the national interest

As the World Reaches for Face Masks, Trump Buries His Head in the Sand

At the coronavirus news conference. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

As a private germophobe and very public xenophobe, Donald Trump has the intuitive disposition to grasp the severity of a global epidemic that originated in China. And yet in the early stages of what may explode into a full-blown crisis, Trump is making it clear that he is not the Churchill of the coronavirus. Whatever attributes he possesses that suit him to the task are overwhelmed by negative qualities: profound superficiality, a paranoid fixation on loyalty, and a near-pathological focus on short-term gratification.

Trump inherited from his predecessor a large and capable corps of disease-prevention experts, including ones who guided the country through the 2014 Ebola outbreak and deliberately pared it back. Several officials in charge of pandemic response — Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert; Dr. Luciana Borio, the National Security Council director for medical and biodefense preparedness; and Tim Ziemer, the NSC senior director for global health security and biodefense — have left or were fired since 2018. The global health community has been raising alarms for two years about the administration’s lack of preparedness. “These moves make us materially less safe. It’s inexplicable,” complained the Center for Global Development’s Jeremy Konyndyk when Ziemer departed and his staff was dissolved. An administration official explained the rationale to the Washington Post at the time, “In a world of limited resources, you have to pick and choose.” And since there was no terrifying global pandemic at that moment, preparing for one didn’t seem like a priority.

Bleeding the department charged with protecting our health seems bafflingly risky. From Trump’s perspective, though, it looks like a shrewd streamlining process. Throughout his first term, the president has grown increasingly obsessed with internal subversion. He has reportedly been working through lists of officials his loyalists suspect of harboring impure thoughts about the president. The coronavirus has hit at the moment when Trump is intensifying an ongoing purge of the entire federal bureaucracy of any official suspected of disloyalty. “The federal government is massive, with millions of people — and there are a lot of folks out there taking action against this president, and if we find them, we will take appropriate action,” warned White House spokesman Hogan Gidley just last week.

It is fair to assume that the supply of employees possessing both high levels of technical expertise and hearts purely devoted to Donald Trump is finite. Even as the crisis has appeared, though, the president has evinced far deeper concern with his staff’s loyalty than its competence.

Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio host recently honored by Trump with a Medal of Freedom, has argued the coronavirus is a phantasmal threat being inflated by Democrats in order to spook the markets and thereby hurt Trump. Limbaugh insinuated that Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was directing the plot. “Somebody, quick, find out who she donates to politically,” he told listeners. “M-e-s-s-o-n-n-i-e-r, Dr. Nancy, CDC. I want to find out who she donates to.” To be clear: Messonnier’s offense was disseminating accurate information about the virus’s spread. Trump appears to have absorbed this bizarre conspiracy theory. “The president’s anger about the CDC briefing yesterday,” reported CNBC’s Eamon Javers, “is focused on Dr. Nancy Messonnier.”

In an attempt to counteract the harmful effect of truthful information from his remaining experts, Trump took control of the message. “Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible,” he tweeted, attempting to assure the public of his mastery of the virus, even if he had not yet learned how to spell it correctly. Finding himself in the role of national comforter seemed to discomfit the president. Pandemic response calls for competence and establishing trust, both qualities of which he is bereft. Trump performs best when he can locate a foil to bully, yet the virus — unlike a trade partner or opposing politician — offered no such target. Unless he planned to unveil a mean nickname for COVID-19, none of the tools in his bag seemed to work.

At a news conference attempting to stem the panic, Trump announced that Vice-President Mike Pence would lead the response, a claim that was quickly contradicted by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who told reporters he still chaired the task force. The president shared with his reporters his shock at his recent discovery that influenza is deadly. “The flu in our country kills from 29,000 people to 69,000 people a year,” he said. “That was shocking to me.”

When a reporter asked why his proposed 2021 budget would massively cut back medical research and public-health funding, Trump, rather than obfuscate, oddly leaned in to the premise and boasted about his frugality. “Some of the people we cut, they haven’t been used for many, many years, and if we ever need them, we can get them very quickly. And rather than spending the money — I’m a businessperson, I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need ’em, when we need ’em, we can get them back very quickly.” Why pay medical experts to conduct research and maintain a public-health infrastructure year after year when you can just hire them up after the epidemic hits? As Homer Simpson once complained, “We’re always buying Maggie vaccinations for diseases she doesn’t even have.”

The most striking thing about Trump’s response has been his insistence on viewing the episode through the prism of the stock market. To the extent the stock market matters, it is as an indication of a broader risk to the economy. The market’s plunge matters because it suggests the possibility of an economic contraction. If the economy does not suffer from the virus, the market will recover its loss. If the economy goes into recession, the recession, not the advance signal of it sent via the stock market, will be the problem. Yet Trump has acted both publicly and privately as though sustaining the stock market is his ultimate goal. Trump has “become furious about the stock market’s slide” and told aides not to say anything that might cause a drop, the Post reported. At his news conference, he preposterously insisted the market had dropped in response to the Democratic-primary debate, rather than the global crisis.

Trump has long viewed the stock market as a measure of his success. It matters intensively to his rich friends. Perhaps more importantly, the market’s daily performance is often splayed across the television screens he stares at for hours on end, substituting for the numerical affirmation polling has never provided him. Trump does not play the long game or the medium game. He is likely incapable of focusing on any broader goal than making the red downward arrows on his television go away.

“Most people are surprised by the way I work. I play it very loose. I don’t carry a briefcase. I try not to schedule too many meetings. I leave my door open. You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops,” he wrote in his first autobiography. “I plan for the future by focusing exclusively on the present.”

Trump has consistently resolved any trade-off between long-term and short-term objectives in favor of the latter. Balloon the deficit to wring a little more juice out of an already healthy economy? Sure. Pump more pollution into the air and water in order to goose the energy sector? Why not? The costs will be borne by somebody else. But it is possible that, for once, the price he has exacted on the country will be due before he has fled the scene.

*This article appears in the March 2, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Trump Will Not Be the Churchill of the Coronavirus