Guiding the United States through a pandemic would be a difficult task for any president under any circumstance. The challenge has grown more forbidding by barriers decades in the making — the skeletal social safety net, with its patchy access to health care and pressure placed on sick workers to keep earning money — as well as President Trump’s decision to dismantle the White House pandemic response team.
The most basic necessity for grappling with the coronavirus is understanding how pandemics work. And Trump revealed in his Oval Office speech that he does not comprehend the most basic facts.
Trump’s speech had no mention of the central problem in the American response to the coronavirus, which is the lack of a functioning testing regime. Having falsely promised on Friday that everybody who currently wants a test can get one, Trump simply ignored the question altogether. At the moment, people who have symptoms do not know what they can do about it. The number is due to explode, and Trump offered them no guidance.
While he did urge the audience to wash their hands, he likewise ignored the question of public gatherings, which is being resolved without any apparent input from the administration. Colleges are closing, sporting events are being canceled or staged without crowds, but Trump’s speech made no mention of the question at all.
His primary public health gesture was the announcement of a travel ban from Europe. The explanation for this measure was terrifyingly ignorant. “We have seen fewer cases of the virus than are now present in Europe,” he boasted. This may not even be true. (It is possible that the U.S. only knows about fewer cases because of its atrocious testing regime.) Even if true, it would be irrelevant. The dynamic of the virus is that it spreads through populations. Starting at a lower level only means your caseload peaks a few days later.
Yet Trump seems to have absorbed the notion that Europe’s higher level of known cases means Europe is dirty and we are clean, and we can win by keeping Europeans away. The fact that the virus has already taken hold across the country, and that blocking foreign travel does essentially nothing to slow the spread of the disease, is beyond his grasp. He is closing the barn door after the horses have escaped. Yet even that simple metaphor captures a complexity that escapes him.
Even the nonsensical measure of the travel ban contains its own nonsensical exemption for the United Kingdom. Why Trump left out a country that has far more confirmed cases than many of the countries whose residents are banned, he did not say. Political affinity with its prime minister? A personal business stake for his European golf resorts, which are coincidentally located in exempted countries? No account was even offered.
Perhaps most astonishingly, the White House had to retract two policy announcements that Trump erroneously made either because he failed to read his text properly, or his speechwriters failed to describe his position. Trump announced his European travel ban would apply to “trade and cargo,” before the White House announced this was an error. Trump also told his audience, “I met with the leaders of health insurance industry who have agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments, extend insurance coverage to these treatments and to prevent surprise medical billing.” The insurance industry quickly announced it had only agreed to cover testing, not treatment, for the coronavirus.
The cliché about Trump’s presidency is that it is malevolence tempered by incompetence. His haplessness would undermine his corruption and authoritarianism. But now, finally, the country faces a crisis in which Trump’s incompetence will not save us from him. His wholesale unfitness was on bright display from the Oval Office. It may be the most unsettling moment yet of this bleak era.
This post has been updated.