As of this writing, the coronavirus has killed nearly 1,000 New Yorkers. In America’s most populous city, the ranks of the severely ill have grown so large, authorities are setting up field hospitals in Central Park — while the dead are piling up so fast, health-care workers are turning refrigerated trucks into makeshift morgues.
And things are going to get worse before they get better.
Donald Trump put great emphasis on this point in public remarks Sunday. “The modeling estimates that the peak in death rate is likely to hit in two weeks,” the president said from the White House Rose Garden. “I will say it again. The peak — the highest point of death rates — remember this, is likely to hit in two weeks.”
New York didn’t need Trump’s reminder; the state has been frantically (if belatedly) preparing for a surge in COVID-19 patients. But it does need the Trump administration’s help in securing the medical equipment necessary to prevent health-care workers from being forced to decide which treatable patients get to live or die.
And the president said Monday that no such aid would be forthcoming because — like a pampered child who demands new toys before he’s even unwrapped the ones he’s just received — New York is demanding more ventilators despite already having more ventilators than it is currently using to keep severely ill people alive.
As CNN’s Abby Phillips reports:
Last week, Trump expressed incredulity at the idea that hospitals that had previously been capable of getting by with relatively few ventilators were now demanding an order of magnitude more ventilators, as though some improbable, catastrophic respiratory illness had rapidly increased their need for machines that help people breathe or something.
“I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators,” the president said of New York in an interview with Sean Hannity. “You know you go into major hospitals sometimes they’ll have two ventilators and now, all of a sudden, they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’”
On Sunday, lead member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force Dr. Anthony Fauci said that New York needs 30,000 ventilators.
There are (at least) two ways of interpreting the dissonance in Trump’s remarks over the past 48 hours — which is to say, his simultaneous declaration that the peak in coronavirus cases is still to come and condemnation of New York for requesting more ventilators than it needs right now.
The first is that the president is arguing in bad faith, his actions motivated by a combination of cynicism and spite: His goals are simply to (1) disavow responsibility for any potential shortages in medical equipment in New York by insisting that the state has the tools it needs and is simply mismanaging them, and (2) coerce Democratic governors into issuing public praise for his handling of the crisis (which can then be excerpted for campaign ads) by punishing those who dare to suggest his administration has not provided adequate support.
This view has much to support it. Last week, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer suggested that the federal government was discouraging vendors from sending medical equipment to her state. Trump subsequently lent credence to this allegation by saying his White House doesn’t “like to see the complaints,” and that governors demanding federal help should “be appreciative” of what his administration has already done.
Meanwhile, there is some evidence of potentially politically motivated discrepancies in the distribution of federal aid between states.
But there is an alternative interpretation of Trump’s remarks: The man genuinely cannot comprehend the concept of planning for the future.
This may sound absurd, but the president’s condemnation of New York attempting to secure more ventilators than it needs today — so as to prepare for heightened demand for such machines tomorrow — is not hypocritical. In fact, his own approach to the coronavirus crisis appears rooted in a principled belief in living (and/or governing) for the moment.
Throughout February, the president repeatedly assured the public that the coronavirus was “very much under control in the USA,” in defiance of the assessments of his own public-health advisers. He insisted that the risk to the American people was very low, and that they need not plan for severe disruptions to their ordinary lives, as the CDC had warned. These statements had no long-term strategic logic. “Fake it till you make it” may work for securing financing for a half-baked development project or winning the U.S. presidency. But you can’t bluster a pandemic disease out of existence. Trump’s reassurances made sense as a tactic for changing the tenor of one day’s cable news coverage, or replacing red arrows with green ones on the afternoon’s stock ticker. But once the sun set, all his remarks accomplished was to provide his adversaries with fodder for portraying him as a clueless leader whose promises of safety can’t be trusted, and his allies with a rationale for ignoring public-health advice and thus exacerbating a crisis that now threatens his reelection. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to discern any strategic logic whatsoever to Trump’s insinuation Sunday that the only explanation for why New York City hospitals suddenly need so many N95 masks is that someone (hospital workers?) is stealing them. Throwing out such a conspiracy theory might be a sound means of momentarily avoiding owning up to the uncomfortable truth that the federal government isn’t in a position to provide all hospitals with all the equipment they need right now, for reasons that Donald Trump is and is not personally responsible for. But from a longer-term political perspective, it’s hard to imagine a constituency less ripe for public demonization at this moment than Americans who work in hospitals full of COVID-19 patients.
It’s possible, then, that Trump is merely asking Andrew Cuomo to handle this crisis as he would — namely, by triumphantly declaring the permanent end of New York’s ventilator shortage.
Whether it is more generous to interpret the president’s behavior as betraying a genuine inability to comprehend the concept of planning for the future — or else, a malevolent desire to deny lifesaving aid to the residents of states whose governors dare besmirch his name — is difficult to say.