Trump’s mantra is “I don’t take responsibility at all,” and he was as good as his word on Thursday when he released his plan for “Opening Up America Again.” He has been talking for weeks about restarting the economy despite the pandemic. On March 24, he said, “I would love to have it open by Easter.” More recently he focused on May 1 as the target date. But, on Thursday, he wisely refused to set any timeline. The White House plan suggests some general criteria for reopening businesses (such as a 14-day reduction in coronavirus cases) and offers a three-step model for doing so, but leaves the actual decisions to the states. “You’re going to call your own shots,” Trump told governors during a conference call.
In lieu of a federal strategy to ramp up testing, Trump tweeted on Friday: “The States have to step up their TESTING!” That’s a huge and potentially lethal policy failure. But from the president’s perspective, inaction makes perfect sense. As The Post reported, “Trump’s advisers are trying to shield the president from political accountability should his move to reopen the economy prove premature and result in lost lives.” Mission accomplished.
Trump, at first, tried to shift the blame by inviting business leaders to demand a reopening now — but they refused to play along. Instead, they told him that testing had to be dramatically ramped up before reopening could occur. A similar message is being delivered by ordinary voters. In a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, only 10 percent of respondents said they want to “stop social distancing to stimulate the economy, even if it means increasing the spread of coronavirus.”
Trump is willing to tweet support for activists wanting to end social distancing, but he is not willing to risk his presidency on their behalf. Much safer to let the governors decide. That way, they get the blame if they keep the economy locked down and we suffer another Great Depression — or if they prematurely open up the economy and we suffer hundreds of thousands more deaths. Trump’s attacks against former president Barack Obama, Democratic members of Congress, China and, now, the World Health Organization are also exercises in blame deflection. He wants to posture and preen like the maximum leader while making a minimum of difficult decisions.
The buck stops somewhere else — and always has. During a long and checkered business career, Trump never accepted blame for any of his corporate bankruptcies and failures. From the Trump Shuttle to the New Jersey Generals, it was always someone else’s fault. Why stop now? He goes through aides at such a rapid rate because he needs a steady stream of fall guys (and gals).
Even when Trump abuses power — as he often does — it is usually to avoid culpability for his own actions. Trump ordered his then-personal lawyer Michael Cohen to pay off a porn star in violation of federal campaign finance laws so she would keep mum about their reported fling. Cohen ended up going to the big house while Trump went to the White House. Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey and smeared special counsel Robert S. Mueller III so that he would not be held to account for getting elected with Russian help. Trump has stonewalled Congress so that no one will learn what is in his tax returns. Trump fired the officials who testified against him during the impeachment hearings to ensure that he will never be accused of high crimes and misdemeanors in the future.
Trump is not an ideologue with a well-developed agenda, much less a blueprint to subvert democracy. He is a reality-TV personality who loves the attention that comes from being numero uno. For him, the presidency is all about the rallies and the ratings. He brags about the viewership of his news conferences even as tens of thousands of Americans are dying.
It’s disgusting — but also, for those of us who fear Trump’s authoritarian instincts, strangely reassuring. Trump’s ineptitude has led us into a coronavirus catastrophe, but his hunger for adulation and aversion to difficult decisions protect us, at least for now, from even greater fiascos such as a premature move to reopen the economy. Trump loves to talk big but hates to take big risks. His epic irresponsibility is both his biggest failing and his saving grace.
Actual dictators often do unpopular things. Trump would rather not. He channels a 19th-century French revolutionary, who reportedly said, “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”