The president insisted that the risk of infection was very low, a statement that seemed to contradict experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and amid the news of a growing list of countries with identified cases in Europe, Asia, North America, South America and the Middle East. As Trump spoke, authorities announced that, in Northern California, the first patient who “did not recently return from a foreign country or have contact with a confirmed case” was identified. That means it is spreading domestically. But not to fear! We are “very, very ready for an outbreak,” Trump claimed. With each “very,” one was overcome with the unsettling sense that we were not. The president told us that he is going to spend whatever it takes, but said he would leave the amount to Congress.
The only concrete news was his decision to put Vice President Pence, the most loyal toady in an administration full of them, to oversee the response — not an expert, not a scientist, not anyone with a background in pandemics. Trump insisted that Pence “has got a certain talent for this”; what talent that might be remains a mystery. Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, who had been in charge and had taken flack for refusing to assure Congress that any vaccine would be affordable, seemed giddy to dump responsibility for the fast-moving disaster. (He will still run the task force responsible for the response.)
Trump’s habit of showing surprise at facts that informed Americans or professionals already know hardly inspires confidence. “The flu in our country kills from 29,000 people to 69,000 people a year,” he said. “That was shocking to me.” Perhaps if he had not fired CDC experts and cut the budget for addressing pandemics, he might be up to speed. (On the other hand, he tends to become irritated with aides who know more than he does, and then fires them.)
Trump seemed determine to keep the number of confirmed cases at 15, the “original 15” he decided to name them (at least 60 have been reported) and to make the odd prediction we would be down to just a few in no time. He maintained that he has made the right decisions and lashed out the media for making him look bad. (Perhaps they should not have aired his alarming news conference live to avoid panicking the country?) In discussing a deadly serious matter, he took to insulting the speaker of the House and Senate minority leader in childish terms.
Other members of the administration stepped forward to sing Trump’s praises in another Pyongyang-like display of reverence for the leader’s wisdom.
Following the press conference, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) admonished the administration. “The American people need a well-coordinated, whole-of-government, fully-funded response to keep them safe from the coronavirus threat,” Pelosi said in a written statement. “Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has mounted an opaque and chaotic response to this outbreak.” She continued: “The Trump Administration has left critical positions in charge of managing pandemics at the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security vacant. The Trump Budget called for slashing almost $700 million from the Centers for Disease Control.”
Trump’s appearance was in every sense a disaster. Meant to inspire confidence, it confirmed that the president is uninterested and uninvolved in critical matters, preferring to hand off responsibility to loyal cronies. We are reminded that Trump is perpetually winging it, either too lazy or mentally limited to learn the specifics of a topic, no matter how serious. He congratulates himself; he tosses around adjectives with abandon. Out of his depth he turns each crisis into an opportunity to insult critics and political opponents. No fair observer, however, would conclude that he really has a grasp of, let alone a plan for, addressing this sort of crisis. Trump may finally have stumbled on something he cannot ignore, blame on others, convert into a political weapon or fake his way through.
Heaven help us.