When a senior White House aide would brief President Donald Trump in 2018 about an Ebola-virus outbreak in central Africa, it was plainly evident that hardships roiling a far-flung part of the world didn’t command his attention. He was zoning out. “It was like talking to a wall,” a person familiar with the matter told me.
Now a new coronavirus that originated in China is confronting him with a potential pandemic, a problem that Trump seems ill-prepared to meet. A crisis that is heading into its third month could draw out every personal and managerial failing that the president has shown to this point. Much of what he’s said publicly about the virus has been wrong, a consequence of downplaying any troubles on his watch. He has long stoked fears that foreigners entering the United States bring disease. Now he may double down on xenophobic suspicions. He has hollowed out federal agencies and belittled expertise, prioritizing instead his own intuition and the demands of his political base. But he’ll need to rely on a bureaucracy he’s maligned to stop the virus’s spread.
“We have a president who doesn’t particularly care about competent administration, and who created a culture in which bad news is shut down,” says Democratic Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, whose state is home to one of multiple airports screening passengers for the coronavirus. “And when you’re dealing with a potential pandemic, you need to know all the bad news. If this disease ends up not overwhelming us, that would be a blessing. But it would not be because the Trump administration was ready. They were not.”
From the first, Trump has offered false reassurance. In a CNBC interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month, Trump maintained that the coronavirus was “totally under control” and that he wasn’t concerned about the risk of a pandemic. “It’s going to be just fine,” he said.
Except that it wasn’t under control—it still isn’t—and no one knows just how bad it will be. “Even a middle schooler wouldn’t have said that,” Michael Mina, an epidemiology professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health, told me. “Everyone is using caution in how we’re framing what the risk is, primarily because we don’t understand what the risk is at this moment. The last thing anyone would say is, ‘We’re not concerned.’ Everyone is concerned.”
Since Trump’s first upbeat assessment, the number of people sickened by the virus has spiraled. At the time of the CNBC interview, 17 people in China had died from the virus and about 540 were infected. Today, the death toll is about 1,900 and the number of infections tops 73,000. At least 15 cases have been reported in the U.S., and an additional 14 Americans infected with the virus arrived yesterday following their evacuation from a cruise ship in Japan.
Much about the virus is still unknown, but you wouldn’t know that listening to Trump. Speaking to the nation’s governors at a conference last week, the president said it would dissipate when the weather turns warm. “Typically, that will go away in April,” Trump said. In fact, no one knows when the outbreak will subside, and what experts have said conflicts with Trump’s Panglossian assurances. Last week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said the virus could linger into next year and eventually establish a “foothold” in the U.S.
Guiding Trump’s response is a hardheaded nationalism. On January 31, the administration announced strict travel bans: Most foreign nationals who’d recently been to China were barred from entering the U.S., and Americans were warned to stay clear of the country. These measures—which career public-health officials argued were needed to delay the virus’s spread—broke with guidance from the World Health Organization, which did not recommend curbs on travel or trade. The restrictions did, however, reflect the alarm coming from Trump’s base.
Inside the administration, some officials maintain that China has not shown needed cooperation or transparency as the virus has spread. “This has been a signal failure of the Communist Chinese Party in handling the crisis,” Peter Navarro, a senior Trump trade adviser who is part of the administration’s effort to combat the outbreak, told me. “The CCP suppressed information early to both the U.S. and Chinese people. This delay allowed the virus to proliferate much faster than it otherwise would and reach other countries that it might otherwise have not.”
But critics from WHO and elsewhere have said the bans are unnecessary and could generate a racist backlash against Chinese people. One Chinese foreign official asked of the U.S.: “Where is its empathy?”
Empathy may be a casualty of Trump’s own phobias: He is squeamish about contagion. A body man traveling with him would make sure that two implements were always in his possession: a Sharpie for autographs and hand sanitizer for germs, said a former White House official, who like others I talked with for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity. Aides would try to suppress coughs in his presence. If they couldn’t stifle repeated sneezes, Trump might order them to leave his presence. “He never said, ‘Go home.’ He just didn’t want them anywhere near him,” the ex-official told me.
When an Ebola epidemic struck in 2014, Trump was unnerved. For months, he sent dire messages with a common theme: Keep the virus out of the U.S. at all costs. He faulted then-President Barack Obama for sending troops to Africa to combat it, and chided him for playing golf amid the outbreak. (A couple of weeks ago, with the number of coronavirus infections piling up, Trump didn’t hesitate to release a picture of himself teeing off at his golf club in West Palm Beach, Florida.)
So determined was he to keep Ebola from coming into the U.S., Trump wanted to keep Americans out. A doctor named Kent Brantly had gone to Liberia to treat Ebola patients and became infected. His life in jeopardy, he was airlifted to a hospital in Atlanta. Trump was watching; he didn’t believe that Brantly should be allowed back home for treatment. “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great—but must suffer the consequences!” he tweeted.
Brantly ultimately recovered. I contacted him recently and asked him about Trump’s hard-line stance. In an email, he didn’t mention the president, but wrote that “we MUST choose compassion over fear. We must choose to respond to people (even in deadly outbreaks of infectious diseases) with actions and words and attitudes that convey compassion and uphold the dignity of our fellow human beings.”
Before long, Trump was running for president on an anti-immigrant platform. One message he pushed was that immigrants carry contagion. In 2015, he put out a statement warning that “tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border,” a claim unsupported by fact.
Should the coronavirus outbreak spread in the U.S., it could pose the biggest test yet of Trump’s managerial competence, given his habit of elevating his own judgment over expert opinion, as I’ve described before.
He has said he knows more about terrorists than the generals, more about social media than Facebook, more about the economy than the Federal Reserve. In 2014, he suggested that he understands disease better than epidemiologists, saying that “Ebola is much easier to transmit than the CDC and government representatives are admitting.”
Amid the outbreak that year, Obama tapped a so-called czar, Ron Klain, to coordinate the work of a slew of federal agencies. Trump has chosen a different model, setting up a 12-member task force headed by a Cabinet member, Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services. The task force has proved balky, say Schatz and his colleague Senator Mazie Hirono, who is also a Hawaii Democrat: Without a single point person in command, there’s a pass-the-buck mentality that has made getting answers difficult. Hirono says that she gets “conflicting information” about how people will be quarantined and who will foot the bill. “When we call [Azar’s] office, they usually have to refer us to other agencies,” she told me. “One of the ways we can change this lack of communication is to have one person in charge. We have a model for that: the Ebola epidemic in 2014.”
For his part, Navarro said the administration’s response has been effective. “The U.S. effort is going to be a model effort in fighting an infectious disease like this,” he told me.
At times, Trump has seemed at odds with his own team. That may have something to do with diverging priorities. He has sought to preserve a relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping as the two spar over trade issues. Throughout the crisis, he’s heaped praise on Xi, but what he hasn’t mentioned is a profound source of frustration for his own coronavirus task force: Chinese leaders have been slow in letting the U.S. in to help.
Here, it might be helpful if Trump had maintained a strong diplomatic corps to smooth negotiations. But morale at the State Department has suffered in the “America first” era, with the president attempting to cut the department’s budget and leaving key positions unfilled. William Burns, a former deputy secretary of state who spent more than 30 years as a diplomat and who retired in 2014, told me: “The sidelining of career expertise over the last three years puts you at a disadvantage in dealing with crises and big challenges like this one.”
Trump insists on being the protagonist in every drama. He wants to promote the idea that everything on his watch is improving. Virology isn’t politics, though. Tweets don’t beget vaccines. Following his instincts in the face of an outbreak that has left the world on edge risks making things worse.