As Donald Trump held that press conference telling Americans fearful about the coronavirus to take two aspirin and call him in the morning, a senior whistleblower in his administration told Congress that federal health employees without training or equipment were interacting with quarantined Americans and quite possibly spreading the disease.
With his utter failure to rise to the biggest domestic crisis of his administration—not counting ones of his own making like children dying at the border—who could in good conscience vote to give him a second term? He’s shown he’s so burdened by personal insecurities and concern for himself that he has no bandwidth left to deal with the harm that could befall us, including death by epidemic.
Our best hope is for Trump to quarantine himself.
The president who fictionalized the last crisis via a black Sharpie, revising official weather maps to place Alabama in the path of Hurricane Dorian, is doing the same thing with this crisis, but in the other direction. Now he’s minimizing the trouble we’re really in as the virus spreads. The 15th confirmed American case—not counting those from the Diamond Princess cruise ship—arose out of the blue, from a woman who hadn’t been to China or in contact with anyone else known to be carrying the disease. As Trump shrugs off the dire warnings of his own Centers for Disease Control to insist that this is fine, we’ve moved on to a state of “community spread,” where everyone is vulnerable and all bets are off.
Trump might have never formally addressed the coronavirus crisis if it hadn’t become a stock market crisis. But rather than help the market, the day after Trump’s appearance it plunged another 1,000 points. His response showcased his every weakness. Rather than a somber address to his fellow Americans from the East Room lashed to a teleprompter, he went for a riff off the top of his scrambled head full of lies, demeaning nicknames, insults for his enemies, and deflection of his own responsibility. His praise wasn’t for the World Health Organization but for his fellow authoritarian, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who’s handled the virus so badly he could be voted out of office—and that’s in an autocracy. Trump spent more time on the Fed and finances than on disease and directives. He blame-shifted, saying stocks had plummeted Tuesday because of a Democrat debate that started hours after the markets had closed. If an asteroid hit the earth, he would blame Obama.
Replay Trump’s press conference for a glimpse of what happens when the boss has one idea of what should happen and more sensible people another. We’ve heard of aides sneaking into the Oval Office to remove documents from the Resolute Desk before Trump can sign them, patching documents he’s ripped to go to the archives, blocking visitors who feed his paranoia. But it’s worse when he conducts himself recklessly in a matter of life and death. Watch the president, live, babbling on with alternative facts—it could spread, it probably won’t, who knows—while standing behind him were doctors and scientists who knew they had to pretend that the president hadn’t just said what he’d just said, or risk being frogmarched out of the building tomorrow like Col. Alexander Vindman. The world’s leading epidemiologist, the National Institute of Health’s Anthony Fauci, had the guts not to thank the president for his leadership but was also careful not to directly contradict Trump’s assertion that there would be a vaccine at a minute-clinic any day now. Fauci calmly explained how vaccines are developed, from the lab to market, and said that one against this virus was a year, if not longer, away.
The virus is giving us a glimpse into how Trump keeps those who work for him destabilized. He shocked his Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, who’d been told he was in charge of coordinating the administration’s response, by announcing on the spot that he was putting the vice president, over whom he exerts total mind-body control, in charge. Now every health official is obligated to clear all statements about the virus with Pence, who as Indiana governor believed that smoking didn’t cause cancer and watched people die from an exploding HIV epidemic because his religious beliefs kept him from instituting a needle-exchange program.
Trump has the feral knowledge a pandemic could keep him from reelection but not the intelligence to manage it. Just as the rest of government is depleted, with more “actings” running agencies than you can count on two hands, Trump treats the nation’s epidemiologists and researchers as temps, to be let go until a rainy day. He explained his deep cuts to the deep state that successfully controlled past epidemics like Ebola (Obama again!) as the steps that any businessman would take to save money by firing and rehiring staff as needed, like baristas at Starbucks.
In the midst of an epidemic he hopes could be ended by warm weather, Trump put out feelers for candidates to replace the head of the already hollowed-out CDC to a White House personnel office already crippled by massive turnover. It’s now headed by his former body man recalled to service after being let go for a personal indiscretion. John McEntee will have to add a search to fill government labs to his full-time mandate to purge anyone who’s done anything Trump doesn’t like.
Although Trump was laughably wrong to blame the stock market crash on Democrats at their debate—the market had long since closed by the time Bernie Sanders stubbornly defended Fidel Castro in a bid to lose Florida—his deflection raises the question of who on stage would best handle a crisis like this one.
One was built for it. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg may be too rich and too thin, a party-jumper, clumsy with a joke and late to the race. But it was he, not Rudy Giuliani, who proved to be America’s mayor after 9/11, successfully doing the massive job of restoring the city after that catastrophe.
That’s not an endorsement. I’d vote for a Ritz cracker. But it is a recognition of the unflashy, data-driven competence we need to recover from four years of a lawless, vengeful, reckless, vile, crass, willfully ignorant and lazy president. Even Wall Street’s called Trump out. No one wants to invest in a country where they can’t trust the president to tell the truth. The rest of us can’t either. We don’t have a market to send that message. We have something more lasting. It’s called an election.