After weeks of denial and deflection, a seemingly chastened Trump on Monday conceded that the virus was, in fact, “not under control,” and was, indeed, “a very bad one.” What caused the switch in tone? Who knows? Perhaps it was the largest one-day point drop in the Dow Jones in history on Monday. Perhaps it was a study the White House received saying that 2.2 million Americans could die. Perhaps it was that Trump’s beloved Mar-a-Lago is getting a coronavirus-necessitated deep cleaning.
But the sudden shift can’t conceal the fact that Trump has shown himself to be wholly inept at dealing with the pandemic. It doesn’t change the fact that he puts himself first, always. It doesn’t alter the fact that, as he once told top aides, he thinks of “each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.” It doesn’t dissolve Trump’s compulsion to lie, even when truth would serve him best. It doesn’t diminish his incompetence, ignorance or propensity for administrative chaos.
And it doesn’t change his inability to accept responsibility. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump said Friday. So too this week, even as he acknowledged the seriousness of the situation he had played down for so long.
On Monday, Trump said he would rate his performance in confronting the pandemic a 10 out of 10. Tuesday, he absurdly claimed, “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” Wednesday, he tweeted that he had “always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously.” He also continued to blame others, lashing out at Democratic governors who bemoan his failing federal leadership.
Of course, Trump will always take credit for positive developments — even those he didn’t cause, create or do — like the economy he inherited, an electoral “landslide” that never happened and the Christmas holiday he didn’t need to save. If it’s positive, then it’s “thank you President T,” as he once tweeted.
But responsibility? Never. Ever the blameless narcissist, Trump always insists that the buck stops wherever convenient — for him, personally. For Trump, success always has a single father — himself. Failure has a hundred — everyone and anyone else. The media. The Democrats. The “deep state.” Disloyal staffers. Prosecutors. Judges. Anyone who doesn’t do his bidding or sufficiently sing his praises.
And the common thread between his taking credit and shifting blame? Trump’s standbys: Lying, deceit and exaggeration. All have come into play throughout his presidency, and all now have come home to roost.
He mendaciously claimed that his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “perfect.” Perversely but fittingly, he has compared his coronavirus response to that call: “The tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect, the transcription was perfect, right? This was not as perfect as that, but pretty good.”
His absurd, repeated claims that the outbreak wouldn’t be so bad have been almost too many to count. Even as late as the weekend before last, Trump said at his infected Mar-a-Lago resort that: “They’re trying to scare everybody, from meetings, cancel the meetings, close the schools — you know, destroy the country. And that’s okay, as long as we can win the election.”
As long as we can win the election. That’s what it’s all about for Trump. It’s always about winning — winning for Trump, by making him look good in each day’s reality-television production. It’s never been about the country.
Which is why Trump wanted a cruise ship with infected passengers to be kept offshore: “because I like the numbers being where they are.” And why Trump kept pretending the virus crisis wasn’t a crisis — to keep the stock market from tanking, to win an election.
But the way a president actually can make himself look good is by being a true leader. By seeing the truth clearly, telling it bluntly and acting on it promptly and skillfully — not by dissembling, preening and careening from day to day. By behaving like Donald Trump, the president has shown himself incapable of leading the country.
Trump’s abject failure of leadership brings to mind the words, borrowed from Oliver Cromwell, that British Conservative backbencher Leo Amery used in 1940 to bring down Neville Chamberlain, a prime minister of his own party: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”
The nation needs a credible, competent president, now more than ever. The surest and best thing Trump could do to come to the aid of his country — to save lives — would be to go, as the hapless Chamberlain did. But that won’t happen. Because that would be taking responsibility, something Trump has never done and will never know how to do. It’s too bad for us.