This is what presidential leadership looks like.
As President Donald Trump ignores America’s slide into a tragic winter and obsesses over his false claims of a stolen election, three of his predecessors are volunteering to bare their arms on camera to build confidence in the vaccines that could finally end the pandemic.
The effort by former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, which was reported by CNN’s Jamie Gangel, is sure to infuriate the current commander in chief. Trump is claiming the lion’s share of credit for the unprecedented speed of development of several vaccines – despite his neglect of other aspects of the public health disaster that has killed more than a quarter of a million Americans.
The former presidents are stepping up as America plunges into its toughest battle against Covid-19 before the new vaccines, expected to soon be approved by US regulators, bring deliverance. But there are few signs that the current President is ready to call on the nation to muster for one last fight against the worsening pandemic before the immunizations become available to most Americans.
Trump’s silence comes as his own White House and senior health officials issue their most frightening warnings yet. The recorded daily death toll hit a record of more than 2,800 Wednesday and 100,000 Covid-19 patients – more than ever before – are hospitalized as fears mount of an even worse post-Thanksgiving surge.
“The reality is December and January and February are going to be rough times. I actually believe they’re going to be the most difficult in the public health history of this nation,” US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield said on Wednesday, warning of a potential total death toll of 450,000 by early next year.
The White House coronavirus task force, meanwhile, just issued its most alarming caution to the states yet.
“The Covid risk to all Americans is at a historic high,” the group said in a briefing obtained by CNN’s Betsy Klein.
Such warnings would have far more resonance were they coming from the lips of the most powerful man in the country – who just demonstrated his remarkable influence over his supporters by piling up more than 70 million votes in the election.
But such a message – which would mirror the appeals of health experts and other foreign leaders – would require the President to admit that his consistent policy of downplaying the pandemic, mocking mask use and social distancing, and declaring the crisis over was misguided and cost lives.
The three most recent former presidents hope an awareness campaign to promote confidence in the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness will be an important factor in convincing Americans to trust it.
Freddy Ford, Bush’s chief of staff, told CNN that the 43rd President had reached out to Dr. Anthony Fauci – the country’s top infectious diseases specialist – and Dr. Deborah Birx, who serves on the White House coronavirus task force, to see how he could help promote the vaccine. “President Bush will get in line for his, and will gladly do so on camera,” Ford said.
Clinton’s press secretary told CNN that he too would be willing to take the vaccine in a public setting to promote it.
Obama, in an interview with SiriusXM scheduled to air Thursday, said that if Fauci said the vaccine is safe he would take it. “I may end up taking it on TV or having it filmed, just so that people know that I trust this science, and what I don’t trust is getting Covid,” he said.
Their move recalls previous occasions when former commanders in chief have banded together at times of domestic or international crisis, such as when Clinton and the late former President George H.W. Bush worked together after the Southeast Asian tsunami disaster in 2004. In 2017, Clinton, both Bush former presidents and ex-President Jimmy Carter made a joint appeal for hurricane relief donations.
Trump, who ran against the Washington political establishment in 2016, has expressed little interest in joining the former presidents club.
A national address
Trump did address the nation on Wednesday, but only in a lie-filled 46-minute video on social media – on which Facebook and Twitter both quickly posted warning labels – that repeated his bogus claims that the election was stolen.
If he is thinking of the virus at all, it is as he stews that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson got to be the first Western leader to announce the approval of the first vaccine on Wednesday – with the US expected to follow suit in days.
US Food and Drug Administrator Dr. Stephen Hahn was called to the White House twice in two days to explain why on vaccines it will not be “America First” even though the methodical US regulatory process is seen as the gold standard and will help to build badly needed confidence in the inoculations.
One person familiar with the President’s thinking also told CNN’s Kristen Holmes and Sara Murray that Trump wanted to rush out as many vaccines as possible before he leaves office.
“He doesn’t want Biden to get any credit for it,” the person said.
The tragedy of the next few months is that tens of thousands of deaths will occur at a moment when vaccines that appear to have spectacular rates of effectiveness in clinical trials are in sight. In that sense, the losses will be like the final unnecessary deaths in a long, futile foreign war before the guns finally fall silent.
President-elect Joe Biden, who on Thursday will give his first interview with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris since the election to CNN’s Jake Tapper, has spelled out the kind of message that health experts want to hear from national leaders.
“The goal is to get back to normal as fast as possible. Masks are critical in doing that. It won’t be forever, but that’s how we’ll get our nation back,” Biden said soon after his election victory last month, in remarks that previewed a sharp shift in presidential leadership on the pandemic once he takes office on January 20 – by which time thousands more Americans will be dead.
Current approach is ‘insanity’
Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a renowned cardiologist and professor at George Washington University, said the looming carnage could be mitigated with the kind of simple measures the President has often decried.
“By this time next week, we are going to be talking about 3,000 deaths a day – that’s 9/11 every single day,” Reiner told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
“We need to mask up. We need to social-distance. In some areas where it is really bad, we are going to need to shut down certain things, like bars and restaurants. We can’t keep doing what we are doing now and expect a different result. That is insanity.”
While the British Prime Minister clearly relished the moment when he could finally announce some good news – after dark months of criticism about his handling of a virus that at one point left him seriously ill – he moderated his tone with an appeal to people to stick out the crisis for a little while longer.
“It will inevitably take some months before all the most vulnerable are protected, long and cold months,” Johnson said at 10 Downing Street.
“So it is all the more vital that as we celebrate this scientific achievement we are not carried away with over-optimism. Or fall into the naive belief that the struggle is over.”
Such a message has yet to come from the President. In fact, he is sending exactly the opposite, making plans for yet another potential super-spreader “Victory Rally” in Georgia on Saturday to support two GOP candidates.
And the White House is pressing ahead with its annual round of holiday parties – exactly the kind of busy, indoor event that could put guests, and especially White House staff – at risk that government experts warn against.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany rounded on reporters on Wednesday on the issue at a briefing in which she brought staff and guests into the Briefing Room who flouted the strict mask policy observed by journalists.
“If you can loot businesses, burn down buildings, engage in protest, you can also go to a Christmas party, you can celebrate the holiday of Christmas and you can do it responsibly,” McEnany said, insisting the parties would involve fewer guests, have hand sanitizing stations and masks would be available.
There were few signs, however, of much social distancing at the first party of the season on Tuesday night, sources told CNN.
McEnany’s comment was emblematic of the hyper-politicized approach to fighting the virus that has contributed to the US suffering one of the least successful responses to the pandemic. Such attitudes, combined with public fatigue over regular life remaining on hold, are one reason why experts fear the period until vaccines become widely available will be so horrific.
“The vaccines are looking really good, and it’s amazing to be able to say that just 10 or 11 months after we first heard about this virus,” Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said on “The Situation Room.”
“But they’re not going to reach everybody until the spring. And so meanwhile, if there was ever a time where people need to take it upon themselves to try not to be the super-spreader for all those vulnerable people that are still out there … this is the time to double down.”