Now, however, the disease known as COVID-19 has upended this theme altogether. As the former Justice Department official Carrie Cordero declared on Twitter: “To invert a @benjaminwittes formulation, the Trump administration #COVID19 response might be characterized as incompetence exacerbated by malevolence.”
It is an inversion in more ways than one. In the original formulation of the phrase—malevolence tempered by incompetence—the incompetence not only comes second, but it mitigates the malevolence. In Cordero’s rather apt reformulation, by contrast, the incompetence comes first, and the malevolence doesn’t mitigate it. It makes things worse.
The “incompetence” portion of the current situation is all too easy to identify. A February 28 ProPublica report describes how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “lost valuable weeks that could have been used to track [the coronavirus’s] possible spread in the United States,” because the agency insisted on developing its own tests for the virus instead of adopting those provided by the World Health Organization.
Then the CDC-developed tests proved to be unreliable, setting the agency back in its effort to enable widespread testing and squandering precious time needed to prepare for the virus’s arrival. On top of that, early federal guidance provided only for testing of people returning from international travel—and even after those restrictions were loosened, story after story surfaced of potential COVID-19 patients who had been denied testing despite their symptoms. Private labs and companies have only recently been allowed to run tests. As a result, only about 4,300 people in the United States had been tested for the virus as of March 9. Compare this with South Korea’s numbers, which total as many as 10,000 people tested a day.
Read: The strongest evidence that America is botching coronavirus testing
Widespread testing is crucial for preparing for and limiting the spread of an epidemic like COVID-19. According to Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the federal government may have finally ironed out the difficulties: He announced on March 8 that “around 4 million” tests would be sent out by “the end of next week.” But while it’s good news that the U.S. is catching up, most public-health experts agree that the delayed start has created a serious public-health challenge. Irwin Redlener, a physician who studies public health and disaster preparedness at Columbia University, condemned the federal government’s response as “the most egregious level of incompetence in an administration that I think we’ve witnessed at least in my memory … It’s actually stunning.”
How much of the incompetence is Trumpian incompetence, and how much is composed of lower-level screw-ups that can’t be laid at the president’s door? That’s unclear. But as Lisa Monaco, who managed the United States’ response to the 2014 Ebola crisis as chief homeland-security adviser, wrote recently, the Trump administration has eliminated the government positions that the Obama administration created to address pandemic disease: “In 2018, [the key] unit was dismantled and its career expert leader reassigned. Today, there is no dedicated unit within the [National Security Council] to oversee preparedness for pandemics or the current response to the coronavirus.” In other words, even if the incompetence is not coming directly from the president, it originates in the administration’s general disorganization and disrespect for the orderly working of government. And the president hasn’t seemed especially focused on maximizing an efficient government response.