Even before the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in China, Trump should have been preparing for a pandemic, a threat that has long been near the top of strategists’ agendas. Just last year, Trump’s own Department of Health and Human Services ran a simulation of a pandemic originating in China. The simulation projected that more than 100 million Americans could be infected, and found the U.S. underprepared. But Trump had dismantled the National Security Council’s office devoted to global-health threats, and had little tolerance for anyone warning of a looming disaster.
When Nancy Messonnier, a top scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raised the alarm over the novel coronavirus, saying we should be preparing for “significant disruption of our lives,” and exhorted “hospitals, schools and everyday people to begin preparing,” Trump was reportedly furious. Two days later, her boss, CDC chief Robert Redfield, all but apologized in Congress for Messonnier’s words.
The signal to other government employees was clear: Stick to Trump’s message.
After stocks crashed, Trump’s denial ended, replaced with a barrage of misinformation. He falsely claimed there were tests for anyone who wants them; he promoted unproven cures from the podium; and, most important, he proclaimed himself a master of pandemic response.
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Anything that went wrong was someone else’s fault. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he memorably declared. “No one expected” a pandemic, he said over and over, lying about what he had been told.
He resisted pleas from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to use the unmatched power of the federal government to produce desperately needed ventilators. After inexcusable delays, and prompted by pressure from businesses, he belatedly invoked the Defense Production Act—but has continued to suggest that the need for ventilators is being exaggerated. He said he wanted to open up the country in time for “packed churches” on Easter, a course that would have worsened the catastrophe.
Thankfully, on Sunday, he changed course—unveiling his latest gambit to emerge triumphant from one of the most colossal failures of leadership in the history of the United States. Trump cited a study that said up to 2.2 million Americans could die from COVID-19 unless appropriate measures were taken. Trump already knew about the widely publicized study when he touted lifting restrictions by Easter. But suddenly, Trump saw it as his lifeline.
“You’re talking about a potential of up to 2.2 million. And some people said it could even be higher than that. So you’re talking about 2.2 million deaths—2.2 million people from this,” he said, repeating the number over and over, anchoring his audience’s expectations.
“And so if we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000—that’s a horrible number—maybe even less, but to 100,000, so we have between 100 [thousand] and 200,000, we all, together, have done a very good job.”
Trump has found a new marketing plan just in time for the November elections. If 200,000 Americans die on his watch, he will boast of having saved 2 million—and many Americans will see him as a hero.