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If the coronavirus fight is a “war,” Trump has been a disastrous commander in chief

Some say Trump is the worst “wartime president” ever.

President Donald Trump salutes a US Marine as he prepares to board Marine One to depart from the White House on January 9, 2020, in Washington, DC. 
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Trump has framed the fight against the coronavirus as a war against an “invisible enemy.” But if this is a war, Trump has been a disastrous commander in chief.

He’s offered the nation no real plan to defeat the coronavirus. He continually undercuts the authority of his “generals” in this war — top health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci who are critical to the war’s success. He’s failed to give his front-line troops — the doctors, nurses, and hospital staff working to treat and save coronavirus patients — the vital equipment they need. And he’s done little to bring the country together to support the war effort.

“I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump infamously told reporters in March.

Americans must not only suffer the indignity of being drafted into Trump’s war, then, but also suffer the indignity of losing it. More US citizens have died from the coronavirus than during the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq Wars combined.

“These are the worst decisions that any commander has made even considering Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam,” Kristofer Goldsmith, an Iraq War veteran, told me, “and it’s all happening here in the United States.”

Trump has no war plan

Vox’s Ezra Klein noted two weeks ago how amazing it is that, months after the US declared a national emergency over the coronavirus, there is no plan to defeat the disease and return the country back to normal:

The closest [the administration] has come is a set of guidelines for states to consult when reopening. You can read them yourself at the White House’s “Opening America” landing page. The guidelines are not quite a plan, but they are at least a framework: They call for states to reopen when caseloads have fallen for 14 days, when hospitals can test all health care workers continually, when contact tracing architecture is up and running.

It’s as outrageous as if Trump had sent actual troops into an actual war with no war plan.

“In the war against this virus, we need a campaign plan, and the commanders and command structure to execute it. We don’t seem to have either a plan or commanders to implement it,” Andrew Weber, the Pentagon’s top biological defense official from 2011 to 2014, told me. “That was perhaps excusable in February and March, but beyond the pale as we enter month six of this pandemic.”

Goldsmith, who gathered intelligence for the US military in 2005, told me he sees parallels between the lack of planning for the Iraq War and Trump’s handling of the coronavirus.

“This administration, like [George W.] Bush’s, is going to war rhetorically while having ‘troops’ go into war without the proper equipment, numbers, or strategy,” he told me. “A lot of the frustrations first responders are feeling today are what soldiers in Iraq felt.”

On top of that, Trump is already declaring victory despite the war being far from over. He’s calling to reopen the country and have everything go back to the way it was, even as the US confirms around 1,000 to 2,000 new coronavirus cases per day. This, in effect, is just like when President George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” well before the Iraq War was won.

This approach, to put it mildly, is not a war plan. It’s improvisation. It’s the fighting equivalent of saying, “We’re not going to follow sound military strategy. We’ll just kill when we need to.” That may help at the margins, but it won’t lead to victory.

Trump undercuts his coronavirus generals

Despite the best advice out there, Trump has decided he alone knows the path to victory. But so far the path he’s chosen has led to disaster.

Since March, the president has boosted hydroxychloroquine as a miracle drug against the coronavirus, claiming it has “a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.”

Asked soon after if Trump was right that the drug was effective against the coronavirus, Fauci said the president oversold the antimalarial drug’s efficacy against Covid-19.

“No. The answer is no,” Fauci said in front of Trump during a White House press conference. “You really can’t make any definitive statement about it.”

Immediately, the president stepped in, saying he was still a “big fan” of hydroxychloroquine and that he’s “seen things that are impressive.”

It was one of the earliest, most dramatic moments in Trump’s handling of the country’s coronavirus response. Here was a specialist in the field of pandemic response clearly stating that there was no evidence yet that hydroxychloroquine was even effective, let alone a silver bullet. Yet Trump immediately undercut Fauci’s cautious, fact-based response and hyped the unproven drug once again.

Two weeks ago, Fauci told the Senate Health Committee it was too early to consider reopening the country, primarily schools, while the coronavirus rages. “The idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate reentry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far,” he said.

Asked about Fauci’s comments the next day, Trump said he was “surprised,” adding, “[T]o me it’s not an acceptable answer, especially when it comes to schools.”

Rick Bright, a former top US vaccine official and now whistleblower against the president’s handling of the coronavirus, alleges Trump loyalists had him demoted at the Department of Health and Human Services for raising alarms about hydroxychloroquine.

“Government leadership was rushing blindly into a potentially dangerous situation by bringing in non-FDA approved chloroquine from India and Pakistan from facilities that had not been inspected by the FDA,” Bright told reporters in May. “I could not in good conscience ignore the scientific recommendations to limit access to those drugs under the direct care of a doctor, and instead allow political ambition and timelines to override scientific judgment.”

It’s clear the president has no qualms about openly lambasting top advice from his aides, which in Trump’s own parlance would be like him publicly decrying his military’s war strategy. For some, that’s well within his right to do as commander in chief.

“They are advisers to the president, not commanders. They’re not elected officials and have no authority to make decisions on behalf of the nation,” Ephraim Mattos, a former Navy SEAL sniper, told me. “President Trump is the leader and commander and these complex decisions are his to make. His reelectability will rise or fall based on public opinion, and so he absolutely should be outshining his staff.”

There’s a lot of truth to that. Presidents have long pushed back on military advice in wars, and even relieved top commanders who didn’t perform to their liking.

But this reveals one of the major problems (though certainly not the only one) with viewing the coronavirus fight through the lens of war.

“As the organization with legitimate use of force, the military has the power to defend society but also threaten it — so civilian leaders have a ‘right to be wrong’ in order to ensure civilian oversight of the military, which is critical to the functioning of a democracy,” Sara Plana, a warfare expert at MIT, told me.

“In the coronavirus context, the relationship between the government and health experts does not involve this dynamic,” she said, “and it is challenging the expertise of health professionals that threatens society.”

“To question experts so publicly not only undercuts the strategy but portrays a sense that the leaders we all depend on don’t really know what they’re doing,” Plana continued. “That’s a pretty scary thing for Americans who are trying to survive right now.”

Trump isn’t equipping America’s “troops” for battle

Bright, the whistleblower, told a congressional subcommittee earlier this month that the Trump administration never ramped up to give the nation what it needed to combat the disease.

“I knew that we were going to have a crisis for our health care workers because we were not taking action. We were already behind the ball,” he told the panel. “[January] was our last window of opportunity to turn on production to save the lives of our health care workers, and we didn’t act.”

Trump allowed the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) of medical equipment and drugs to dwindle on his watch. Despite the president’s assertions that his predecessor depleted it, Dr. Tara O’Toole, a former homeland security official in the Obama administration, told in April that “the SNS was definitely not an empty shell.”

In late March, Christi Grimm, then the acting inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services, surveyed over 300 hospitals in nearly 50 states and territories to better understand what they faced as an influx of coronavirus patients flooded their facilities.

What she found was “their most significant challenges centered on testing and caring for patients with COVID-19 and keeping staff safe. Hospitals said that severe shortages of testing supplies and extended waits for test results limited hospitals’ ability to monitor the health of patients and staff.”

A firefighter wearing a mask applauds outside of NYU Langone Health Hospital during the nightly “Clap Because We Care” cheer for medical staff and essential workers amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 9, 2020, in New York City.
Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

“They also reported that widespread shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) put staff and patients at risk,” wrote Grimm, whom Trump ousted in May for authoring the report. “In addition, hospitals said that they were not always able to maintain adequate staffing levels or to offer staff adequate support.”

While the report didn’t directly question the federal government’s response, it made clear hospitals still had serious concerns about their ability to care for patients many weeks after the first coronavirus case was detected in the US.

In other words, front-line medical workers were left to face the disease without the requisite armor or weapons.

Trump could have tried to rectify the situation by invoking the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era law that allows the president to compel industry to make needed equipment for a national security emergency. In the coronavirus case, he could require major companies with large factories to make masks, gowns, ventilators, hospital beds, and more.

Instead, Trump wavered for weeks, saying companies were already making those items without government intervention and that any use of the law would somehow turn the American economy socialist.

“We’re a country not based on nationalizing our business,” Trump said during a late March press conference. “Call a person over in Venezuela; ask them how did nationalization of their businesses work out. Not too well. The concept of nationalizing our business is not a good concept.”

But both of those arguments are deeply flawed.

While a lot of private businesses like General Motors and Ford upped their production, the lack of federal government involvement in the procurement and distribution process meant those products weren’t necessarily going to the cities and states in most dire need of them.

As Vox’s Jen Kirby wrote at the time, “State officials keep saying that without some sort of government guidance, they’re left competing for the same equipment (as opposed to having that equipment go where it’s most needed) and thus overpaying.”

And the DPA, when used as intended, doesn’t involve a government takeover of industry. “It doesn’t nationalize businesses, but rather allows the US government to contract with companies to prioritize manufacturing of critical goods — in this case, medical supplies,” Kirby also noted.

“It’s a scalpel, not an ax,” James Hasik, a DPA expert at George Mason University, told me in March.

Trump finally relented on April 2 and invoked the DPA to have companies make more masks and ventilators. That was a good move, but it was far, far too late.

Now, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is telling Americans — citizens of the richest and most powerful country on the planet — to make their own face coverings.

Trump is dividing the country when unity is needed

Three days after 9/11, then-President George W. Bush famously stood atop the smoldering ashes of the World Trade Center and vowed retribution against the attackers. But he also used the occasion to comfort a reeling nation.

“America today is on bended knee in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the workers who work here, for the families who mourn,” he said, his left arm around a first responder. “This nation stands with the good people of New York City and New Jersey and Connecticut as we mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens.”

It was a moment that, at the time, brought the country together.

Goldsmith, the Iraq War veteran, told me Trump had a chance to do the same thing. “We’ve just had a 9/11 moment,” he said, but “the president has chosen quite purposefully not to bring Americans together.” A Bush critic, Goldsmith sounded incredulous when he heard himself say that “George Bush comparatively was so much better at handling a crisis. I now hold fondly the man who sent me to war in Iraq for weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.”

In April, Trump bashed New York City — the epicenter of America’s coronavirus outbreak — falsely claiming officials were inflating the death toll.

A spokesperson for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a staunch Trump opponent, told CBS News at the time that such rhetoric insulted the dead. “These were people with names, hobbies, lives,” the staffer said. “They leave behind grieving loved ones. They deserve to be recognized, not minimized.”

Trump has also continued his habit of attacking those who criticize him or don’t praise him effusively enough. Also in March, Trump told Vice President Mike Pence not to call governors who criticized the administration.

That, in the war analogy, would be like Trump purposefully refusing to arm a battalion because its commander doesn’t like the strategy.

He’s also tried to deflect blame onto former President Barack Obama, in some instances, ludicrously. In April, for example, Trump said his predecessor “left us nothing. We started off with bad, broken tests, and obsolete tests.” The problem with that argument is the coronavirus didn’t exist until 2019 — two years after Obama left office. That makes the state of tests a Trump responsibility, not an Obama one.

Trump has also revived his earlier political attacks on Obama, falsely alleging that he orchestrated an illegal spying operation on the Trump campaign.

Time spent on the conspiracy theories takes away from the time Trump should be focused on winning his war. A national response requires a president focused on the task at hand, not dividing a nation that should come together during a time of crisis.

As expected, the result of Trump’s leadership (or rather, lack thereof) has been a more polarized America.

Put together, it’s clear Trump isn’t winning the war he boasts of waging. Instead, he’s severely outmatched by the enemy he faces. He may pay the price for it at the ballot box in November, but the rest of us may continue to pay for it with our lives.

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