Donald Trump will have to live with the political fallout from his own ham-fisted admission to Bob Woodward that he downplayed the virus as an effort to calm Americans.
It’s an incident that amplifies two of Trump’s most glaring weaknesses. First, his narcissism. No one, after all, forced Trump to give Woodward White House access or interviews. If he deluded himself into believing he could convince Woodward to frame his presidency in a positive light, that’s on him.
Second, his complete lack of messaging discipline. The president’s unscripted rants and maximalist rhetoric have their moments in political warfare, but they do not engender confidence when dealing with a genuine crisis. Everything is the “best” or the “worst,” nothing or everything. There was no reason for him to have been as dismissive as he was about coronavirus.
As Rich Lowry points out, other than the early testing blunders, Trump’s statements have been the worst part of the administration’s coronavirus response. New York’s incompetent governor Andrew Cuomo, who oversaw and aggravated the deadly disaster in New York, still enjoys high approval ratings largely because of his press conferences and other communication efforts (with a lot of help from media). What you say matters.
Unlike Cuomo, though, the Trump administration took all kinds of action relatively early. It’s fine to criticize Trump’s response, but I have yet to hear how Democrats could have contained the coronavirus, much less saved the economy while doing so.
Yet we’ve now gone from “Trump said something stupid” to hysterical partisan accusations such as “Trump will likely shoulder the blame for at least 100,000 American deaths” and “200,000 Americans have died because neither Donald Trump nor Bob Woodward wanted to risk anything substantial to keep the country informed.”
Even ABC News wonders if the disease “might have been contained” had Trump said something different in February. This is unadulterated revisionism.
The day Trump tweeted that coronavirus was “very much under control in the USA,” Nancy Pelosi was imploring people to visit Chinatown in San Francisco. This was weeks after the House had already been briefed on the coronavirus by the CDC.
Can you imagine the nation’s reaction had Trump — or Pelosi — demanded that states shut down their entire economies over five infections and zero known deaths in February?
Put it this way: The supposed foresight of Joe Biden involved a cut-and-paste op-ed in USA Today in late January, where the candidate, or someone on his staff, offered a number of distorted contentions about CDC funding and misleading Ebola comparisons, and these words: “Cases have been confirmed in a dozen countries, with at least five in the United States. There will likely be more.” Oh, likely more than five, you say?
Biden was still holding campaign events in Michigan in March, more than a month after his op-ed. By the time Kamala Harris was complaining about the lack of Trump officials at a Homeland Security committee meeting, the administration had already developed an initiative to “expedite the development” of a coronavirus vaccine — the kind of vaccine that Harris recently cast doubt on for political reasons.
The Trump administration placed a temporary partial shutdown on travel from China on February 2 — exempting citizens, green-card holders, and some others — and it was met with derision and accusations of prejudice. Those who would now argue that this decision came too late would have only been angrier if it had come any earlier. (At any rate, the disease was already here.)
But the first question, as far as I can tell, asked about COVID during a Democratic Party primary debate — 22 days after Trump curbed travel from China — was about travel bans. Not a single Democrat said he or she would impose one. Not a single Democrat offered any concrete policy ideas for containing a worldwide pandemic other than to give more money to the CDC and “work with allies.”
Biden, in fact, admitted that the United States was in the dark when it came to China, saying, “We have to know what’s going on; we have to be there with you, and insist on it and insist, insist, insist.”
I’m not sure Biden triple-insisting would have changed the Chinese Communist attitudes. We now know that China even lied to its allies at the World Health Organization, denying it much-needed data. We know it hampered U.S. efforts to deal with the spread. A University of Southampton study says that if Chinese Communists had acted three weeks sooner, worldwide cases would have been reduced by 95 percent. Yet one of the major topics in the media during those weeks in March was whether it was xenophobic to blame that nation.
I hold no brief for Woodward, but the idea that he withheld some vital information from the public about the severity of coronavirus, or that Trump was privy to some secret, doesn’t hold up. Nor do I really comprehend the theory that Trump is intentionally trying to kill Americans. The United States basically did what most other Western nations did at basically the same time they did it. Going back now and reading pieces from experts, it’s clear that they knew little about how the virus worked or what the impact would be.
According to the 2019 Global Health Security Index, the United States was the “best prepared” to deal with a pandemic. Even if we were, there is no free country that can be on a perpetual war footing, organizing and planning for every conceivable emergency and eventuality at all times.
Sweden never fully locked down, and it has a lower per capita death rate than the British, who are about to lock down again. Not even tiny nations such as New Zealand and Israel, which can close down their borders, were able to “contain” COVID totally. It hasn’t mattered what your health-care system looks like, either. Every major country with a higher fatality rate than the United States right now — Peru, Belgium, Spain, the U.K., Bolivia, Brazil, Italy — or close — Sweden and Mexico — has universal government-provided health care.
Of course, it’s fair to point out that Democrats weren’t in the White House when this pandemic broke out. But there’s also a presidential race going on right now. It’s also fair to point out that there’s no evidence that those who want to attain power would have been — or would be — any better prepared. And the idea that we could have stopped this in February or March is risible.