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analysis

Donald Trump, seen here on March 20, 2020, has continued to insist that everything is running smoothly.Erin Schaff/The New York Times News Service

For a few minutes early this week, Donald Trump sounded like a typical U.S. President. Flanked by his coronavirus task force at the White House, he sombrely warned Americans to avoid restaurants, cancel unnecessary travel and stay out of groups of 10 or more people.

The moment was most remarkable for how starkly it contrasted with the rest of the week.

Informed that hospitals across the country were at risk of running out of vital medical supplies, the President said it was not his problem. “The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.”

Asked by a journalist what he would say to citizens frightened by the escalating pandemic, Mr. Trump replied: “I say that you’re a terrible reporter.”

At one point, he even wielded a sharpie to change the name of the pandemic to “Chinese virus” in the text of a briefing paper.

During the worst week yet of the most serious crisis to befall Mr. Trump’s presidency, he spent much of his time picking fights, shifting blame for his government’s inadequate response and putting the responsibility to fight the problem onto others.

Despite his near-constant presence on television – and central place in the narrative of this extraordinary moment in history – the President often felt like a bystander while others handled the difficult task of defending the world’s most powerful country from an invisible enemy.

“Everything he looks at, he sees through a political lens and not through a public-policy or public-health lens,” said Shannon Bow O’Brien, a political scientist at the University of Texas working on a book about Mr. Trump. “To him, there are enemies and allies and there’s nothing in between.”

The number of U.S. coronavirus cases passed 18,000 Friday, with more than 200 deaths. States warned that they face shortages of ventilators, masks and other important equipment. And widespread testing has only just started to ramp up, weeks into the epidemic.

Other levels of government, and the private sector, have stepped up. California, New York and Illinois have told residents to stay home and shuttered most businesses. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine invoked public-health laws to shut down polling stations in his state’s scheduled primary. Car companies offered to use their production lines to turn out medical equipment.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in particular, earned plaudits for his calm and authoritative demeanour – leavened with a parental touch.

“I tell my daughters: Make decisions based on risk versus reward,” he said when faced with images of people blatantly flouting social-distancing guidelines. “For young people to go out in crowds on spring break is so unintelligent and reckless, I can’t even begin to express it. Stay home. Stop the spread. Save lives.”

On Capitol Hill, leaders of both parties are co-operating on a string of economic rescue packages.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, rather than Mr. Trump, handled the key negotiations for the administration. He secured one deal with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that saw a US$100-billion package including paid sick days and an expansion of employment insurance approved this week.

Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Chuck Schumer, are working on a further US$1-trillion package that will offer cash payments to Americans and bailouts for industries hit by the pandemic.

John Hudak, an expert in public administration at Washington’s Brookings Institution think tank, said the comparative paralysis in the White House is a function of Mr. Trump’s more broadly shambolic administration.

In 2018, for instance, the President’s National Security Council disbanded a unit in charge of preparing the government to handle a pandemic. Mr. Trump has also left hundreds of jobs across his administration unfilled. As recently as last week, the administration was even looking to cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“He’s someone who feels like weeding out people he considers disloyal is an effective approach to personnel management. Overlooked are the day-to-day operations of government,” Mr. Hudak said. “When it comes to a crisis and the government needs to mobilize, it’s lacking resources.”

Mr. Trump, for his part, has continued to insist that everything is running smoothly. He has even seemed to forget that he spent the first weeks of the crisis repeatedly playing it down: At one point, he had insisted that cases were going “very substantially down” when they were increasing. Another time, he told a campaign rally that concerns over the virus were a “hoax” cooked up by his political rivals.

But at a press briefing this week, he cast himself instead as the clairvoyant leader who saw the problem before anyone else did.

“I’ve always known … this is a pandemic," he said. “I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”