Almost a quarter million Americans have died from COVID-19. Some 77,000 are now hospitalized, about a fifth of those in the ICU. The country has been reporting roughly 150,000 cases a day for a week, and the numbers seem likely to rise. Hospitals, and the people who work in them, are overwhelmed. The pandemic has been a catastrophe for months, but it seems to be reaching its worst moment in the United States, despite promising advances in vaccine development.
The nation cries out for leadership, yet amid one of the worst crises to face the country in decades, President Donald Trump is nowhere to be found. He is hunkered down in the White House, not giving interviews or speaking to the public except through his Twitter account, where he is mostly spreading disinformation about the election.
Before November 3, the question of what Trump might do in the likely event of a loss was a topic of speculation: Would he cling to office, denying the results of the election? Or would he quit and slink away? The answer, we now know, is both: He has abdicated nearly all of the work of the presidency, but without either putting a temporary successor, such as Vice President Mike Pence, in charge, or allowing the formal transition to President-elect Joe Biden to begin.
Trump’s public schedules tell the story. He had nothing on his calendar yesterday, just like Tuesday. Monday he had lunch with Pence. Over the weekend, he golfed. Last week, he met with aides, spoke in the Rose Garden about Operation Warp Speed, and attended Veterans Day commemorations, but little else.
The president hasn’t given an interview since before Election Day. Beyond the Rose Garden remarks, a dangerous but deflated statement two days after Election Day, and brief, defiant comments in the hours after polls closed, Trump has largely disappeared from public view—a jarring turn of events, given his omnipresence for the past five years, and especially in the closing weeks of the campaign. For several days immediately after the election, even his Twitter account was subdued, though it’s back up at full volume now. A little (or a lot) less Trump might be cause for celebration if not for all the things a president has to do, especially in a crisis like the current one.
Give the man his due: Losing a presidential election must be miserable. (The late Senator John McCain often joked that after his 2008 defeat, “I slept like a baby: sleep two hours, wake up, and cry.”) That must be especially true for a president who made the election a referendum on himself. But leadership means at least letting that grief coexist with the needs of the country he really was elected to lead four years ago.
There are a few exceptions to Trump’s indolence. He has continued to send judicial nominations, which stand to be his major legacy, to the Senate. He reportedly toyed with the idea of starting a war with Iran, though advisers believe they’ve talked him out of it. And he has been working on a spree of punitive firings, on Tuesday dismissing the election-security official Chris Krebs not because he did a bad job, but because he did too good a job and said so, which undermines the president’s bogus election-fraud complaints.
But there’s a great deal that really does need doing. The pandemic is the most obvious example, but Anthony Fauci said on Sunday that the president hasn’t attended a meeting of the White House Coronavirus Task Force for “several months.” Trump was slow to acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic, because he worried that it would imperil his reelection. The conclusion of the election could free him from those concerns, except that Trump hasn’t admitted that the election is over.
The president could also focus on persuading Congress to pass some sort of economic-relief bill to mitigate the damage caused by the virus. Businesses are failing, state and local governments are going broke, and 12 million Americans could soon lose unemployment assistance. The federal government is also funded only into next month. The president could have more effectively worked to solve these problems before the election, when he had more political muscle to use on recalcitrant Republican senators, but any effort now would be better late than never. For Trump to want to do this, though, he’d have to care about the condition of his fellow Americans, especially those who didn’t vote for him, and he’s shown little evidence that he does.
Setting aside national priorities, Trump could also be making partisan moves. He could concentrate his efforts on helping the Republican Party maintain its hold on two Senate seats in Georgia, for which there are runoffs in January. The Trump-friendly conservative columnist Byron York reports that Republicans in Congress want to see the president doing more in those races. “Republicans from Mitch McConnell down are telling Trump he has the opportunity to leave the Republican Party in a stronger position in Washington than any GOP president since Ronald Reagan,” York writes. But Trump doesn’t really care about the institutional Republican Party; all he cares about is himself. (York notes the one talking point that could sway Trump: It’d be a good way to screw over Biden, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.)
If Trump doesn’t want to do any of these things, he could designate someone else to do them, such as Pence, but the president hasn’t done that, either. Back at the start of the pandemic, he appointed Pence to lead the task force, but quickly realized that he was unwilling to yield that much spotlight.
At one point, generous delegation seemed to be the likely path of his presidency. By the time he was elected, it was clear that Trump knew little about government and had little interest in learning, and didn’t even have strong views about most issues outside of a few core ones: trade, immigration, and so on. The former Ohio Governor John Kasich has said Trump’s campaign offered him a chance to be Trump’s running mate and the most powerful vice president in history—in charge of all domestic and foreign policy—while Trump would concentrate on the more symbolic “making America great again.” (Trump denies this.)
Instead, Trump decided to keep the power for himself but mostly not exercise it. Throughout his presidency, he’s largely been an absentee president, dipping in briefly on issues such as health care but never really getting into the weeds. He was tenacious in pursuing his key issues, but never bothered with most of his other responsibilities. His notable success with judicial appointments is due in large part to his having delegated the operation to a handful of aides, who coordinated closely with the conservative Federalist Society and allies on the Hill.
Trump’s absenteeism was not an obvious problem for the first three years of his presidency—in fact, for those who opposed him, it was a feature, because it meant that his worst ideas were less likely be enacted. But the advent of the coronavirus, and then widespread social unrest following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, offered a dramatic demonstration of the void left by an absent president, and of how sins of omission could be as dangerous as sins of commission.
As those crises first flared, Trump at least had the incentive of a looming reelection campaign to make him go through some of the motions. With the votes cast, he no longer has any reason to even pretend he cares or is doing the work. The nation is left with a president fighting to keep a job he has no interest in actually performing.