Late last week, the US government overruled objections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to put 14 coronavirus-infected Americans on an airplane with other healthy people.
The Trump administration swiftly leaked that the president was mad about this decision, and that nobody told him about it at the time. That could be true (or not — Trump and his team lie about things all the time). But even if it is true, it’s a confession of a stunning level of incompetence. The president is so checked out that he’s not in the loop even on critical decisions and is making excuses for himself after the fact.
Resolving interagency disagreements is his job. But Trump has never shown any real interest or aptitude for his job, something that used to loom large as an alarming aspect of his administration. That fear has faded into the background now that the US has gone years without many major domestic crises (the disasters and failed response in Puerto Rico being a big exception).
The Covid-19 outbreak, however, is a reminder that it remains a scary world and that the American government deals with a lot of important, complicated challenges that aren’t particularly ideological in nature. And we have no reason to believe the current president is up to the job. Trump not only hasn’t personally involved himself in the details of coronavirus response (apparently too busy pardoning former Celebrity Apprentice guests), he also hasn’t designated anyone to be in charge.
Infectious disease response necessarily involves balancing a range of considerations from throughout government public health agencies and critical aspects of economic and foreign policy. That’s why in fall 2014, the Obama administration appointed Ron Klain to serve as “Ebola czar” — a single official in charge of coordinating the response across the government. Trump has, so far, put nobody in charge, even though it’s already clear that because of the coronavirus’s effect on major Asian economies, the virus is going to be a bigger deal for Americans.
The Trump administration has asked Congress for $2.5 billion in emergency funding to fight the outbreak. But this is just a fig leaf. The reality is this administration keeps trying to — and at times does — slash funding for relevant government programs.
Trump keeps slashing pandemic response
In 2005, during the H1N5 bird flu scare, the US Agency for International Development ran a program called Predict to identify and research infectious diseases in animal populations in the developing world. Most new viruses that impact humans — apparently including the one causing the Covid-19 disease — emerge through this route, so investing in early research is the kind of thing that, at modest ongoing cost, served to reduce the likelihood of rare but catastrophic events.
The program was initiated under George W. Bush and continued through Barack Obama’s eight years in office; then, last fall the Trump administration shut it down.
That’s part of a broader pattern of actual and potential Trump efforts to shut down America’s ability to respond to pandemic disease.
- Trump’s first budget proposal contained proposed cuts to the CDC that former Director Tom Frieden warned were “unsafe at any level of enactment.”
- Congress mercifully didn’t agree to any such cuts, but as recently as February 11 — in the midst of the outbreak — Trump proposed huge cuts to both the CDC and the National Institutes of Health.
- Perhaps because his budget officials were in the middle of proposing cuts to disease response, it’s only over this past weekend that they pivoted and started getting ready to ask for the additional money that coping with Covid-19 is clearly going to cost. But experts say they’re still lowballing it.
- In early 2018, my colleague Julia Belluz argued that Trump was “setting up the US to botch a pandemic response” by, for example, forcing US government agencies to retreat from 39 of the 49 low-income countries they were working in on tasks like training disease detectives and building emergency operations centers.
- Instead of taking such warnings to heart, later that year, “the Trump administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure,” according to Laurie Garrett, a journalist and former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
As it happens, the Covid-19 problem arose from China, rather than from Africa, where the programs Trump shut down were working. But now that containment in China seems to have failed, the next big global risk is that the virus will spread to countries that have weaker public health infrastructure, from which it will spread uncontrollably — exactly the sort of countries where Trump has scaled back assistance.
Meanwhile, to the extent Trump has done anything in the midst of the crisis, his predominant focus seems to have been on reassuring financial markets, rather than on addressing the public health issue.
Trump picked a strange time to turn globalist
Austria, which borders northern Italy, is looking at reimposing border controls in light of the Covid-19 outbreak in several towns near Milan. Israel has taken action to bar all foreign nationals who have been to South Korea and Japan in the past 14 days from entering the country — adding to an existing ban on visitors from China.
The Israeli response, so far, is a bit of an outlier and perhaps has gone too far.
Still, it’s a bit strange that Donald Trump of all people has done so little to restrict travel at this point — you can book a direct flight from Beijing to Los Angeles tomorrow for $680 while Trump is busy expanding his anti-Muslim travel ban and crippling refugee resettlement based on made-up terrorism concerns.
Trump’s only public statements about this growing crisis are a weeks-old series of tweets in which he expressed confidence in Chinese leadership and said the problem would go away when the weather gets warmer. (Scientists say that may not be true.)
Now that the stock market is potentially crashing on coronavirus fears, maybe Trump will try to rouse himself to do something rather than underreacting for the sake of the Dow. But the biggest problem with Trump is it’s far from clear he really can pull himself together to do the job.
Trump is busy corrupting the American government
Over the past week, when the breakdown of some containment measures became known, Trump was busy replacing his director of national intelligence with an unqualified political hack who will also simultaneously serve as ambassador to Germany. It’s bad to have unqualified people in key roles, but the reason Trump did it is worse — Richard Grenell was installed after his predecessor Joseph Maguire got fired for briefing Congress about intelligence regarding Russian activities and the 2020 presidential election.
Trump felt the contents of Maguire’s briefing were politically embarrassing to him, and therefore wanted the information withheld.
That’s typical of Trump’s approach to governance — he sees the entire executive branch as essentially his personal staff, whose only obligation is to advance his personal interests.
But in a crisis, it can be good for the country for embarrassing information to come to light if that’s what it takes to provoke a stronger and more accurate response. Trump, however, has clearly signaled he does not think this is the right way to do things. Consequently, in the middle of the crisis, Trump’s national security adviser went on Sunday shows to smear Sen. Bernie Sanders, rather than provide credible information about the international situation to the public.
Trump is also busy having his Customs and Border Protection officials wield airport security as a tactical weapon against the population of New York when these are the people who we’ll need to screen travelers.
More broadly, Trump has a well-deserved reputation for dishonesty and has acted over the years to clean house of any officials (James Mattis, Dan Coats, etc.) who develop a reputation for contradicting him. It’s almost impossible to know how this administration could convey accurate and credible information to Americans in a crisis even if it wanted to.
The country has thus far muddled through with Trump at the helm better than Americans had any right to hope, but the emergence of the occasional crisis is a constant in government. And with the world on the brink of a potential disaster, it’s terrifying to contemplate the reality that the man in charge just isn’t up to the job.