President Donald Trump failed the defining test of his presidency in his Oval Office address on the coronavirus. He turned to a format meant to calm the nation, provide clarity, and offer a clear plan of action, but accomplished none of those things. On the contrary, he left Americans more anxious, more confused, and looking elsewhere for a plan.
To understand how we got here and where we’re headed, it’s important to understand how presidents manage information in the White House. The West Wing is by nature an isolating place. When I first went to work there, at the beginning of the administration of Barack Obama, I was struck by how small it was—a handful of offices on three floors; a few dozen people bearing enormous responsibilities. Once you step inside, you have an extraordinary capacity to shape the information that comes to you—what you choose to read, what sources you value, and what you do with the immense amounts of information that come your way. If you’re the president, that can include your daily intelligence briefing, how you consume news, and whom you choose to listen to.
First, there is the question of how you deal with bad news. I remember when reports of Ebola cases in West Africa started appearing in the morning intelligence briefings in 2014, buried amid dozens of other pieces of information. An Ebola outbreak was the last thing we needed at the time; ISIS was on the rise and Vladimir Putin was invading Ukraine. It was easy to see Ebola as something far away, of little consequence in the moment. But it’s a fact of the presidency that you end up spending time on things you didn’t anticipate, things that distract you from your normal priorities.
So President Obama started asking questions about Ebola, seeking more information. Because he asked those questions, a multiagency process was established that began to spin the wheels of a government response that would encompass agencies as diverse as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the State Department, and the U.S. military.
As the first COVID-19 cases began to spread with alarming speed and lethality in China, President Trump evidently did not choose to make the issue a priority. Based on his public comments and Twitter feed, the incoming information that consumed his attention was more likely to come from cable television or political gossip than deep inside his intelligence briefings. Presumably, he also had a certain view of what he’d be doing in early 2020—chiefly, preparing the ground for his reelection campaign—and veering off course to prepare for a pandemic would have undermined those plans. A simple presidential communication of interest in a subject can set the government in motion, but in this case, that signal apparently never came.
One way to guard against presidential disinterest is structure. After Ebola, an office was set up in the White House’s National Security Council to manage global health threats such as pandemics. That office was intended to be a coordinating mechanism, preparing the government to be better able to manage pandemics, at home and abroad. The office also established an advocate for action within a White House where everyone is focused on their own priorities. When the first reports of a strange disease start to appear, personnel become policy: You need people in the building who are going to be worried about a particular issue above everything else. Just as the counterterrorism staff worries about terrorist plots so that a president doesn’t have to, you want a staff that’s worried about an Ebola case in West Africa or a virus in Wuhan, China. Trump shut down that office without explanation in May 2018. Without that resource, information about a potential pandemic likely cycled through the White House, day after day, with no natural home and few advocates for action.
Second, there is the question of whom you turn to when you have a problem. A U.S. president is going to be asked to respond to a huge variety of events that go beyond his expertise—such as oil spills, earthquakes, and outbreaks. The good news is that the U.S. government has leading experts on just about any issue that could emerge, spread across different agencies. So when a public-health crisis broke out in Africa, Obama didn’t rely on people like me—I was relegated to the sidelines, so he could hear directly from experts at the CDC and NIH about what the risks were, what we needed to anticipate, and what decisions might be coming his way.
Instead of seeing U.S. government expertise as a resource, Trump has routinely derided career experts as “deep state” operatives, insufficiently loyal to him and his agenda. Well into the COVID-19 outbreak, he said things such as “A lot of people think that it goes away in April with the heat,” or “This is a flu.” I doubt that any government expert would suggest that Trump say those things. The statements, instead, suggest a president either making things up or cherry-picking things he’s heard from nonexperts to offer false reassurance to the public.
By contrast, a pivotal moment on Ebola came in August 2014, when Tom Frieden—then the director of the CDC—distributed a chart that showed the growth of Ebola. Like the frightening graphs we see today about COVID-19, it showed a large upward spike coming that could infect many millions of people. That image scared people in the White House; it scared Obama. We were at risk of falling behind the curve. And that anxiety led to one of the most consequential decisions in the fight against Ebola: the deployment of several thousand U.S. troops to West Africa, where they could coordinate the flow of equipment and health-care workers to bend the curve and stop the disease from spreading to the United States.
This leads to the issue of what information you rely on when when you’re falling behind a crisis. One factor that is hard to understand if you haven’t worked in a White House is how senior officials—and, particularly, the president—can choose to be soothed by a constant stream of praise. You’re in a powerful position. When people meet with you, they’re generally nicer than usual. They tell you you’re doing a wonderful job. They tell you how great you are. Walking around those hallways, decorated with portraits of people like Lincoln and Washington, it’s possible for a president to fall into the trap of thinking that he’s as great as people tell him, or as great as those images hanging on the walls.
It was not an uncommon occurrence, usually around midnight or one in the morning, to get emails from Obama about some article that was critical of his performance. But I also remember feeling somewhat reassured that he was sitting in front of a screen somewhere in the residence, seeking out and digesting criticism. When Trump expresses disgust that he is not getting enough credit for his response, I don’t doubt that he truly believes that he is doing a good job. Some of this can be chalked up to narcissism. But all evidence also suggests that he exists in a bubble where the positive feedback he receives—from sycophantic visitors and positive tweets compiled for him by his staff—also severely distorts his already high self-regard. We do not have a president who sees criticism as something worth engaging beyond dismissing it as a hoax, fake news, or an endless plot against him.
Finally, there is the matter of how you balance short-term interests against long-term consequences. On any given day in the White House, it is easy to become consumed by a focus on getting through a particular news cycle. Social media and cable television are always going to be working at a fever pitch on something. At the height of the Ebola pandemic, it was a movement—fueled by Republican critics, media thirst, and public fears—to shut down travel to and from West Africa, or to quarantine returning health-care workers even if they weren’t sick. But while the short-term impact of responding to that pressure made political sense, it would have set back the long-term imperative of ensuring a flow of health-care workers to West Africa to stamp out the disease. In choosing to prioritize the long-term objective, Obama may have suffered political damage in a 2014 midterm election that was shaped by public fears, but he allowed us to substantially avoid worse outcomes.
By constantly trying to get himself through the news cycle, Trump has done irreparable damage to the long-term objective of ensuring that he’s a credible voice on the COVID-19 crisis. Time and again, he’s minimized the danger while talking up his own response, perhaps most notably when he said—speaking about cases within the United States two weeks ago—“You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” Statements like this no doubt end up creating hours of more work for his staff to explain or justify what is plainly false. More insidiously, this sort of talk could have contributed to the slowness to test and discover new cases which would plainly contradict the president’s own predictions.
Even the president’s signature announcement—a travel ban on Europe (which later turned out to be a travel ban on non-Americans who had recently been in the European Union’s Schengen Area) had the feel of something designed for short-term news value rather than long-term planning. In addition to causing confusion and exacerbating market disruptions, it was a step taken too late to contain a virus that is already very much here. The travel ban was also far less relevant than other steps that could have been announced, like surging resources for testing and other badly needed health infrastructure and supplies. Finally, it was clearly made without consultation with European leaders, who—in a normal presidency—would be in near-daily contact with a U.S. president to manage a challenge that recognizes no borders.
In this way, President Trump’s address to the nation was doomed to fail. It was delivered by a president who ignores inconvenient truths, disdains expertise, views events solely through the lens of his political interests, and fails to look beyond the news cycle. This dynamic has been exacerbated by an information flow into and out of the White House that reflects Trump’s worst instincts—his desire to be flattered and his deafness to any form of criticism.
Normally, a presidential address in a crisis buys time for further action by reassuring the public that you are on top of something. That opportunity is gone, even as the threat from COVID-19, and its economic fallout, grows by the day. Indeed, public and market reaction to Trump’s speech offered an immediate indictment, not just of his Oval Office address, but of his entire approach to governing.
At this point, the best thing that Trump and his staff can do is completely empower the experts to do their jobs. Give them the resources. Make them the communicators. Have them interface with the state and local officials who will now be on the front line of managing a response that has fallen so far behind where it should be. Let Congress address the obvious need for a stimulus that can minimize the economic harm that comes to ordinary citizens. Let the diplomats manage coordination with foreign countries.
No president can ever predict what crisis will consume his presidency, even if he can be assured that something will. What a president can do is run his White House in a way that gives him the best chance to succeed in a crisis. Because of how the Trump White House operates, it was set up to fail.
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