This Isn’t All Trump’s Fault (But He Isn’t Helping Either)

Even with perfect leadership, the pandemic was always going to be bad. But the president has caused the crisis to be far worse.

President Trump
Tasos Katopodis / Getty

How much of America’s present coronavirus crisis is President Donald Trump’s fault?

Answering this question is, of course, impossible. We have no way to see some alternative timeline in which another president handles the crisis flawlessly. Thus, we have no way to determine the additional death toll caused by Trump’s mismanagement of the crisis.

Here’s what we can say with some degree of confidence: The coronavirus was always going to hit the United States hard, but it is hitting the country far harder because of the president than it would have otherwise.

Let’s deal with these two points in turn.

First, much about this situation is not the president’s fault. Perfect leadership would likely not have shielded the country from the disease; no government anywhere has been able to do so. Even the countries that are managing the virus best—such as South Korea—have had thousands of cases, though the most successful governments have managed to keep deaths relatively low. Other larger democratic countries—Germany, France, the United Kingdom—have all had more than 20,000 cases. And all are facing exponential growth in cases as well. So there’s no reason to think that the United States was going to avoid a great deal of suffering and death and major economic fallout from the virus. The whole of the picture cannot be laid at Trump’s feet.

What’s more, even with capable management of the crisis, the U.S. may not have been able to perform as South Korea has. Big differences between the U.S. and South Korea—beyond Trump—account for some of their performance variation on the coronavirus. Perhaps the most important is South Korea’s relatively recent experiences with SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2015, and the resulting legal regime the country has in place to deal with infectious disease. Brian Kim—writing in Lawfare—describes this regime as “a custom-made legal apparatus that has empowered authorities to collect and disseminate private information in aggressive ways.” No similar legal authority exists in the United States, which has not experienced comparable recent epidemics that would have prompted it to create a similar legal framework.

Moreover, the United States has a federal system, which divides the power to respond to an epidemic among federal and state authorities—meaning that even a perfect federal administration would have only some of the necessary powers. Idiot governors at the state level and lousy administrators at the local level might still encourage people to go to restaurants or might not comply with federal requests for an aggressive response.

To make matters still worse, the United States is a highly mobile country with an extraordinary number of ports of entry. Unlike smaller countries, which have only a few ways in and out, it’s actually a tricky business restricting American mobility, either internally or externally. And the patchwork nature of the American health-care system—which limits access to care for many people, and which is not set up to deal with a surge of patients—doesn’t help things, either.

There’s one additional factor for which one cannot reasonably blame Trump: The United States is not run by the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese government, which initially allowed the problem to fester and then tried to cover it up, is now getting plaudits for having apparently gotten the pandemic under control by implementing aggressive lockdowns and domestic surveillance. Even assuming one accepts the case numbers China has released—and there is reason to doubt their integrity and suspect that the coronavirus crisis in mainland China may have been far worse than the government has acknowledged—no American presidential administration has the authority to wield the unchecked coercive powers China used to beat the virus. Nor should any administration have that authority.

For all these reasons, there was no way the virus was going to fail to enter the country and spread. Even with perfect leadership, the situation was going to be bad.

And all that conceded up front, the Trump administration—and Trump himself—undoubtedly have made it far worse.

The first big problem was that the administration wasted time. The Washington Post reports that intelligence agencies were warning of the threat posed by the virus as early as January—but White House staffers couldn’t get the president to “take the virus seriously.” Apart from imposing some limitations on entry into the United States in late January, it took the White House until mid-March to ramp up measures to constrain the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. But Trump was still insisting as of March 12 that the disease would magically “go away.” And while the White House sat on its hands, public-health agencies were also dawdling. Experts agree that widespread early testing would have been key to containing the virus, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA bungled the rollout of tests thanks to a bad early batch and enforcement of agency rules that restricted both who could be tested and the private sector’s ability to roll out new tests. Tests produced by the World Health Organization couldn’t be used either as a result of a lack of FDA approval—ironically because of rules meant to protect public safety.

Reporting on the confusion over testing by both The New York Times and ProPublica does not draw a straight line between any action by Trump and the failure of the CDC and FDA to implement speedy testing; the president didn’t tell the agencies to slow-walk the process, for example. But the testing disaster seems to have grown in large part out of the absence of leadership pushing the agencies to treat the situation like the emergency it was. Instead, bureaucracies muddled along as usual, with the FDA forcing private laboratories to clear multiple hurdles—and thus waste precious days and weeks—before their tests were approved. If Trump had moved aggressively early on to make addressing COVID-19 a priority, the CDC and FDA might have received the prodding they needed to speed the testing process.

Second, the administration helped create this leadership vacuum in the first place—in ways that go beyond the president’s own lack of concern. Trump has repeatedly blamed the Obama administration, with unclear reasoning, for his own failures in responding to the pandemic. But after the 2014 Ebola outbreak, President Barack Obama created a dedicated corner of the National Security Council for preparing and responding to pandemics. The Trump administration dismantled the unit in 2018. It also got rid of the position of homeland security adviser, the aide who would have been accountable to the president for responding to events like the arrival of a pandemic. (Trump’s last homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, has been stolidly producing tweets and op-eds on how the U.S. should be handling the coronavirus and offering words of encouragement to the president when Trump takes action.) If the administration had kept these positions—which is to say, if Trump had heeded the wisdom of his predecessors in recognizing the dangers of pandemic disease—it might well have been in a better position to respond today.

Third, the administration has also dawdled when it comes to the supply chain. Hospitals are now fatally short on ventilators, the key piece of equipment needed to keep alive COVID-19 patients in serious condition. The flood of new patients means that doctors and nurses are running out of personal protective equipment like masks and gowns, without which they will also be at risk for contracting the disease. And if health-care workers fall sick en masse, and hospitals are overrun with more patients than there are ventilators, the health-care system will face a terrible crisis that will itself lead to a spike in deaths. Trump could have helped address this danger by forcing private companies to manufacture ventilators and masks under the Defense Production Act. Indeed, the administration could have pushed to scale up production months ago. But Trump instead has hesitated for weeks on end, making noise about how he might invoke those authorities rather than actually pulling the trigger. As a result, shortages that might have been avoided or at least mitigated are becoming acute as the number of cases explodes.

Finally, the president’s messaging to the public about the virus has been an unmitigated disaster. Even after he stopped insisting that COVID-19 was nothing to worry about, he has lurched back and forth between tepid endorsements of the slogans put forward by the public-health experts working with the White House and—with more enthusiasm—declarations of the importance of reopening the economy above all else; groundless promises that the country would be back to work by Easter; insistence on referring to the pandemic as the “Chinese virus,” in a clumsy effort to deflect blame onto Beijing for his own administration’s failures; and, more recently, suggestions that the virus is primarily a problem for blue states rather than for his own supporters.

Writing off these outbursts as just “Trump being Trump” is tempting. But rhetoric like this has consequences. It can discourage government officials and aides from advocating for more aggressive action to combat the pandemic, lest they be frozen out by the president. Particularly because of the degree to which it has been amplified and repeated by the right-wing media, it has also likely caused many average Americans to take the virus less seriously—because, after all, the president isn’t taking it seriously either—and discouraged them from following social-distancing measures that could save their life and the lives of many others. In a similar vein, it has likely motivated some Republican governors who take their cues from Trump to play down the risks of the pandemic and resist lockdown measures—such as Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves, who has refused to order state residents to shelter in place and even overrode local lockdown measures.

The cumulative impact of Trump’s leadership has been to allow the out-of-control spread of the virus throughout the United States. This was not inevitable. And the U.S. may well face the bulk of COVID-19 cases in a sudden wave that will overwhelm the health-care system even while supplies are in production. If the Trump administration had acted sooner, the U.S. would have had better odds of “flattening the curve”—which means not just decreasing the number of overall cases but, crucially, pushing the peak back, giving hospitals more time to prepare and manufacturers more time to supply them.

It’s impossible to say how much of a difference the Trump administration could have made by taking action early and decisively. But the lack of testing and of protective equipment have already caused serious problems, and the weeks ahead are likely to be grim. If it’s too much to expect the United States to have performed like South Korea, it’s not too much to have expected it to perform in line with other countries—like Germany, for example, which so far seems to have kept deaths low through an aggressive testing program. Trump’s performance could mean the difference between tragic but limited suffering and a true national catastrophe.

But as this disaster plays out, the president remains focused on the important things. On Sunday, as more than 20,000 additional cases were confirmed in the United States and as 463 people died, the president tweeted, “It was reported that Harry and Meghan, who left the Kingdom, would reside permanently in Canada. Now they have left Canada for the U.S. however, the U.S. will not pay for their security protection. They must pay!” And, of course, he commented on the viewership of his daily press conferences: “Because the ‘Ratings’ of my News Conferences etc. are so high, ‘Bachelor finale, Monday Night Football type numbers’ according to the @nytimes, the Lamestream Media is going CRAZY. ‘Trump is reaching too many people, we must stop him.’ said one lunatic. See you at 5:00 P.M.!”

Those concerned about the economic fallout from the virus will no doubt take heart that while Congress is spending $2 trillion to stimulate the economy, the president is at least ensuring that the United States is not on the hook for Harry and Meghan’s security costs. And the sick and the dying will, we are confident, be gratified that at least the president’s ratings remain high.