President Trump is expected to move this week to curb U.S. funding for the World Health Organization, after raging at the WHO for accepting China’s initial downplaying of coronavirus. It’s clear the WHO will be a fat target as Trump deflects attention from damning new details emerging about his horribly botched coronavirus response.
As part of this latest exercise in blame-shifting, Trump has taken his first public shot at Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and his own administration’s leading medical expert. Trump angrily retweeted a call for Fauci’s firing, while again hailing his own early restrictions on travel from China and furiously bashing the media for failing to recognize that decision’s foresight and brilliance.
Underlying this rage-fest at all these targets is an actual argument: All criticism of his response pales beside this one travel decision, which he undertook in defiance of his own experts, the media, and international organizations, thus underscoring his brave and heroic leadership.
But this story line is profoundly absurd, for two very fundamental reasons. Amid new signs that it will be absolutely central to his efforts to erase his role in unleashing this catastrophe, it’s worth engaging frontally.
The first reason this narrative is nonsense is that Trump committed a whole range of other extraordinarily serious missteps whose consequences continued to play out for weeks and weeks after Trump imposed that ban, in spite of whatever good it did.
Trump and his allies are making two claims about the WHO and China simultaneously. They claim the WHO was too credulous about China’s initial deceptions about the threat, hampering our response here.
Even as they’re claiming this, they’re also hailing Trump for his early recognition of the threat posed by the China outbreak. Thus the Jan. 31 travel restrictions, which Trump has described as “the biggest decision we made so far.”
As an initial matter, the hyping of this decision is ridiculous. At least 40,000 people traveled from China to the United States in the two months after Trump imposed it. As the New York Times pointed out, it may have “come too late” to meaningfully limit the threat coronavirus from China posed.
But even if one were to accept Trump’s spin, it’s still not exonerating in the least when it comes to Trump’s broader failures. That’s because those failures badly exacerbated the situation that unfolded here after Trump imposed that ban.
The Times’s utterly damning weekend exposé of all these failures illustrates this with great clarity.
For instance, on Jan. 30 — the day before Trump’s heroic travel restrictions — Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar directly warned Trump about the seriousness of the looming pandemic. Yet Trump dismissed the warning as “alarmist.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s dithering held back the response in numerous ways: Plans for a federal system to track the virus were “delayed for weeks,” which, along with the well-documented failure to ramp up testing, left officials with “almost no insight” into its spread.
And in late February, administration officials concluded Trump should communicate the need for strict social distancing measures far more urgently. But Trump privately raged about these warnings, because they spooked the markets, and “crucial additional weeks went by before their views were reluctantly accepted by the president — time when the virus spread largely unimpeded.”
All that occurred here after Trump’s travel restrictions — and the catastrophic consequences continue to unfold right now.
Trump’s argument is akin to a baseball manager citing a double play in the second inning as proof of his team’s fielding prowess, to rebut criticism of a string of subsequent errors that went on to allow the other team to score 10 runs.
Only in this case, untold lives are at stake. Confirmed U.S. cases now exceed half a million and confirmed U.S. deaths total over 22,000.
An even deeper absurdity
The second reason Trump’s narrative is nonsense is this: Even though Trump did impose the travel restrictions — with limited effect — Trump himself didn’t actually show the level of initial skepticism toward China’s public claims that he’s faulting everyone else for failing to show.
Again and again throughout the month of February, Trump expressed confidence in China’s handling of coronavirus and/or said China shouldn’t do anything differently.
To be fair, Trump had understandable reasons for this. He wanted to maintain good relations to secure trade peace and to get needed medical supplies.
But there’s another point here that continues to elude notice: Trump’s praise of China’s handling of coronavirus was absolutely central to his own downplaying of the threat. Again and again, Trump cited China’s successes to argue that through collaboration, Trump and China were restraining coronavirus.
Thus, Trump’s praise of China was central to maintaining his own early spin that he, too, had it totally under control. That turned out to be catastrophically wrong, and it’s only after this became too overwhelming to ignore that Trump, joined by his propagandists, fully pivoted to blaming China, the current story line.
The WHO’s role
As if this narrative weren’t absurd enough, Trump’s attacks on the WHO to prop it up make it still worse. Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Center on Foreign Relations, correctly points out that even if the WHO did commit early missteps on China, it righted itself as more data came in.
Indeed, the WHO declared an international public health emergency on Jan. 30, right around the time of Trump’s travel restrictions. In so doing, the WHO alerted us and the world to the threat — and the vast bulk of Trump’s missteps unfolded after that, as did their horrifying consequences.
Meanwhile, experts are warning that defunding the WHO could prove disastrous when the outbreak gains steam in the southern hemisphere. It would be perverse indeed if Trump’s actions end up hampering efforts to save more lives abroad, mainly to sustain a ham-handed effort to cover up his own role in needlessly lost lives here.