A memorable campaign ad from 2008 urged voters to ask themselves which candidate would perform better in an unexpected emergency: “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep, but there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing ... Your vote will decide who answers that call.” Franklin D. Roosevelt answered Pearl Harbor. John F. Kennedy answered the deployment of Soviet missiles to Cuba. How would this year’s candidates respond when confronted with an emergency?
Joe Biden has never held the top job, so voters can only speculate. But a pandemic began on Donald Trump’s watch, so no speculation is needed. Trump showed us how he did perform in a crisis: He failed. Trump is obviously not responsible for all of the COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. But the U.S. has fared much worse than the median developed country. And among wealthy nations, its per capita deaths rank in the top five. Trump can’t avoid blame for America’s subpar performance, because voters can identify specific actions he took that contributed to the country’s failures. Especially damning is that Trump couldn’t even protect himself from the disease.
Compare the White House to the NBA. Months ago, the league decided to go ahead with its season by bringing 22 teams into a “bubble” with coaches, trainers, referees, support staff, and media, despite a formidable challenge: Hundreds of young basketball players would run, pant, sweat, jostle for rebounds, huddle together in time-outs, and fill their off hours together, away from friends and family. The league developed sound protocols. Players, coaches, and others executed them competently. And the NBA went months without a positive COVID-19 test, allowing it to salvage a season worth billions of dollars while entertaining the American public.
A presidential bubble is comparatively easy to protect: Trump had all the resources of the federal government, no need for close physical contact, the ability to consult with any expert on optimal protocol, and a Secret Service to enforce whatever he decided upon. Yet he proved unable to stay healthy, not because he was stricken early, when little was known, but because he failed to take the most commonsense precautions, such as wearing a mask or not hosting large events.
Trump’s carelessness didn’t just jeopardize his own health, and that of his wife, his aides, and the Secret Service. The September 26 White House event for the Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett appears to have compromised the health of many important officials. “More than 100 people gathered,” NPR reported. “Guests mingled, hugged and kissed on the cheek, most without wearing masks. An indoor reception followed the outdoor ceremony. Seven days later, at least eight people who were at the ceremony have tested positive.” Someone may die because of the White House’s bizarre laxness at an unnecessary event. And because U.S. senators are among the infected, its consequences could conceivably delay or even derail Barrett’s nomination. Nothing like this could have happened to a president exercising good judgment.
But the drama of recent days should not overshadow Trump’s actions prior to his illness. His compounding failures of leadership date back to the very beginning of the pandemic.
Mendacity was his most avoidable failure. Presidents in a public-health crisis should tell the truth. Trump lied to Americans from the outset of this life-threatening emergency. In early February, he privately told Bob Woodward that COVID-19 spread through the air and was more dangerous than the flu, even as he downplayed the seriousness of the disease in public. “I wanted to always play it down,” he later told Woodward. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” The false impression he gave was echoed by his allies through the conservative media. Millions would have taken COVID-19 more seriously if Trump hadn’t repeatedly downplayed it. But instead of leveling with Americans, Trump kept lying month after month.
“We’re very close to a vaccine,” he declared on February 25. On February 28, just before an explosion in cases, he told Americans that the virus would soon disappear, “like a miracle.” In early March, long before the typical person could get tested for COVID-19, Trump told Americans that anyone who wanted a test for the disease could get one. On March 24, he asserted that a shutdown lasting months was untenable, in part because suicides “definitely would be in far greater numbers than the numbers that we’re talking about with regard to the virus.” On April 10, Trump said that the final number of U.S. deaths could be as few as 55,000, a mark the country surpassed before the end of that month. A week later, Trump said that the death toll would maybe reach 65,000. In May, he expressed the hope that the pandemic would end with fewer than 100,000 lives lost, though that death toll was quickly exceeded.
Throughout those months, the U.S. regulatory state was failing in various ways. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed its own test procedures early on, but those proved to be faulty and based on contaminated materials,” the economist Tyler Cowen told me. “At the same time, the CDC legally prevented Americans from pursuing other testing options. That is a major reason America fell behind in the testing race, and with its late start, America was not able to buy up enough testing materials before those items became very scarce.”
A better president would have shored up America’s public-health infrastructure prior to the pandemic rather than letting it continue to decay. A better president would’ve seen the earliest failures of the regulatory state and used the powers of his office to correct them as quickly as possible. But rather than constantly insisting that the regulatory state treat COVID-19 more like an emergency and emphasizing that brief bureaucratic delays could cost thousands or tens of thousands of lives, Trump repeatedly focused on downplaying the challenge that America faced. As Ronald Klain, who served as chief of staff to two different Democratic vice presidents, told my Atlantic colleague Ed Yong, “In the best circumstances, it’s hard to make the bureaucracy move quickly. It moves if the president stands on a table and says, ‘Move quickly.’ But it really doesn’t move if he’s sitting at his desk saying it’s not a big deal.”
Trump’s failures can be exaggerated. He is not the only public official to err. His defenders are correct when they observe that Anthony Fauci fumbled his early messaging on masks, that various governors failed to adequately protect nursing homes in their jurisdictions, and that public-health officials undermined the culture of social distancing when they put out politicized statements justifying large public gatherings to protest the death of George Floyd. Many officials at the national and state levels behaved in ways that suggest they should not be trusted in future emergencies. But Trump is the only one running for president on his record.
Besides, a core part of the president’s job in an emergency is to glean useful advice from experts while overruling them when their narrow insights are outweighed by broader national interests––but for the most part, Trump neither accepted the best expert advice nor rejected the worst. He presided over the worst of both worlds. “Caution has become politically contentious in part because of disputes over whether this spring’s shutdowns were necessary. That is a legitimate subject for debate,” Scott Gottlieb and Yuval Levin wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “But that dispute has kept us from grasping the truly critical mistake––the failure to deploy diagnostic tests early that would have helped gauge where the virus was spreading. Some cities, such as New York, were on the brink of collapse. Others still had little spread and containment was possible. This failure led both to exploding caseloads and overbroad shutdowns.”
No one can pinpoint exactly how many excess deaths Trump is wholly or partially responsible for, or how much excess economic pain America is suffering because of his poor job performance, not only because of the complexity of parceling out blame and the hypothetical nature of what different leaders might have done, but also because the death toll is still rising––every week or two, COVID-19 is killing more Americans than died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
And winter is coming. Cold weather drives people inside, public-health directives that allowed many businesses to reopen by doing as much as possible outdoors will no longer be feasible in colder regions, isolated people will want to travel home to gather with family for winter holidays, and the flu season is almost here. Back in mid-September, when there were roughly 40,000 new cases of COVID-19 each day, my colleague James Hamblin interviewed Fauci. “As we approach the fall and winter months, it is important that we get the baseline level of daily infections much lower,” Fauci told him, adding that “we must, over the next few weeks, get that baseline of infections down to 10,000 per day, or even much less if we want to maintain control of this outbreak.” But Trump had no plan to do that. Daily new cases are still at more than 40,000.
Trump’s response has not been to try something different as winter nears. In fact, his primary message to Americans when he left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center was that they should not fear the disease, because medical treatments have improved and a vaccine is on the way.
Once a vaccine does arrive, distributing it to Americans and persuading skeptics to take it will prove challenging. Trump has given ample reason to conclude that he is not capable of rising to the occasion.
Voters need not speculate as to how Trump might perform in a high-stakes emergency, because he showed us how he did perform: He lied to the American public; he did not avert or quickly correct the federal bureaucracy’s most serious errors; he repeatedly gave false assurances that contributed to many Americans being less careful than they should have been; he responded to catastrophic levels of death by pretending that victory was right around the corner, rather than changing strategies; he presided over a country that was outperformed by much of the world; he failed at the relatively simple task of protecting himself and his wife; and that latest failure threatened the lives of U.S. senators, White House staffers, and many others. Trump answered a 3 a.m. phone call, and he bungled it. Don’t let him answer another one.