Even as the epidemic was growing, President Trump was trying to tamp down concern by fulsomely praising Xi Jinping for China’s response on Feb. 7: “He is strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus.” Trump went on to assure the world that Xi “will be successful, especially as the weather starts to warm & the virus hopefully becomes weaker, and then gone.” This turned out to be nearly as premature as Trump’s earlier assurance that another communist dictator, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, had “agreed to denuclearization.”
Covid-19 has already infected more than 80,000 people in 37 countries, causing more than 2,600 deaths, and experts doubt it will slow in the spring. Yet Trump tweeted on Monday that “the Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA” and “Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” By Tuesday, the stock market had experienced two days of sharp drops, and the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Nancy Messonnier, was urging “the American public to work with us to prepare, in the expectation that this could be bad.”
That a virus that started in China could have a bad impact on the United States should be no surprise: Diseases don’t respect borders any more than terrorists or trade flows do. Transnational threats require transnational solutions. To cite but one example, many of the medicines and medical supplies that Americans need, including N95 face masks, come from China.
This will be news only to an ultra-nationalist president animated by unreasoning animus to “globalism.” This prejudice is about as silly as being hostile to “the weather.” Globalism isn’t something you can be for or against; it’s simply a fact of life. But Trump’s whole presidency is built on denying basic realities such as global warming and Russian attacks on our politics.
Rather than focus on real threats such as pandemics, climate change and Russian aggression, the administration is fixated on politically convenient boogeymen such as “criminal aliens” and Nigerian immigrants. The administration’s latest budget calls for a $3 billion cut for global health programs, including a 53 percent cut in funding for the World Health Organization. This comes on top of earlier budget cuts that forced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to downsize its global health security initiative in 39 out of 49 countries.
Seeking to undo everything that his predecessor had done, Trump dismantled the epidemic-fighting infrastructure the Obama administration had built up at the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security. One of John Bolton’s first acts upon becoming national security adviser in 2018 was to dismiss the NSC’s global health team led by Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, a widely respected public-health expert.
These moves are emblematic of the president’s contempt for apolitical civil servants who know what they are doing. He prefers unqualified political hacks whose only loyalty is to him rather than to the country. Many top administration posts are already filled by “acting” placeholders while further purges are being launched by the new head of presidential personnel, the president’s 29-year-old former “body man” (i.e., gofer), John McEntee, with the assistance of a 23-year-old college senior.
Even as America mobilizes against a global epidemic — soon to be a pandemic, according to a former CDC director — two-thirds of the top jobs at DHS are devoid of Senate-approved appointees. The second acting secretary in a row, Chad Wolf, inspired incredulity from both Republicans and Democrats with his Senate testimony on Tuesday. He claimed the mortality rate for covid-19 is around 2 percent — roughly the same, he said, as the common flu. In fact, the mortality rate for influenza is around 0.1 percent.
Meanwhile, the acting deputy secretary, arch-nativist Ken Cuccinelli, took to Twitter to ask for the public’s help in accessing an online map from Johns Hopkins University tracking the virus’s spread. Imagine if the head of U.S. Strategic Command asked the public for helping in learning about nuclear weapons, and you start to comprehend the scale of the problem.
Trump was said to be furious that the State Department had overruled the CDC and flown 14 sick Americans home from Japan on aircraft with healthy passengers. He wasn’t notified until after the fact, and neither were some members of his coronavirus task force. The “chaos president” will try to find scapegoats, but he has no one but himself to blame for this chaotic response. He can’t figure out how to spell “coronavirus,” much less how to fight it.
At a time like this, it would be a lot more reassuring to think that there were actual, you know, experts in charge of the government rather than ignorant ideologues chosen for their dedication to a supreme leader unconstrained by fact, logic or morality. Where’s the “deep state” when you need it most?