President Trump held a remarkable press conference Friday afternoon. It began with a parade of corporate CEOs who briefly took the podium to explain efforts their companies would take to improve coronavirus screening. But it quickly progressed into a parade of lies, insults, and buck passing by the president himself.
Trump’s core message: All of this is someone else’s fault.
One of the biggest failures — possibly the single biggest failure — of the United States’ response to coronavirus pandemic is our failure to deploy tests that will allow doctors, patients, and public health officials to determine who is infected. The United States has tested far fewer people per capita than any of its peer nations, and by a wide margin.
At one point, Trump was asked about the admission of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that our lag in testing was “a failing.” And he was asked if he takes responsibility for this failure.
Trump’s response: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
The president claimed that “we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules and regulations and specifications from a different time,” and this existing legal infrastructure “wasn’t meant for this kind of event with the kind of numbers that we’re talking about.”
It’s an astonishing claim, and it’s astonishing because Trump has spent the better part of his term dismantling the federal government’s pandemic fighting infrastructure.
How Trump made the government less able to respond to a pandemic
In 2005, the US Agency for International Development developed a program to help detect and research infectious diseases that arise in animal populations and eventual jump to humans — it’s likely that coronavirus is such a disease. This program, which was set up in response to the H1N5 bird flu scare, continued through the rest of the Bush administration and through the entire Obama administration.
The Trump administration shut it down last fall.
Trump has also repeatedly proposed budgets — he most recently did so last month — calling for sharp cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, although Congress resisted such cuts. Former CDC Director Tom Frieden warned that the public health cuts in Trump’s first budget were “unsafe at any level of enactment.”
In 2018, Trump ordered the White House National Security Council’s (NSC) entire global health security arm shut down. And that’s only part of what Trump’s done to hollow out the nation’s public health infrastructure. As Foreign Policy’s Laurie Garrett reports:
Neither the NSC nor [the Department of Homeland Security’s] epidemic teams have been replaced. The global health section of the CDC was so drastically cut in 2018 that much of its staff was laid off and the number of countries it was working in was reduced from 49 to merely 10. Meanwhile, throughout 2018, the U.S. Agency for International Development and its director, Mark Green, came repeatedly under fire from both the White House and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And though Congress has so far managed to block Trump administration plans to cut the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps by 40 percent, the disease-fighting cadres have steadily eroded as retiring officers go unreplaced.
And yet, despite his own efforts to dismantle so much of the nation’s public health infrastructure, Trump spent much of his press conference attacking the Obama administration’s response to the 2009 swine flu outbreak, claiming that “if you go back to the swine flu, it was nothing like this. They didn’t do testing like this and actually they lost 14,000 people and they didn’t do the testing.”
Trump lashed out at a reporter who pointed out his actual record
Not long after Trump refused to take responsibility for the lag in testing, a reporter asked him whether he takes responsibility for disbanding the White House pandemic office.
Trump responded by labeling this inquiry a “nasty question.” He then repeatedly deflected blame for closing down the White House’s pandemic response team to some other, unidentified person.
“I didn’t do it,” Trump claimed. He added that “I don’t know anything about it” and “it’s the administration, perhaps, they do that, you know, people let people go.”
Q: What responsibility do you take for cutting the global pandemic when you took office?— Pod Save America (@PodSaveAmerica) March 13, 2020
TRUMP: "I just think it's a nasty question...When you say me, I didn't do it....I don't know anything about it."
"We're doing a great job." pic.twitter.com/ASkkRY2zML
Presumably, the “administration” that Trump referred to here is the Trump administration.
President Harry Truman famously displayed a sign on his desk with a simple message: “The buck stops here.” The point was that, by accepting the awesome responsibility of the presidency, Truman also had to acknowledge that the nation’s welfare was his responsibility. It is the president’s duty to monitor his own administration. And it is the president’s fault if that administration is malicious or incompetent.
Trump himself expressed a similar sentiment in 2013.
Leadership: Whatever happens, you're responsible. If it doesn't happen, you're responsible.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 8, 2013
Now that Trump is president, however, anything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault.