Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author with Peter Eisner of “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
A terrified nation in the grip of a pandemic tuned into a White House briefing on Thursday and heard not a sober, confident leader, but a salesman hyping unproven treatments, boasting of non-existent achievements, and offering false hope instead of realistic counsel.
Stressing words and phrases like “rapid,” “immediate” and “game-changer,” President Trump made it sound as if the magic pills were in the mail and everything would revert back to normal soon. While Trump touted the use of existing drugs being tried on an experimental basis, the Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn gently but firmly tempered expectations and said he didn’t want to offer “false hope” given the additional research that needs to be done.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, made it even clearer at CNN’s town hall Thursday: “Let’s make sure people understand what it is. Today, there are no proven safe and effective therapies for the coronavirus…there’s no magic drug out there right now.”
For weeks, public health officials have been trying to convey accurate information to the American people while the President continues to spout falsehoods and misinformation. As experts predicted a rising epidemic, the President said, “We’re going very substantially down, not up.” When they said the worst lay ahead, he said, “It’s something we have tremendous control of.”
Moment by moment, the President has made us less certain and more afraid because we cannot trust what he says. He’s in the grip of the “I alone can fix it” fantasy mindset that he first expressed on the campaign trail in 2016. In the past, the harm caused by this God complex was limited to problems like a government shutdown and damaged alliances. In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has left us dangerously underprepared and has likely cost lives already.
At his latest news conference, the President seemed detached from reality as he pitched us on anti-malaria drugs. While early evidence suggests that chloroquine – a drug used to treat malaria and autoimmune diseases – may have some activity against the novel coronavirus, there is not yet sufficient clinical evidence that it is effective.
Nevertheless, Trump said, “We have a couple [therapeutic treatments] that we’re in really good shape on. And that’s for immediate delivery.” While Hahn explained the loosening of regulations to allow for “compassionate use” so doctors can ask for approval to treat seriously ill patients with experimental drugs, he stressed the importance of additional research. He said, “That’s a drug that the President has directed us to take a closer look at as to whether an expanded use approach to that could be done and to actually see if that benefits patients. And again, we want to do that in the setting of a clinical trial, a large, pragmatic clinical trial to actually gather that information.”
Hahn said, “No promises can be made” and CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta later explained, “Everybody wants to be hopeful, but we’ve got to exert a little bit of caution when hearing about these types of drugs. They have to be trialed like everything else.”
As the number of confirmed cases in the US has surpassed 11,000 and the death toll has exceeded 150, the need for leadership – not salesmanship – grows more urgent. With many workers laid off, the economy has ground to a halt and people feel justifiably afraid for their health, their financial security, and for their future.
History abounds with examples of great leaders facing crises with a strength fortified by truth. President Franklin D. Roosevelt confronted the Great Depression, while Prime Minister Winston Churchill countered Adolf Hitler with realism, a sense of responsibility and honesty that inspired confidence. Trump, whose only true skill is salesmanship, is so allergic to responsibility that when asked about the obvious failings of the government’s response to the pandemic, said, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” With these words hanging in the air, the failure to provide test kits and ensure hospitals and health care workers have enough equipment has only become more evident by the hour.
How can anyone have confidence in his or her government when the leader continues to brag in the face of widespread evidence of incompetence?
Moments after Trump boasted about his efforts and shared how proud he is of his own performance, CNN presented an emergency room doctor in Rhode Island who talked about how her hospital faces a shortage of basic supplies. “We cannot get the masks and other protective gear that we need,” said Dr. Megan Ranney. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised health care professionals to use bandanas or scarfs as a last resort if masks are not available.
Someone is responsible for this very basic failure and any other president would face the reality and own the problem. By refusing to take responsibility for such a colossal failure while simultaneously trying to drag us into his delusions, Trump is proving that he never was, and perhaps never will be, up to fulfilling his responsibilities as President.
The time has come to recognize Trump’s deficiencies and tune him out. Governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York are stepping into the leadership vacuum, delivering realistic assessments of the crisis, recognizing the human toll, and counseling patience. Other governors, mayors and public health leaders have shown similar grace under fire. They have nothing to sell, and plenty to offer when it comes to empathy and resolve. Let their voices be heard.