Start with the PDBs. Based on Trump’s track record, it’s a good bet that he never read the briefs at all, as he is known not to bother consuming most of the written materials provided to him. Major points in the PDB are delivered orally too, and the Post reports that the coronavirus was in the oral summary at times. But Trump is also notorious for not paying attention to briefings that are delivered to him, or for seizing only on some small parts of them. (The president reportedly interrupted Azar’s January 18 briefing to complain about Azar’s handling of vaping products.)
Even when warnings are able to reach Trump, he seldom treats them as efforts to provide him with useful information. It is clear now that the pandemic is a grave political threat to Trump’s reelection, and that a swifter, more efficient response would have placed him in much better stead in November. At times, however, he has acted as though even discussing the crisis is evidence of disloyalty, as demonstrated in his furious response to Messonnier’s warnings.
Read: The president who doesn’t read
This is the real context for the president’s infamous “hoax” remark at a rally in February. Trump has complained that his adversaries are misconstruing him to have claimed that the virus itself was a hoax. In fact, his remark was a paranoiac insistence that any warnings about the outbreak could only be intended to harm him politically: “They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything. They tried it over and over. They’d been doing it since you got in. It’s all turning. They lost. It’s all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax.”
But even if Democrats’ motives were not completely pure—in addition to real worries, they likely did see the virus as politically damaging to Trump—he would have benefited from taking the warnings and acting.
What would that action have looked like? The answer is not that Trump should have micromanaged the crisis response—though that idea meshes with his own vision of the presidency, which tends to emphasize actions the president can take unilaterally. Perhaps the greatest power a president has is the power of the bureaucracy. By picking up on currents in his briefings and asking a few questions about them, a president can swing the great heft of the federal bureaucracy toward them.
But Trump has long since decided that federal employees are part of a “deep state” determined to sink him, rather than the most powerful tool at his disposal. He is resistant to new information, demanding that events respond to him, rather than the other way around.
The federal government is mighty enough that often a president can drive events, but viruses don’t work like that. In a pandemic, the president has to respond to events. Trump was too incurious and too paranoid to hear the warnings and do so.