Kim Wehle: For Trump, power is for self-preservation only
Trump’s penchant for demagoguery shows just how dangerous this innocuous-sounding theory can be. Trump is obsessed with “branding” the federal coronavirus response as his own. Consider that in 2009 and 2010, the CDC issued a variety of guidance regarding the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic, all of which remains visible on the agency’s website as guidance from the CDC. No formal guidance emanated personally from President Barack Obama. Yet on March 16, 2020, the White House announced “new guidelines” from President Trump and the White House Coronavirus Task Force “to help protect Americans during the global Coronavirus outbreak.” The guidelines appear only on the White House website and are headlined “The President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America.” The White House logo accompanies that of the CDC.
Trump wants people to think the federal response is going well—and going well because he is in charge. His confidence, however, is often nothing but wishful thinking. Speaking on March 19 of chloroquine and the anti-Ebola drug Remdesivir, Trump offered this word salad: “It’s going to be very exciting. I think it could be a game changer and maybe not. And maybe not. But I think it could be, based on what I see, it could be a game changer. Very powerful. They’re very powerful.”
The following day, when Fauci made clear his reluctance to pin public hopes on chloroquine, Trump added: “Look, it may work and it may not work. And I agree with the doctor, what he said: It may work, it may not work. I feel good about it. That’s all it is. Just a feeling. You know, I’m a smart guy. I feel good about it. And we’re going to see. You’re going to see soon enough.”
Trump’s March 16 guidelines called for “15 Days to Slow the Spread” of the coronavirus, which would end on March 31. Just six days into the 15, however, on March 22, Trump proclaimed in a tweet, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!” As the number of confirmed infections mounted alarmingly, Trump announced on March 24 that he “would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” April 12. Five days later, on March 29, he announced that current federal guidelines for social distancing would remain in place until April 30.
Lawrence Gostin and Sarah Wetter: Why there’s no national lockdown
Despite Trump’s insistence that “WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO,” it is important to remember that Trump has no authority to compel states to abandon the protective measures they have undertaken to “flatten the curve.” But his conduct raises the possibility of a new set of White House guidelines, perhaps released as early as April 30, that would encourage gubernatorial retrenchment and public complacency. The results could be disastrous.
The influence of officials like Fauci may yet deter Trump from relaxing America’s vigilance. Perhaps Trump’s tweet was just another strategy for keeping attention focused on him in an election year. But one way to help ensure that presidential posturing cannot drown out the voice of science in a public-health emergency is to provide, by statute, that the president cannot silence that voice. Congress should make sure that expert voices get heard.