a direct result of the president’s negligence.
Republicans are better than Democrats at framing and their spin is well underway. They have already identified a scapegoat—China—and begun making excuses for their man. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told radio host Hugh Hewitt (a Trump stooge smart enough to know better) that the president was distracted from the coronavirus by impeachment.
That’s just another lie, of course. In fact, Trump made his only wise decision—banning passengers who had recently traveled to China—during the Senate trial. It was after impeachment that he failed to use the month or so of extra time he bought with that decision and downplayed the dangers of COVID-19—with disastrous consequences. Naturally, the Fox gas-lighters are already parroting the new party line on “impeachment distraction,” even though it concedes the Democrats’ main point of attack—that Trump took his eye off the peril advancing towards us.
Trump understands that he might have blown it, which is why—like a sweaty salesman—he has repeated “We’re doing a good job” more than a dozen times at his bogus and petulant news conferences. And now, even as he crassly brags about his ratings amid the “carnage” (his word, from his inaugural address), he’s getting set to use the mounting death toll to exploit a gruesome expectations game.
Here’s his only real plan: pivot from the fantasy of jammed churches on Easter Sunday to support for Anthony Fauci’s “best case” projections of 100,000 to 240,000 dead. If, through the heroic efforts of doctors and nurses on the battlefront, the numbers fall in the lower range—still possible, as Fauci notes—you can bet Trump will spend the general election campaign declaring a kind of sick victory over sickness.
This will be an obscene distortion of what he actually did—and, worse, didn’t do—in early 2020. But making logical arguments this summer and fall about Trump’s failures won’t be easy. Joe Biden and other Democrats charging that “Trump sent mixed signals” or saying “Look at South Korea now” will not be enough. By all means, let’s establish the accountability commission Rep. Adam Schiff wants, but it won’t change many minds.
What might affect the outcome is a short, tight, resonant meme, a dramatic phrase that crystallizes and immortalizes the historic moment—the way John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World did after the Russian Revolution. The phrase must somehow capture all the squandered time and missed opportunities without frontally attacking Trump in ways that just push people back into their partisan corners. The headline on a superb Boston Globe editorial—“Trump Has Blood on His Hands”—is plenty true, but too blunt an instrument to win an election.
Instead we must tar Trump with his lack of preparedness the way “the emails” were stuck to Hillary Clinton in 2016, “the hostages” to Jimmy Carter in 1980, “the pardon” to Gerald Ford in 1976, and “Hoovervilles” to Herbert Hoover in 1932.
So what should the frame be? I’m partial to a headline in the March 28 New York Times: “The Lost Month: How a Failure to Test Blinded the U.S. to Covid-19.” The article detailed how testing screw-ups (by a still-unnamed pharmaceutical company) and bureaucratic bumbling led the government to lose the critical weeks it needed to get on top of testing the way China, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Germany and other nations have.
Of course, we now can see that Trump’s incompetence runs much deeper and ran much longer than one month of snafus on testing (which he lied about almost daily). “The Lost Month” was actually “The Lost Months.” In fact, we lost three full years—years when the Trump administration let its contempt for science and “deep state” civil servants cripple the ability of the federal government to respond to a crisis. Trump didn’t fill 700 vacancies at the CDC, didn’t replenish stockpiles of medical supplies (while lying about Obama’s response to pandemics), and didn’t stop John Bolton from closing the pandemic preparedness office at the National Security Council (later lying that he knew nothing of it).
Trump has said repeatedly that no one could have seen this coming—just another lie. Bill Gates warned of it in a famous 2015 speech and Trump’s own NSC predicted it in a 69-page report. A Feb. 3 report from the U.S. Army estimated that “between 80,000 and 150,000 [Americans] could die” from coronavirus.
Even if the true period of negligence is longer, “The Lost Months” is resonant shorthand for what led the United States to have the most coronavirus cases of any country in the world. Repeated enough—with GOP-style message discipline—it could work as code for: He messed up big-time.
Here are just a few examples of Trump’s epic leadership failures in late February and March:
Feb. 25: Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the CDC warns the public: “Disruption to everyday life might be severe.” Two days later, an enraged Trump calls Messonnier’s boss, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, to complain that her comments were spooking the stock market. A craven Azar tells the press that Messonnier went too far.
Trump has been briefed about the severe outbreak in Italy and why the U.S. will inevitably experience something similar but he continues his magical thinking for nearly three weeks. If he had directed Americans to stay at home then, as many prudent Asian and European leaders were doing, untold thousands of lives would have been spared.`
Feb. 25, 28, March 2, 3, 5, 7, 13: Trump, known in New York, ironically, as a germophobe who often refused to shake hands, is seen on television shaking hands at least 10 times—in direct violation of one of the most important rules for preventing the spread of the virus. In April, he mentions the importance of masks when leaving the house but won’t wear one himself outside because he might have to “meet dictators.”
Feb. 28: At a campaign rally in Charleston, South Carolina, Trump compares the Democrats' criticism of his response to the epidemic to their efforts to impeach him, saying “this is their new hoax.” Twice, he downplays the severity of the outbreak, comparing it yet again to the common flu. His hundreds of tweets in February comment extensively on media trivia and insult good people during a crisis but contain little on COVID-19 and nothing on how to prevent its spread.
March 6: En route to the golf course in casual clothes and a MAGA cap (he played eight rounds in February), Trump stops by the CDC, where he says he would rather have the infected passengers of a cruise ship anchored off San Francisco stay aboard “because I like the numbers [of infected Americans] where they are.” Trump—not grasping that if you cannot test to see where the virus has spread, you cannot control it—is flanked by Azar and CDC chief Robert Redfield. They now know any pressure for more tests is off. Trump adds, “Anybody that needs a test gets a test.” This is completely false.
March 9: Trump tweets, “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!” Anyone who “thinks about that”—and knows a little math—understands that those numbers are growing exponentially and that without immediate national mitigation and 24/7 production of medical supplies, the American health care system is in imminent danger of being overwhelmed.
March 11: Schools are closing and professional sports and entertainment shutting down, but the president—unlike several governors— is still not issuing clear social distancing instructions, much less national stay-at-home directives. He is focused instead on making sure the NFL doesn’t cancel its season, too.
When the president sees televised footage that day of college students crowding Florida beaches during spring break, he tweets nothing and says nothing publicly. Nor does Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who complains that New Yorkers are bringing the virus south when it has been in his state for weeks. DeSantis, who talks to Trump daily and says he follows his lead, is weeks behind California Governor Gavin Newsom in issuing a stay-at-home order, a delay that will cost thousands of Floridians their lives. The same goes for Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who is so clueless that he doesn’t learn until April that many COVID-19 carriers are asymptomatic.
March 13: After Anthony Fauci testifies that the testing system—which continues to charge patients exorbitant fees— “is failing,” Trump is asked if he takes any responsibility for it.“No, I don’t take responsibility at all.” Even a fourth grader knows: This is the opposite of leadership.
March 15: Trump tweets that he is “NEGATIVE!” Ten days later, upon hearing the same news about Mitt Romney, he tweets sarcastically, “This is really great news! I am so happy I can barely speak.” It’s widely noted that any CEO showing this level of disrespect for a colleague amid a crisis would be immediately terminated by the board of directors.
South Korea is emerging as a vivid illustration of why testing and stay-at-home orders work. Both the U.S. and South Korea announced their very first case on the very same day—January 20. By the middle of March, South Korea reports that it has conducted 5,200 tests per one million inhabitants. That compares to 74 tests per one million inhabitants in the U.S. All told, South Korea tests nearly 10 times as many people as the U.S., though its population is only one-seventh the size.
March 16: When asked how he would rate his administration’s performance in fighting the coronavirus, Trump says, “I’d rate it a 10, I think we’ve done a great job.” At this point, the U.S. is already lagging most of the rest of the developed world in testing, medical supplies (it later accepts an emergency shipment from Russia), and social distancing and is days away from having the most cases of any nation in the world.
March 19: Trump says of the federal government, “We’re not a shipping clerk.” Unlike President Bush after Hurricane Katrina, he won’t assign a general or other logistics expert to coordinate the orderly production and distribution of critical medical supplies. This unwillingness to use the full power of the federal government in what is clearly a national, not regional, problem worsens a desperate and unnecessary struggle, as states outbid each other and the federal government outbids the states. For the next two weeks, Trump refuses to use his authority under the 1950 Defense Production Act, though the law has been invoked thousands of times by the Trump administration for drones, missiles and other military equipment.
Why did Trump wait from early February (when shortages of equipment were first identified) until April 2 to use the DPA to provide supplies to medical personnel? The ideological objections of the Chamber of Commerce and other corporate interests played a role. But the larger reason looks political: Nationalizing supply chains means assuming responsibility, which Trump dreads. It’s easier to falsely accuse fatigued doctors of hoarding, snatch precious ventilators from blue state governors, and otherwise inject petty politics into matters of life and death.
When Trump later attacks “that woman” (Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat), and says that he has told Vice President Pence not to call back any governor who is “not appreciative,” he is placing his ego above the lives of the people of Michigan and other states with Democratic governors.
March 20: Peter Alexander of NBC News asks the president, "What do you say to Americans who are scared?” An angry Trump snaps: “I say that you are a terrible reporter.” Trump’s lack of empathy for what Americans are going through is another sign of his failed leadership and stands in sharp contrast to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and other governors in both parties, who step up to show genuine compassion and concern.
We later learn that the “active phase” of the federal response finally begins that day, under the management of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who has no background in anything relevant to the crisis and quickly shows he is out of his depth. That week, the South Korean government announces that its schools will soon re-open and the epidemic there is under control.
“The Lost Months” arguably began on Jan. 20, 2020, when the first U.S. case of coronavirus was identified in the Seattle area. Exactly one year later, at noon on January 20, 2021, a new term begins for the President of the United States. Who takes the oath that day depends on whether we choose amnesia—or a reckoning.