It was one of many days that U.S. deaths from the novel coronavirus hit a new peak, but President Donald Trump seemed determined to maintain a positive tone.
“It’s a beautiful day in Washington, D.C., and we’re getting better every day,” the president said at last Friday’s daily briefing on the virus that has crippled the nation. “You’ll see bad things and then you’re going to see some very good things.”
Two days later, Trump was even more optimistic. “We see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. But earlier Sunday, the government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” “We are struggling to get it under control.”
As the virus spreads and afflicts more Americans in more states and cities, the disconnect between Trump and his own scientific advisers has grown as the president presses to “open our country up” and restore the vibrant pre-virus economy he hoped would spur his reelection.
When Trump announced the Centers for Disease Control recommendation that all Americans wear a face covering outside, he said he would ignore it.
After Dr. Fauci declared on CNN, “I don’t understand why all states are not under stay-at-home orders,” Trump indicated his guidance there too was voluntary. “I leave it up to the governors,” he said.
For three years, Trump has shown himself to be a different kind of president. Now, he is showing he is a different kind of “wartime president.” This is no Franklin Roosevelt, invoking federal powers and naming “czars” to manage wartime production, prices and wages, nor a George H. W. Bush mobilizing a global coalition against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, nor a Harry Truman proclaiming, “The buck stops here.”
At times, he resembles Herbert Hoover repeatedly saying the worst was over as the depression deepened, or Lyndon Johnson seeing a bright light at the end of every Vietnamese tunnel.
In reality, it is the same Donald Trump, repeatedly commending himself for doing “a great job” (or being “No. 1 on Facebook”) while blaming shortcomings on others, be it Barack Obama or the governors he accused of exaggerating their needs for lifesaving equipment or failing to do enough testing.
Trump has repeatedly downplayed the federal government’s leading role in coping with what he proclaimed as a national emergency and, with it, his own responsibility for the disaster that has overtaken the country.
“I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump declared when asked about the administration’s lag in providing test kits to determine who had the virus.
When he took over, he said, “the (government’s) shelves were empty” of necessary equipment. While some materials were depleted by use during the Obama years, Trump has had three years to fill any lack of equipment.
He’s lately used his daily briefings to push his personal panacea, a drug called hydroxychloroquine that treats malaria and lupus, though its use against this virus is neither proven nor approved. “What have you got to lose?” he asked Sunday.
Dr. Fauci has been among the skeptics but, when reporters sought his view, the president blocked the 79-year-old expert from replying.
Trump showed concern about how his management of the crisis may be judged by reacting defensively when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a special committee to monitor administration dispersal of billions in federal aid funds. He called it yet another “witch hunt,” perhaps confusing the panel with proposals for a 9/11-style commission to study how the administration has handled the crisis.
In time, there’ll be something like that. When it does, these three main areas seem likely to command its attention:
• The administration’s lack of preparedness. Despite Trump’s statement “Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion,” Obama officials briefed his aides in January 2017 of the potential danger. In 2019, the intelligence community warned “the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy.”
• Trump’s slow response. For more than two months, he downplayed the threat, ignoring warnings from political allies, officials like Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and even a top White House aide, Peter Navarro. Just one month ago, Trump declared, “we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away.” Even his Jan. 31 China travel ban from China was only partial; thousands have flown here since then.
• His mismanagement of the crisis. Trump has rejected proposals to name a single person to manage the situation. Authority is divided among two task forces, one under Vice President Mike Pence, one under son-in-law Jared Kushner. Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, under which the government can compel private firms to produce needed items, but only used it sparingly. And he undercut warnings from scientific advisers for more extensive restrictions by repeatedly expressing hope the country could soon reopen for business.
Throughout his business and political careers, Trump has displayed a Houdini-like ability to escape the consequences when economic or political disaster threatened. The coronavirus crisis is challenging all his abilities to keep doing so.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: email@example.com.