President Trump has deflected the blame for his inept response to the coronavirus onto an astonishing number of people and entities: China, the Obama administration, governors, General Motors, hospital thieves, among others. But no excuse is quite as audacious as the one that is being prepared on his behalf by Republican allies: It’s Congress’ fault for impeaching Trump, thus distracting him from responding to the coronavirus.
Conservative columnist Henry Olsen floated this argument last week. “As a result [of impeachment], the White House was focused on addressing this threat to its survival,” he argued, “not on preparing for a threat from China that might never even materialize.” Mitch McConnell repeated it on talk radio today. (“ I think [impeachment] diverted the attention of the government, because everything every day was all about impeachment.”) We may hear more of this soon. Rick Wilson reports, “A source at a conservative firm doing Trump/RNC work tells me the Message of the Day is ‘Impeachment kept Trump from focusing on the virus.’”
Apparently, Republicans believe this argument somehow makes Trump look good. It does not.
First, when Republicans suggest impeachment distracted the government or the administration, one might wonder precisely which parts of the administration they’re thinking of. The way government works is that different agencies and offices handle different subjects so that the government is equipped to deal with multiple challenges that may be occurring simultaneously.
The job of coordinating a response to a pandemic should fall to the pandemic-response team at the National Security Council, but Trump eliminated that in 2018. The absence of a central, high-level office to coordinate such a response is the main organizational flaw — but since Trump created that problem, Republicans can’t harp on it. In the absence of such an office, responsibility is scattered across multiple nodes, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in particular, and the Department of Homeland Security. None of those agencies were tied down by impeachment.
I suppose Republicans might argue that, having eliminated the pandemic-response team, it fell to Trump to personally take command of the coronavirus response, but he was unable to do so because of impeachment. Poor Trump, buried for days on end in complex legal briefs and memos, could not find time in his schedule for urgent briefings by his desperate public-health experts. However, it happens to be the case that Trump was spending hours of his days binge-watching cable news and recording his reactions on Twitter. And since Trump records his favorite shows on a DVR, there was plenty of time in his schedule to work in a coronavirus briefing. Even if January was an incredibly scintillating stretch of Fox & Friends programming, Trump had the technological wherewithal to pause the show and make some plans to handle the deadly virus that was terrifying public-health experts and then resume watching his shows.
What’s more, the one correct timely move Trump did make to safeguard the country from the coronavirus, halting travel from China, happened at the peak of impeachment. He announced the travel cessation on January 31, one week before the Senate trial concluded. It seems difficult for Republicans to insist impeachment prevented Trump from focusing on the coronavirus when the action they demand he get more credit for taking was done during impeachment.
Suppose, however, we assume that Trump’s schedule of impeachment defense and cable-television marathons was both completely inviolate and meaningfully precluded him from focusing on the virus. The argument still has other problems. For one, even after impeachment ended, Trump did not shift into coronavirus overdrive. Quite the opposite. He spent weeks in denial mode, even raging at officials (like Dr. Nancy Messonnier) who did warn that the virus posed a real threat. His complacent position filtered through the administration. It was on February 5 — just as impeachment was ending — that Senator Chris Murphy presciently warned that the executive branch had failed to take meaningful action:
Trump did not declare a national emergency until March 13, five weeks after impeachment. Whatever combination of myopia, self-delusion, and distrust of scientific expertise caused Trump to refuse to take the threat seriously, impeachment was weeks behind him before he finally roused himself.
Olsen preposterously argues that the accusations of abuse of power deterred Trump from taking further action. “Given that impeachment managers were regularly calling Trump a king or incipient dictator,” he writes, “a more forceful response against the virus in January or early February likely wouldn’t have gone over well.” This would be a reasonable argument if you think Democrats would have denounced steps like coordinating public health and manufacturing more ventilators and protective medical gear as an abuse of power.
Olsen’s argument also implies that Trump was somehow so stung by the charge of abuse of power that he shrunk from handling even uncontroversial uses of his office, like preparing for a pandemic. Just the opposite. He has, in fact, continued to abuse power. Indeed, he is eerily mimicking the same abuse over which he was impeached.
The question at issue in impeachment was: Can the president turn powers that he is supposed to exercise in a neutral fashion into tools of leverage for political gain? Trump is doing that again, abusing his control over emergency relief to extort governors. They have to supply fawning quotes about his leadership, which Trump immediately turns into campaign-ad fodder, or else risk their state being sent to the back of the line. His coronavirus management makes the decision to impeach him last year more, not less, relevant.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this excuse is what it concedes. To say impeachment distracted Trump from handling the coronavirus is to admit he failed. If he didn’t fail, there was no distraction and the charge is meaningless. Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton both famously responded to impeachment by working to prove they could still do their job anyway. Trump’s defenders are arguing that he could not. Trump was so distracted by impeachment that, where Nixon and Clinton kept working on behalf of the public interest, Trump stopped.
Now the country is plunging into an economic and public-health crisis Trump failed to take timely steps to avert, because he was unable to concentrate during the crucial period. This is not what his critics say. This is the defense his own allies are making!