President Donald Trump had predicted in almost every campaign rally that the media would stop talking about the coronavirus pandemic the day after the election. But as it turns out, no one is ignoring the worsening tragedy more than the President himself.
Instead of taking charge as the country plunges deeper into the worst domestic crisis since World War II, Trump has disappeared inside the White House, saying nothing on camera since he baselessly claimed a week ago that the election was being stolen from him by President-elect Joe Biden.
He’s spending time with advisers, not strategizing on how to tame the out-of-control health emergency but seeking a path to win an election already declared lost. He’s also found time to purge the top leadership of the Pentagon, and with few appointments on his public schedule appears to spend his days watching news coverage and tweeting misinformation about voter fraud.
In essence, Trump, his family and his advisers are spending all their energy desperately trying to save a job – the presidency – that he appears to have no intention of doing in any meaningful sense.
It’s an especially staggering and surreal failure of leadership, given the Covid-19 crisis and the subsequent economic turmoil, even for a President who downplayed and lied about the true nature of the pandemic and repeatedly predicted the virus would just go away.
Before the election, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows had signaled the way ahead by claiming on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the pandemic could not be controlled.
Now that the election is done, the Trump White House seems to care even less than it did before.
Explosion in Covid cases
A disease that has killed more than 240,000 Americans cares little for the President’s bruised feelings after a defeat he has yet to recognize. Even since the election, it has exploded. On Wednesday, the US recorded more than 140,500 new infections and lost more than 1,100 more lives. More patients than ever before – nearly 65,000 – are in hospitals with the disease and the rate of increase is alarming doctors, who fear health services will be swamped within weeks.
The situation is more serious than it was in the initial spikes of Covid-19 in the spring in the Northeast and the Sun Belt in the summer. The curve of infections is rising almost vertically and the virus is raging nationwide.
These alarming case numbers and the reality of epidemiology and exponential spread mean Trump will leave the nation in a morass of sickness and death when his term ends in January. And every day the disaster that Biden will inherit gets much worse, even if Pfizer’s announcement this week that its prototype vaccine is 90% effective means there is at least some hope at the end of what is shaping up as a uniquely harrowing winter.
Thanksgiving already looks a bust, with officials warning Americans not to gather in their homes with relatives for fear of sparking new outbreaks. The example of Canada, which celebrated its own Thanksgiving in October, suggests that the holiday will leave its own legacy of sickness and death in any case.
Yet there are no warnings from the President – who got the best health care that the US can offer when he fell sick with Covid-19 last month. He could use his megaphone to tell Americans to take care, wear masks and maintain social distancing to limit the spread of a pandemic that he minimized before the election.
Trump is not alone in his neglect. Vice President Mike Pence is the head of the White House coronavirus task force but has held no public briefings in weeks – though he did huddle with the team this week. As a result, there are no directives from the West Wing on how Americans can mitigate the many thousands of deaths expected before Biden, who has made tackling the virus his priority, takes office.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did issue updated guidance on masks in a rather low-key announcement Wednesday that might have been designed to avoid the President’s ire. The agency said that evidence now suggests wearing a face covering could protect the wearer as well as those the person might come into contact with.
Still, the President’s absence is causing grave concern among medical experts.
“We have a vacuum of leadership,” Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine, told CNN.
Dr. Seema Yasmin, a former CDC disease detective who’s a CNN medical analyst, told CNN’s John King on Wednesday that the current “unsustainable” carnage – 1,400 American daily fatalities – is equivalent to three or four planeloads of people crashing and dying every day.
“We need what we have needed from the beginning: a robust pandemic response. I am so concerned we are not going to see that … at least until Inauguration Day. In the meantime, things will continue to worsen,” Yasmin said.
Incoming Biden chief of staff has epidemic expertise
Biden made his latest statement of intent by naming Ron Klain as his White House chief of staff on Wednesday evening. Klain, a Washington veteran, served Biden in a similar role when he was vice president – and Klain also was President Barack Obama’s Ebola czar – so is used to marshaling the public health resources of the US government.
The President-elect has already indicated that his attitude to the coronavirus will be far more hands-on than his predecessor’s. Biden wears a mask to all his public events. On Monday, he named a 12-member advisory board of respected scientists to overhaul the US effort against the pandemic, which has been one of the least successful in the world.
“The goal of mask-wearing is not to make your life less comfortable or take something away from you. It’s to give something back to all of us: a normal life,” Biden said on Monday. “The goal is to get back to normal as fast as possible, and masks are critical to doing that. It won’t be forever,” he said, trying, unlike Trump, to convince Americans that wearing a mask is not a political statement.
While Trump and Pence are silent on the pandemic, the coronavirus task force has continued to update states on the dire situation.
“There is continued, accelerating community spread across the top half of the country, where temperatures have cooled and Americans have moved indoors,” said reports dated November 8 and distributed to states Tuesday evening.
The task force, which warned of “significant deterioration in the Sunbelt” in last week’s reports, said that deterioration has only continued in the past week, “leading to the most diffuse spread experienced to date.”
The reports told states that “proactive testing” must be part of mitigation efforts. That sentence was stunning in itself, since the kind of mass testing and tracing operation that was needed at the start of the pandemic still has not been put into action by the White House many months later.
Given Trump’s refusal to concede the election and to unlock the funding and access to government departments and funding that Biden’s transition team needs, fears are increasing that efforts to slow the pandemic will be put at risk.
But the President is showing no obvious concern.
CNN’s Betsy Klein and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.