“The White House was focused on addressing the threat to its survival,” argued the columnist Henry Olsen in The Washington Post, “not on preparing for a threat from China that might not even materialize.”
Senator Tom Cotton has also adopted the theory, telling Politico, “It’s unfortunate that during the early days of a global pandemic, the Senate was paralyzed by a partisan impeachment trial.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been pushing this theory too, telling the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that the Senate impeachment trial “diverted the attention of the government” from the virus, “because everything every day was all about impeachment.”
Over the past two months, President Donald Trump has deployed a dizzying array of lies about why the coronavirus wasn’t a cause for concern, then defenses to excuse or deny his deadly mishandling of the pandemic. The virus was under control in the United States, he argued. The warm weather would make it go away. It would miraculously vanish. It was China’s fault, and limiting travel from China had solved the problem. It was the media’s fault for exaggerating things. It was Barack Obama’s fault. States in urgent need of ventilators should have purchased the medical equipment months ago, and it isn’t the president’s responsibility to fix that problem.
It’s difficult to decide which of these defenses is the most absurd. But one defense that has emerged in recent weeks as the go-to explanation certainly has the honor of being the most unintentionally damning. The argument, as put forward by Republican officeholders and other supporters of the president, goes like this: Don’t blame Trump for his administration’s appalling handling of the crisis. Rather, it’s all the Democrats’ fault, as their drummed-up impeachment drama distracted the president during the key period during which the government could have ramped up its response to the pandemic.
The intent may be to shift blame, but the argument is actually a concession of Trump’s own failure. While Trump’s defense of his leadership has been erratic, one theme has been the insistence that—despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary—he has handled the crisis excellently. At every stage, he has congratulated himself for a job well done, even insisting that “we altogether have done a very good job” while warning Americans to expect as many as 200,000 deaths from the virus.
Yet, in making their impeachment-distraction defense, his supporters are all of a sudden acknowledging that his performance could have been better. Some are more explicit about that than others: Olsen argued outright that Trump failed to “act ... decisively in February when he had time,” and the aggressively pro-Trump outlet The Federalist published a piece conceding that it was “a fair point” to say that the president had taken his eye off the ball. But even those who focus exclusively on attacking congressional Democrats for not doing enough to counter the pandemic are implicitly admitting that the government could have done more—that its response to the crisis was not, as Trump declared, “10 out of 10.” In pointing to impeachment as a distraction, McConnell can’t also argue that Trump did everything perfectly.
Perhaps understanding the political risks of this particular argument, Trump has equivocated on it. When asked at a press conference whether the impeachment trial had “divert[ed] his attention,” he seemed to give some credence to the idea: “I think I handled it very well, but I guess it probably did [distract me]. I mean, I got impeached. I think, you know, I certainly devoted a little time to thinking about it, right?” But then he swung back, arguing, “I don’t think I would have done any better had I not been impeached. Okay? ... I don’t think I would have acted any differently or I don’t think I would have acted any faster.”
His reticence on the point is understandable. If you’ve been impeached and you have to justify the fact that you’ve been allowed to remain in office, you want to come off as the sort of leader who was not distracted, who “compartmentalized”—as was said of Bill Clinton during his impeachment—not the sort of leader who crumbled under pressure and allowed a global pandemic to kill more Americans than was necessarily fated. What’s more, Trump never acknowledges failure. The call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was perfect. So too was the coronavirus response. To say otherwise, as Trump’s supporters are now doing, is to concede the leader’s imperfection and to make excuses for it—rather than insisting on his infallibility.
One irony of the impeachment defense is that it may contain significant elements of truth. A lengthy report from The Washington Post on the “denial and dysfunction” of the administration’s pandemic response suggests that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar had trouble getting the president’s attention about the coronavirus in mid-January because Trump was busy “calling lawmakers late at night to rant” about impeachment and “making lists of perceived enemies he would seek to punish when the case against him concluded.” (Of course, the fact that impeachment may really have distracted Trump in January and February does not mean that his administration’s response to the virus would have been flawless if it hadn’t been for the Senate trial.)
Indeed, strong evidence indicates that Trump is still distracted by impeachment and that this is affecting his crisis response. The administration’s negotiations with the House of Representatives over relief measures had to be handled by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, because Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi aren’t speaking, Politico reported recently; the president is still bitter about the House impeachment vote. Meanwhile, in a letter to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Trump makes explicit reference to his ongoing resentment. “If you spent less time on your ridiculous impeachment hoax, which went haplessly on forever and ended up going nowhere (except increasing my poll numbers), and instead focused on helping the people of New York, then New York would not have been so completely unprepared for the ‘invisible enemy,’” Trump wrote.
And on April 3, Trump continued his wave of retaliatory firings of people involved in the impeachment saga—dismissing the intelligence-community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, the man who first notified Congress of the whistleblower report that ultimately led to Trump’s impeachment. The president made no secret of the reason for his decision: Atkinson, he said candidly, "took a fake report and gave it to Congress." In a statement, Atkinson himself wrote, “It is hard not to think that the President’s loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General.” (Perhaps, in a weird inversion, Trump is betting that the public is sufficiently distracted by the coronavirus that it won’t notice or care much about such retaliatory gestures related to his impeachment.)
More to the point, the argument that impeachment distracted Trump from the coronavirus is, even if true, a terrible argument against impeachment. Impeachment will always distract a president. That is a good reason not to undertake an impeachment lightly, and it is an excellent reason for a president not to engage in impeachable conduct. A merited impeachment, however, is necessary because the risks of inaction—of letting an unfit person remain in office, unchecked—exceed the risks of his or her distraction and the risks of the disruption associated with his or her removal.
The current crisis could not illustrate that last point better, because Trump has been engaged in conduct remarkably similar to that for which the House impeached him, this time at the domestic level. During the impeachment hearings, the Stanford Law professor Pamela S. Karlan imagined a hypothetical scenario in which a president shook down a governor in the context of disaster relief for political favors, instead of a foreign leader:
Imagine living in a part of Louisiana or Texas that’s prone to devastating hurricanes and flooding. What would you think if you lived there, and your governor asked for a meeting with the president to discuss getting disaster aid that Congress has provided for. What would you think if that president said, “I would like you to do us a favor. I’ll meet with you, and I’ll send the disaster relief, once you brand my opponent a criminal.” Wouldn’t you know in your gut that such a president had abused his office?”
Today, with Trump openly playing extortionate politics with governors over medical supplies—publicly intimating that more personal protective equipment and ventilators will go to governors that offer him sycophantic praise—Karlan’s example no longer seems like a hypothetical.
Trump may have been distracted by impeachment, but the experience also taught him something: Whatever he does, however much he leverages his power for personal benefit at the public’s expense—whether with foreign heads of state or state officials, whether in public or in private—he can get away with it. And the death toll will only rise as a result.