President Trump spent the first month and a half of the coronavirus pandemic wishing away the descending crisis with a stream of lies: The virus had been contained due to his wise foresight; the numbers would go down; Democrats and the media were fomenting hysteria over nothing.
Now a national disaster lies so close at hand that Trump’s closest allies are panicking. The president is now changing his strategy from denial to blame-shifting. “I don’t take any responsibility at all,” he insisted Friday, when asked why supposed FDA red tape he inherited was still somehow preventing him from conducting virus tests three years into his presidency. Asked at the same press conference why he eliminated the White House pandemic-response unit he inherited, Trump said he had no involvement in, or even knowledge of, the reworking of the highest levels of the executive branch: “When you say ‘me,’ I didn’t do it … I don’t know about that.”
Trump bluffed his way through the Friday press conference, making promises that subsequently dissolved upon inspection, helping to set off a brief stock-market rally. He naturally claimed personal responsibility. “They said, ‘Sir, you just set a new record in the history of the stock market,’” he boasted Saturday, as if the Dow Jones Industrial Average were the New York City Marathon and he had just won it. But the gains quickly disappeared, and Trump has reverted to his strategy of shirking all responsibility.
It is impossible to think of a national disaster remotely approaching this scale in which so much decision-making authority has devolved to state and local authorities. The most important decisions have concerned whether, and how, to close public spaces. Mayors and governors have made a series of individual decisions. The national void is so gaping that New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut banded together to form a joint policy, as if we were living under the Articles of Confederation.
Trump’s normally chaotic decision-making structure has grown even more so. “People just show up in the Oval and spout off ideas,” a former senior administration official told the Washington Post. “He’ll either shoot down ideas or embrace ideas quickly. It’s an ad hoc free-for-all with different advisers just spitballing.” Jared Kushner, who has no relevant expertise, has at times taken charge of the response. His sister-in-law’s father was crowdsourcing ideas on Facebook to pass on to the president. After the Post’s harrowing story broke, the White House removed photos revealing Kushner’s presence at the coronavirus task-force meeting.
The government is in fact brimming with sensible, urgently needed ideas to redress the crisis. The problem is that none of those ideas are coming from Trump. Joe Biden proposed having the military prepare to set up field hospitals to handle the coming overflow of patients that will exceed the limits of the medical system. Mitt Romney has endorsed a $1,000-per-adult cash payment to prop up consumer demand. New York governor Andrew Cuomo suggested several measures, including uniform standards for closings, backed by payments to cushion the blow.
The paradox of these suggestions is that Trump is characteristically loath to endorse any ideas associated with his political rivals. Not only do his advisers have to convince him of the merits of these ideas, but they have to persuade him that the ideas are his own, the way they sneak vegetables into his mashed potatoes.
At a conference call with governors, many of whom are deeply concerned about the shortage of respirators and ventilators that will be needed to save coronavirus patients, Trump insisted they, not him, should solve it. “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves,” he offered.
Just think for a moment about this plan. All 50 governors, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, should all be conducting their own searches for equipment and bargaining individually. Trump’s explanation, captured on recording, was, “Point of sales, much better, much more direct if you can get it yourself.” As if states have more power and budgetary authority to acquire scarce equipment than the federal government. And as if states are better to allocate the scarce equipment themselves. What if you happen to live in a state with a governor who did a bad job of haggling for ventilators? Tough luck.
In response to Cuomo’s plea that Trump assume more leadership for the crisis, he threw the accusation back in Cuomo’s face, using his favorite I’m-rubber-you’re-glue rebuttal technique.
Here is the president of the United States being asked respectfully by a governor to take command of the response to a massive, deadly national crisis, and his answer is to throw the same request back at the governor. No, you run the country, sneers the president. The United States is veering into a crisis that is being tackled on the fly by state and local authorities because the leader of the executive branch has virtually abdicated all power. Nothing like this has happened in American history since at least the presidency of James Buchanan, who was widely regarded as the worst president in American history, but who may very soon relinquish that ignominy to the current occupant of his office.