Instead, it poses a direct threat to the notion of accountability in government. This is thrown into sharp relief by coronavirus, at a time when it’s particularly urgent that the government operate neutrally, with the branches interacting in good faith.
At Trump’s presser, a reporter cited Limbaugh and noted that he and other Trump supporters have spread the idea that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be “exaggerating the threat of coronavirus” to “weaponize” it and “hurt you politically.”
“I think they are,” Trump replied. “And I’d like it to stop.” He then cited the Democratic opposition in Congress, in particular Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Trump later clarified he didn’t believe CDC officials in particular were doing this. But at a minimum, Trump fully confirmed his view that this is what the Democratic opposition is doing. Indeed, as Aaron Blake reports, Trump even claimed that in sounding the alarm about the threat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is “not thinking about the country.”
Trump has tweeted variations of this. He’s even blamed Democrats, and the news media, for deliberately hyping the coronavirus threat expressly to panic the markets and hurt his reelection chances, which to him is apparently the most frightening thing about this situation.
But it’s worth stressing that this time, Trump validated the claim at a news conference designed to brief the American people about a serious public health threat to the country, and about what the government is doing in response to it.
What Democrats are saying
In drawing attention to the coronavirus threat — or, in Trump’s telling, exaggerating it — Democrats aren’t offering passing commentary on it. Rather, they are making their case that the threat requires a more robust government response than the one Trump has offered.
Democrats have argued that Trump’s initial request for $2.5 billion in response funding is badly insufficient and that this funding should not be taken from other sources, such as low-income home heating assistance.
They have also argued that the coronavirus sheds light on other failures. The New York Times has a good rundown: The White House eliminated a National Security Council position that coordinates responses to pandemics. It has ignored an expert panel’s warning that the United States is badly unprepared for global health threats and needs to restore funding to address them.
Trump doesn’t see a problem, as the Times notes:
Instead, the president’s budget request this month for the fiscal year that begins in October would cut the C.D.C.’s budget by almost 16 percent, and the Department of Health and Human Services’s by almost 10 percent. The proposal’s $3 billion in cuts to global health programs included a 53 percent cut to the World Health Organization and a 75 percent cut to the Pan American Health Organization.
And so, there is a very serious difference of opinion between Trump and Democrats, a difference of opinion that matters. The latter want to fund our response to coronavirus far more robustly than Trump does and to take from this the lesson that we need to fund global health programs far more robustly as well.
In this context, when Trump accuses Democrats of hyping coronavirus solely to damage him politically, he’s shutting down this larger argument. At bottom, it’s really a form of dodging accountability.
There’s a reason we have a political opposition
Trump constantly treats the political opposition as if it’s entirely illegitimate or nonexistent. He declared impeachment an affront to “the American voter,” as if only his voters, and not those who elected the House, exist at all. He has vowed to defy all oversight.
As Will Wilkinson notes, much of what Trump does is premised on the core idea that “Democratic power” has no “legitimate authority to second-guess anything the president does.”
Trump’s latest conspiracy theory should be understood as putting this basic idea into practice at a particularly dangerous moment.
It’s true that when government is divided, what each side says and does toward the other will inevitably be somewhat political. Criticism will be exaggerated. Cooperation will be withheld for cynical purposes. And so forth.
But we want this to be the case precisely because it holds forth the possibility of accountability. When Democrats offer a stark reading of a particular crisis — like the coronavirus threat — it theoretically puts pressure on the executive to defend his handling of it before an alerted public.
By telling voters that this is solely about hurting him, Trump is casting aside that imperative as a dead letter. This is of a piece with Trump’s constant downplaying of the threat: Everything is absolutely under control, and anyone who tells you otherwise is just out to get him.
Trump’s biggest cheerleaders in the media are aggressively feeding this instinct. As Matthew Gertz documents, numerous Fox News segments are pushing this line: “You can’t trust the other party, you can’t trust the media, you can’t trust the experts, you can only trust Trump and those loyal to him.”
Time will tell just how badly this ends up misleading the American public about the coronavirus threat, and what the consequences will be. But we already know this is really about placing Trump’s response to it beyond accountability entirely.