“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.
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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 died on 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 placed its 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 tweeted again 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.
On January 31, the Trump administration at last did something: It announced restrictions on air travel to and from China by non-U.S. persons. This January 31 decision to restrict air travel has become Trump’s most commonly proffered defense of his actions. “We’ve done an incredible job because we closed early,” Trump said on February 27. “We closed those borders very early, against the advice of a lot of professionals, and we turned out to be right. I took a lot of heat for that,” he repeated on March 4. Trump praised himself some more at a Fox News town hall in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the next day. “As soon as I heard that China had a problem, I said, ‘What’s going on with China? How many people are coming in?’ Nobody but me asked that question. And you know better than—again, you know … that I closed the borders very early.”
Because Trump puts so much emphasis on this point, it’s important to stress that none of this is true. Trump did not close the borders early—in fact, he did not truly close them at all.
The World Health Organization declared a global health emergency on January 30, but recommended against travel restrictions. On January 31, the same day the United States announced its restrictions, Italy suspended all flights to and from China. But unlike the American restrictions, which did not take effect until February 2, the Italian ban applied immediately. Australia acted on February 1, halting entries from China by foreign nationals, again ahead of Trump.
And Trump’s actions did little to stop the spread of the virus. The ban applied only to foreign nationals who had been in China during the previous 14 days, and included 11 categories of exceptions. Since the restrictions took effect, nearly 40,000 passengers have entered the United States from China, subjected to inconsistent screenings, The New York Times reported.
At a House hearing on February 5, a few days after the restrictions went into effect, Ron Klain—who led the Obama administration’s efforts against the Ebola outbreak—condemned the Trump policy as a “travel Band-Aid, not a travel ban.”
That same afternoon, Trump’s impeachment trial ended with his acquittal in the Senate. The president, though, turned his energy not to combatting the virus, but to the demands of his own ego.
The president’s top priority through February 2020 was to exact retribution from truth-tellers in the impeachment fight. On February 7, Trump removed Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council. On February 12, Trump withdrew his nomination of Jessie Liu as undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial crimes, apparently to punish her for her role in the prosecution and conviction of the Trump ally Roger Stone. On March 2, Trump withdrew the nomination of Elaine McCusker to the post of Pentagon comptroller; McCusker’s sin was having raised concerns that suspension of aid to Ukraine had been improper. Late on the evening of April 3, Trump fired Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, the official who had forwarded the Ukraine whistleblower complaint to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, as the law required. As the epigrammist Windsor Mann tweeted that same night: “Trump’s impeachment distracted him from preparing for a pandemic, but the pandemic did not distract him from firing the man he holds responsible for his impeachment.”
Intentionally or not, Trump’s campaign of payback against his perceived enemies in the impeachment battle sent a warning to public-health officials: Keep your mouth shut. If anybody missed the message, the firing of Captain Brett Crozier from the command of an aircraft carrier for speaking honestly about the danger facing his sailors was a reminder. There’s a reason that the surgeon general of the United States seems terrified to answer even the most basic factual questions or that Rear Admiral John Polowczyk sounds like a malfunctioning artificial-intelligence program at press briefings. The president’s lies must not be contradicted. And because the president’s lies change constantly, it’s impossible to predict what might contradict him.
“BEST USA ECONOMY IN HISTORY!” Trump tweeted on February 11. On February 15, Trump shared a video from a Senate GOP account, tweeting: “Our booming economy is drawing Americans off the sidelines and BACK TO WORK at the highest rate in 30 years!”
Denial became the unofficial policy of the administration through the month of February, and as a result, that of the administration’s surrogates and propagandists. “It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump,” Rush Limbaugh said on his radio program February 24. “Now, I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus … Yeah, I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.”
“We have contained this,” Trump’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC on February 24. “I won’t say airtight, but pretty close to airtight. We have done a good job in the United States.” Kudlow conceded that there might be “some stumbles” in financial markets, but insisted there would be no “economic tragedy.”
On February 28, then–White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference, near Washington, D.C.:
The reason you’re ... seeing so much attention to [the virus] today is that [the media] think this is gonna be what brings down this president. This is what this is all about. I got a note from a reporter saying, “What are you gonna do today to calm the markets.” I’m like: Really, what I might do today to calm the markets is tell people to turn their televisions off for 24 hours ... This is not Ebola, okay? It’s not SARS, it’s not MERS.
That same day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo scolded a House committee for daring to ask him about the coronavirus. “We agreed that I’d come today to talk about Iran, and the first question today is not about Iran.”
Throughout the crisis, the top priority of the president, and of everyone who works for the president, has been the protection of his ego. Americans have become sadly used to Trump’s blustery self-praise and his insatiable appetite for flattery. During the pandemic, this psychological deformity has mutated into a deadly strategic vulnerability for the United States.
“If we were doing a bad job, we should also be criticized. But we have done an incredible job,” Trump said on February 27. “We’re doing a great job with it,” he told Republican senators on March 10. “I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning,” he tweeted on March 18.
For three-quarters of his presidency, Trump has taken credit for the economic expansion that began under President Barack Obama in 2010. That expansion accelerated in 2014, just in time to deliver real prosperity over the past three years. The harm done by Trump’s own initiatives, and especially his trade wars, was masked by that continued growth. The economy Trump inherited became his all-purpose answer to his critics. Did he break laws, corrupt the Treasury, appoint cronies, and tell lies? So what? Unemployment was down, the stock market up.
Suddenly, in 2020, the rooster that had taken credit for the sunrise faced the reality of sunset. He could not bear it.
Underneath all the denial and self-congratulation, Trump seems to have glimpsed the truth. The clearest statement of that knowledge was expressed on February 28. That day, Trump spoke at a rally in South Carolina—his penultimate rally before the pandemic forced him to stop. This was the rally at which Trump accused the Democrats of politicizing the coronavirus as “their new hoax.” That line was so shocking, it has crowded out awareness of everything else Trump said that day. Yet those other statements are, if possible, even more relevant to understanding the trouble he brought upon the country.
Trump does not speak clearly. His patterns of speech betray a man with guilty secrets to hide, and a beclouded mind. Yet we can discern, through the mental fog, that Trump had absorbed some crucial facts. By February 28, somebody in his orbit seemed to already be projecting 35,000 to 40,000 deaths from the coronavirus. Trump remembered the number, but refused to believe it. His remarks are worth revisiting at length:
Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus, you know that, right? Coronavirus, they’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs. You say, “How’s President Trump doing?” They go, “Oh, not good, not good.” They have no clue. They don’t have any clue. They can’t even count their votes in Iowa. They can’t even count. No, they can’t. They can’t count their votes.
One of my people came up to me and said, “Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.” That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything. They tried it over and over. They’d been doing it since you got in. It’s all turning. They lost. It’s all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax.
But we did something that’s been pretty amazing. We have 15 people [sick] in this massive country, and because of the fact that we went early. We went early; we could have had a lot more than that. We’re doing great. Our country is doing so great. We are so unified. We are so unified. The Republican Party has never ever been unified like it is now. There has never been a movement in the history of our country like we have now. Never been a movement.
So a statistic that we want to talk about—Go ahead: Say USA. It’s okay; USA. So a number that nobody heard of, that I heard of recently and I was shocked to hear it: 35,000 people on average die each year from the flu. Did anyone know that? Thirty-five thousand, that’s a lot of people. It could go to 100,000; it could be 27,000. They say usually a minimum of 27, goes up to 100,000 people a year die.
And so far, we have lost nobody to coronavirus in the United States. Nobody. And it doesn’t mean we won’t and we are totally prepared. It doesn’t mean we won’t, but think of it. You hear 35 and 40,000 people and we’ve lost nobody and you wonder, the press is in hysteria mode.
On February 28, very few Americans had heard of an estimated death toll of 35,000 to 40,000, but Trump had heard it. And his answer to that estimate was: “So far, we have lost nobody.” He conceded, “It doesn’t mean we won’t.” But he returned to his happy talk. “We are totally prepared.” And as always, it was the media's fault. “You hear 35 and 40,000 people and we’ve lost nobody and you wonder, the press is in hysteria mode.”
By February 28, it was too late to exclude the coronavirus from the United States. It was too late to test and trace, to isolate the first cases and halt their further spread—that opportunity had already been lost. It was too late to refill the stockpiles that the Republican Congresses of the Tea Party years had refused to replenish, despite frantic pleas from the Obama administration. It was too late to produce sufficient ventilators in sufficient time.
But on February 28, it was still not too late to arrange an orderly distribution of medical supplies to the states, not too late to coordinate with U.S. allies, not too late to close the Florida beaches before spring break, not too late to bring passengers home from cruise lines, not too late to ensure that state unemployment-insurance offices were staffed and ready, not too late for local governments to get funds to food banks, not too late to begin social distancing fast and early. Stay-at-home orders could have been put into effect on March 1, not in late March and early April.
So much time had been wasted by the end of February. So many opportunities had been squandered. But even then, the shock could have been limited. Instead, Trump and his inner circle plunged deeper into two weeks of lies and denial, both about the disease and about the economy.
On February 28, Eric Trump urged Americans to go “all in” on the weakening stock market.
Kudlow repeated his advice that it was a good time to buy stocks on CNBC on March 6 after another bad week for the financial markets. As late as March 9, Trump was still arguing that the coronavirus would be no worse than the seasonal flu.
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!
But the facade of denial was already cracking.
Through early March, financial markets declined and then crashed. Schools closed, then whole cities, and then whole states. The overwhelmed president responded by doing what comes most naturally to him at moments of trouble: He shifted the blame to others.
The lack of testing equipment? On March 13, Trump passed that buck to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Obama administration.
The White House had dissolved the directorate of the National Security Council responsible for planning for and responding to pandemics? Not me, Trump said on March 13. Maybe somebody else in the administration did it, but “I didn’t do it ... I don’t know anything about it. You say we did that. I don’t know anything about it.”
Were ventilators desperately scarce? Obtaining medical equipment was the governors’ job, Trump said on a March 16 conference call.
Did Trump delay action until it was far too late? That was the fault of the Chinese government for withholding information, he complained on March 21.
On March 27, Trump attributed his own broken promises about ventilator production to General Motors, now headed by a woman unworthy of even a last name: “Always a mess with Mary B.”
Masks, gowns, and gloves were running short only because hospital staff were stealing them, Trump suggested on March 29.
Was the national emergency medical stockpile catastrophically depleted? Trump’s campaign creatively tried to pin that on mistakes Joe Biden made back in 2009.
At his press conference on April 2, Trump blamed the shortage of lifesaving equipment, and the ensuing panic-buying, on states’ failure to build their own separate stockpile. “They have to work that out. What they should do is they should’ve—long before this pandemic arrived—they should’ve been on the open market just buying. There was no competition; you could have made a great price. The states have to stock up. It’s like one of those things. They waited. They didn’t want to spend the money, because they thought this would never happen.”
Were New Yorkers dying? On April 2, Trump fired off a peevish letter to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer: “If you spent less time on your ridiculous impeachment hoax, which went haplessly on forever and ended up going nowhere (except increasing my poll numbers), and instead focused on helping the people of New York, then New York would not have been so completely unprepared for the ‘invisible enemy.’”
Trump’s instinct to dodge and blame had devastating consequences for Americans. Every governor and mayor who needed the federal government to take action, every science and medical adviser who hoped to prevent Trump from doing something stupid or crazy, had to reckon with Trump’s psychic needs as their single biggest problem.
As his medical advisers sought to dissuade Trump from proceeding with his musing about reopening the country by Easter, April 12, Deborah Birx—the White House’s coronavirus-response coordinator—appeared on the evangelical CBN network to deliver this abject flattery: “[Trump is] so attentive to the scientific literature & the details & the data. I think his ability to analyze & integrate data that comes out of his long history in business has really been a real benefit.”
Governors got the message too. “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” Trump explained at a White House press briefing on March 27. The federal response has been dogged by suspicions of favoritism for political and personal allies of Trump. The District of Columbia has seen its requests denied, while Florida gets everything it asks for.
The weeks of Trump-administration denial and delay have triggered a desperate scramble among states. The Trump administration is allocating some supplies through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but has made the deliberate choice to allow large volumes of crucial supplies to continue to be distributed by commercial firms to their clients. That has left state governments bidding against one another, as if the 1787 Constitution had never been signed, and we have no national government.
In his panic, Trump is sacrificing U.S. alliances abroad, attempting to recoup his own failure by turning predator. German and French officials accuse the Trump administration of diverting supplies they had purchased to the United States. On April 3, the North American company 3M publicly rebuked the Trump administration for its attempt to embargo medical exports to Canada, where 3M has operated seven facilities for 70 years.
Around the world, allies are registering that in an emergency, when it matters most, the United States has utterly failed to lead. Perhaps the only political leader in Canada ever to say a good word about Donald Trump, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, expressed disgust at an April 3 press conference. “I just can’t stress how disappointed I am at President Trump ... I’m not going to rely on President Trump,” he said. “I’m not going to rely on any prime minister or president from any country ever again.” Ford argued for a future of Canadian self-sufficiency. Trump’s nationalist selfishness is proving almost as contagious as the virus itself—and could ultimately prove as dangerous, too.
As the pandemic kills, as the economic depression tightens its grip, Donald Trump has consistently put his own needs first. Right now, when his only care should be to beat the pandemic, Trump is renegotiating his debts with his bankers and lease payments with Palm Beach County.
He has never tried to be president of the whole United States, but at most 46 percent of it, to the extent that serving even the 46 percent has been consistent with his supreme concerns: stealing, loafing, and whining. Now he is not even serving the 46 percent. The people most victimized by his lies and fantasies are the people who trusted him, the more conservative Americans who harmed themselves to prove their loyalty to Trump. An Arkansas pastor told The Washington Post of congregants “ready to lick the floor” to support the president’s claim that there is nothing to worry about. On March 15, the Trump-loyal governor of Oklahoma tweeted a since-deleted photo of himself and his children at a crowded restaurant buffet. “Eating with my kids and all my fellow Oklahomans at the @CollectiveOKC. It’s packed tonight!” Those who took their cues from Trump and the media who propagandized for him, and all Americans, will suffer for it.
Governments often fail. From Pearl Harbor to the financial crisis of 2008, you can itemize a long list of missed warnings and overlooked dangers that cost lives and inflicted hardship. But in the past, Americans could at least expect public spirit and civic concern from their presidents.
Trump has mouthed the slogan “America first,” but he has never acted on it. It has always been “Trump first.” His business first. His excuses first. His pathetic vanity first.
Trump has taken millions in payments from the Treasury. He has taken millions in payments from U.S. businesses and foreign governments. He has taken millions in payments from the Republican Party and his own inaugural committee. He has taken so much that does not belong to him, that was unethical and even illegal for him to take. But responsibility? No, he will not take that.
Yet responsibility falls upon Trump, whether he takes it or not. No matter how much he deflects and insults and snivels and whines, this American catastrophe is on his hands and on his head.