Politics & Policy

Was Donald Trump Distracted from the Coronavirus Threat by Impeachment?

President Donald Trump at the daily coronavirus response briefing at the White House, March 27, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Impeachment can’t take sole blame for the government’s early missteps in addressing the pandemic, but it undeniably played a part in them.

Mitch McConnell told Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday that in the early days of the global coronavirus pandemic, the government was distracted by impeachment:

Hewitt: In your experience in the Senate, was Senator Cotton the first one to say hey, Leader, hey Mitch, this is a deadly situation that I do not trust to the Chinese? Was he first?

McConnell: He was first, and I think Tom was right on the mark. And it came up while we were tied down on the impeachment trial. And I think it diverted the attention of the government, because everything every day was all about impeachment. But Tom figured this out early, and he was absolutely right.

Headlines to the contrary notwithstanding, in context McConnell was clearly aiming to give credit to Tom Cotton rather than to make excuses. But was he right?

The Center Ring

At the simplest level, if you just ask, “Were President Trump and his senior aides distracted by impeachment?” the answer is, “Of course they were.” But how much that matters requires us to reconstruct the context of two months ago, which now seems like the distant past.

The House impeached Trump on December 18. The Senate trial began January 16, was effectively wrapped up with the vote to hear no live witnesses on Friday, January 31, and concluded with the vote of acquittal on February 5, the day after Trump’s State of the Union address. Impeachment was an all-consuming drama for this White House, the Congress, and the Washington press corps. It swamped coverage of the Democratic presidential race just as the Iowa caucuses kicked the voting off. Nearly everyone scoffing at McConnell today was spending vastly more of their energy on impeachment at the time than they were on the virus news out of China. The possibility that impeachment would distract the government from more important things was part of the debate at the time over whether to go through with it. For those of us who questioned the wisdom of forcing a House vote and Senate trial when the outcome was predetermined, the waste of time and attention was part of the case against impeachment; for those who saw the process as a way to inflict political damage on an administration they regard as deeply dangerous, keeping the president occupied was a bonus.

There was a good deal of debate at the time about who was and was not distracted from what by impeachment. On January 6, Elizabeth Warren claimed that Trump’s authorization of a military strike on Qassem Soleimani was driven by his being “upset” at impeachment and was intended to distract the public from it. On January 18, CNN’s Jim Acosta reported that:

Donald Trump has appeared “distracted” by the impeachment trial that begins on Tuesday, according to a source close to the White House who speaks to the President regularly. “Why are they doing this to me,” the source quoted Trump as saying repeatedly, telling people around him this weekend at Mar-a-Lago that he “can’t understand why he is impeached.”

Trump’s administration, however, was not paralyzed, even with the president preoccupied. On January 23, David Graham of The Atlantic argued that “even as the president’s impeachment trial moves forward, the White House is acting aggressively on a range of policy proposals that are politically, legally, or morally suspect, wagering—probably correctly—that the press and the people will mostly overlook them amid the drama in the Senate.”

To the extent that impeachment was consuming the finite attention of senior policymakers in the White House and on Capitol Hill, we can only be thankful that Senate Republicans wrapped up the trial by voting down additional witnesses on January 31. Had the Democrats gotten their wish, Washington would have been consumed for additional critical weeks into February looking backward at Ukraine instead of forward at the threat of the virus.

Attention to the Virus

The American response to the coronavirus was, in retrospect, too slow and too complacent. There is plenty of blame to go around. As Jim Geraghty has detailed, any accounting begins with China, which misled the international community about the nature and scope of the original epidemic in Wuhan. The World Health Organization was at best gullible in relying on Chinese assurances to insist, into mid-January, that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in Wuhan, China.” And, yes, our own leaders dropped the ball, too.

Key health agencies within the federal government — the CDC and National Institutes of Health — were not inactive during January, but aside from a ban on foreign travel from China, there was little public leadership from the president. There were early, obvious-in-retrospect missteps such as the CDC’s botching the early coronavirus-testing kits and the FDA’s dragging its feet on approval of private testing development and inspection of equipment. While FDA red tape is a problem inherent to the agency’s design and culture, it is precisely the kind of problem that can be mitigated by the hands-on leadership of a bull-in-a-china-shop figure such as Trump. If you read the timeline on the Trump campaign’s website, which is designed to cast the federal response in the most favorable possible light, you will notice that the items before February 5 are almost all agency-level actions rather than White House actions. The White House Coronavirus Task Force wasn’t formed until January 29.

On February 4, Trump included a brief mention of the outbreak in the State of the Union address: “Protecting Americans’ health also means fighting infectious diseases. We are coordinating with the Chinese government and working closely together on the coronavirus outbreak in China. My administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.” Little of the media commentary on the speech focused on that line. As late as February 19, Lester Holt and Chuck Todd of NBC moderated a Democratic debate without asking a single question about the virus.

Some voices in politics and the media (including, as Ross Douthat notes, an odd assortment of people on the right) were beginning to sound alarms about the virus in late January and early February, but they were a distinct minority. As Zeynep Tufekci details at The Atlantic, “From the end of January through most of February, a soothing message got widespread traction, not just with Donald Trump and his audience, but among traditional media in the United States, which exhorted us to worry about the flu instead, and warned us against overreaction.” Many politicians focused more on fear of anti-Asian racism than on the risk of a real health crisis. Mayor Bill de Blasio spent much of that period giving New Yorkers disastrous health advice.

Impeachment, however, didn’t cause Trump to claim on January 22 that “we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China” or to tweet thanks to Xi Jinping two days later for China’s “efforts and transparency.” Nor can the failures of Trump and other federal officials to take the outbreak seriously after the end of impeachment be blamed on the distractions of January.

Presidents are supposed to be able to do multiple things at once, but they are also human, and this president is more easily distracted than most. History is full of examples of governments caught looking the wrong way at the wrong time because their leaders were too busy putting out other fires. The British Cabinet spent the early summer of 1914 worried about the Irish question instead of the dispute between Austria and Serbia over the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, until, as Winston Churchill wrote later, “The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began immediately, but by perceptible graduations, to fall and grow upon the map of Europe.” Much of the story of America’s delayed reaction to the coronavirus can be told without mention of impeachment, but it is hard to deny that Washington was looking in the wrong direction until a strange light again began to fall and grow upon the map of the world.

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