Even after three tumultuous years in which President Donald Trump has shredded the decorum of his office, his unwillingness to provide unifying leadership still has the power to shock.
Trump’s daily coronavirus task force press briefing has become the chief exhibit in this deficit of national stewardship and has largely shed any purpose in conveying useful information at a fraught moment — if that was ever the aim.
Instead, the President spends his time perpetually trying to repair his own image by disguising his belated and faulty response to the emergency.
It didn’t have to be this way.
Despite criticism of the administration, no White House – Republican or Democratic – could have predicted every twist of this crisis given the enormity of the political and economic upheaval that has overtaken the country. Not all failings in testing and supplies are personally Trump’s fault.
But his refusal to accept any responsibility at all raises questions about what he thinks the presidency, a problem-solving job of last resort where the buck stops, is actually for.
The President’s plan to use Sunday’s briefing to polish his own personal narrative became clear when he read out and held up a Wall Street Journal opinion column praising his leadership.
He also played an out-of-context video of New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo praising his administration’s work — including on providing ventilators — and said reporters should praise him too.
Yet Trump insisted after his trawl for personal credit: “It’s not about me. Nothing is about me.”
This came on the day when US deaths from the pandemic topped 40,000 and raced upwards, though Trump claimed he had saved a million lives through his leadership — despite taking several months to recognize the magnitude of the unfolding disaster.
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Vice President Mike Pence’s recognition of the scale of the tragedy appeared far more heartfelt than the President’s.
As a political device, Trump’s bitter clashes with journalists may delight his supporters, generate soundbites for conservative media and provide fodder for Twitter pundits. His willingness to indulge his personal grudges shone through when he admitted that Utah’s Mitt Romney was the only Republican senator excluded from a congressional task force on reopening the country because of his vote to convict the President on one article of impeachment.
“I’m not a fan of Mitt Romney, I don’t want his advice,” Trump said.
But the wild daily monologues may be hurting him more broadly with the US public in an election year. Recent polls show that Trump’s ‘crisis bounce’ with voters has eroded.
The President’s performance on Sunday — he rambled for 45 minutes or so while his top public health officials sat and watched — even snuffed out the rare positive news on a grim day.
In the Q&A session, he held forth on issues including the World Trade Organization, one of his hotels and the Russia probe, which had little to do with the medical exigency.
It was left to Pence to convey data suggesting that large metro areas like New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Boston appear to be stabilizing after agonizing weeks of death.
Trump is not the only US leader descending into the politics of insult. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has become increasingly personal in blasting the President as a “weak person” and a “poor leader.” But the President’s conduct is most striking, given the expectations of his office.
Trump dismisses testing problems
The big question of the day is why, weeks into the pandemic, state governors and medical professionals still say the US testing infrastructure is inadequate.
Trump opened up his briefing by saying that the US had conducted more gross tests than a list of developed countries.
The administration now celebrates the completion of just over 4 million tests. Yet on March 9, Pence pledged that 4 million tests would be distributed by the end of that week.
Testing is so important because experts argue that millions of tests per week may be necessary to detect, trace and isolate coronavirus infections to ensure there is not a resurgence of the virus as the nation slowly opens. Such a spike could quickly overwhelm hospitals and confound hopes of an economic opening.
But state governors warned on Sunday that they need more federal help with testing, specifically in acquiring reagents and swabs needed to make the testing kits they do have work.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland conceded that the administration was ramping up testing.
But he added on CNN’s “State of the Union” that “to try and push this off to say that the governors have plenty of testing and they should just get to work on testing, somehow we aren’t doing our job, is just absolutely false.”
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said on the same show that claims by Trump and Pence that there were enough tests available should all states want to open back up was “delusional.”
“We’ve been fighting for testing, it’s not a straightforward test. We don’t even have enough swabs, believe it or not,” Northam said.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine said he could “probably double, maybe even triple testing in Ohio virtually overnight,” with more reagents.
The President, however, appeared to mock such complaints, appearing in the briefing room with a swab that he opened with a theatrical flourish in front of the cameras.
“Reagents and swabs are so easy to get,” Trump said. But in a recognition that the opposite is the case, the President invoked the Defense Production Act to surge production of swabs to an addition 20 million per month.
But his move again raised the question of why he waited so long to act, a consistent undercurrent of his leadership during the pandemic. Experts and medical professionals have been warning for months that a reagent shortage was almost certain to occur.
The administration’s promises on testing would be far more credible were it not for the repeated claims that testing in the country, as he put it again Sunday, was in “great shape.”
And the President also made a fresh attempt to offload blame for the testing issue onto governors, fueling an impression that much of his strategy is about shielding himself politically.
“The governors wanted to have total control over the opening of their states. But now they want to have us, the federal government, do the testing,” Trump said.
“Testing is local. You can’t have it both ways.” Strictly speaking, Trump has a point. Testing is conducted in hospitals, clinics and elsewhere. But the traditional role of the federal government in a time of crisis is to identify problems where states individually, or collectively, appear to be having a problem and to take steps to mitigate it. The President just doesn’t seem to believe his office implies such a duty.
The testing issue parallels Trump’s fury about the question of ventilators. Several weeks ago, several hotspot states feared that they would run out of the machines, forcing doctors to make agonizing life-and-death decisions. Trump appeared resentful that he was asked to use a federal stockpile of ventilators and finally invoked wartime powers to surge their manufacture.
The public’s embrace of social distancing, the practice of doubling up patients on the machines, and states that managed to buy ventilators from overseas meant the feared crunch never arrived. Trump on Sunday argued that he was right about not needing as many ventilators. This is one case where his attitude in the heat of the moment might have ended up robbing him of a share of deserved credit.
Trump says protesters have ‘cabin fever’
Trump’s leadership credentials are also coming under scrutiny given his encouragement of protests in several states against stay-at-home orders. Conservative media is also whipping up the furor after Trump last week singled out Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia — all important battlegrounds in November with Democratic governors — and said they should “liberate” their people.
The call appeared to directly contradict his own guidelines for a phased national opening.
Dissent is a core American value and is vital at a time when states and local leaders are claiming powers to suppress the vitality of US life. But protesters risk spreading the coronavirus and could endanger others — including police and medical staff who will treat them if they get sick.
The fact that the President himself should foment a rebellion at a time of stretched political tensions, with tens of millions of Americans confined to their homes, is extraordinary. It’s just the latest occasion when Trump, the outsider, has seemed to flout the authority of the government he is supposed to lead.
“They have got cabin fever, they want to get back. Their life was taken away from them,” Trump said of the protesters.