Read: How to misinform yourself about coronavirus
The record on the Congo response is uneven: As long as Ebola in Congo is not in the news, the White House allows the bureaucracy to do its job, albeit within a limited range of action and with less than robust U.S. participation. But escalation of the coronavirus epidemic, and the elevated level of public attention, may lead Trump to depart from his usual indifference to the functioning of government and choose to assume personal leadership of his administration’s response.
Some of the world’s leading infectious-disease experts continue to serve in the administration, led by the incomparable Tony Fauci at the National Institutes of Health, and the level-headed Anne Schuchat at the CDC. These two, along with other leaders at key science agencies (and scores of men and women working for them), have decades of experience serving under presidents of both parties, and are among the world’s best at what they do.
But Trump’s war on government has decimated crucial functions in other key agencies. Smart and effective border screening will be a key tool in the response; there is scarcely a single competent or experienced leader left at the Department of Homeland Security. While USAID is in solid hands under Administrator Mark Green, it is stuck inside Mike Pompeo’s State Department, which has been purged of the many skilled administrators who play a role in facilitating foreign-disaster response. Trump’s poor choices for many ambassadorial posts, and harsh treatment of the Foreign Service, may create holes in our on-the-scene leadership as the disease spreads: During the West African Ebola epidemic, career Foreign Service ambassadors were important players in the response.
The biggest gap, of course, is at the White House itself.
At the end of the West African Ebola epidemic in 2015, President Obama accepted my recommendation to set up a permanent directorate at the National Security Council to coordinate government-wide pandemic preparedness and response. For the first year of his presidency, Trump kept that structure, and put the widely respected Admiral Tim Ziemer, a veteran of the George W. Bush administration, in charge of the unit. But in July 2018, John Bolton took over the NSC, disbanded the unit, and relegated Ziemer to a staff job at the State Department. The administration described that as a move to “streamline” the NSC, while critics charged that Bolton was too focused on hard-power threats.
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To date, the Trump administration has resisted reversing this decision—either permanently, or on an ad hoc basis for the coronavirus response. Standing up a unit at NSC would require bringing in career staff to work there, and Trump’s paranoia about having such government veterans in the White House weighs against the move. But perhaps just as important, greater White House involvement in managing the response to pandemics would likely mean greater personal involvement by Trump. And in that regard, senior officials in government agencies may have a view of presidential engagement not unlike Fiddler on the Roof’s prayer for the czar: “May the Lord bless and keep him … far away from us.”