Taken together, their testimony outlines four failures of judgment and leadership that have worsened the trajectory of the pandemic in the United States.
The first is a sin of omission — the failure to act when clear duties arise.
The federal government’s response to covid-19 began poorly in early February. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produced a test for the virus that was contaminated and initially useless. As errors go, this was a serious one. No country can shape an adequate pandemic response without some idea of the location and extent of infections.
Yet errors in the initial response to a complex national challenge are to be expected. Successful leadership adapts quickly and shifts course. But when testing faltered, the Trump administration did not rise to the moment, even though there were solutions at hand — employing the effective World Health Organization test, or allowing labs to develop and use their own. Weeks passed as the health bureaucracy churned.
The cost of this testing disaster was immediate and high. In February, plans were suggested for random testing in emergency rooms around the country. “It never happened,” recalls a senior administration official. “Testing was not available. We would have learned weeks earlier that this was out there in the country. We lost at least a month.”
It is doubtful that this information would have allowed for a comprehensive test-and-trace response on the model of South Korea. But getting testing right more quickly might have helped curb the spread early, saving many lives in the process. The White House had the ultimate responsibility to make the system work. But it didn’t.
The second error was a sin of commission — the direct betrayal of a duty.
Even as events rushed forward, the Trump administration actively and deceptively played down the extent and seriousness of the crisis. As the danger became undeniable, the president and others in his administration doggedly denied it. “It’s going to disappear,” said President Trump. “We have it so well under control.”
There was never a proper sense of emergency at the White House — an attitude that transferred downward across the administration. Some clearly viewed covid-19 as a political problem that could be managed by public relations — as though renaming it the “Wuhan virus” could shift responsibility away from the president. Instead of disease control, they focused on damage control.
This made little sense as a long-term political strategy. The reality of mounting deaths would inevitably intrude. But there was something else at work here — an attribute of Trump himself. He scorns the bearers of unfavorable tidings. He banishes uncomfortable truths. With Trump, a senior administration official told me, there is “punishment for delivering bad news.”
This creates a bubble of happy talk around the president. “It is sort of like being in an alternate reality,” another administration official said. “The numbers would tell us that 15 cities were on fire, and two were turning things around. The entire focus was on the two doing good. No focus on the 15 doing poorly.”
How do you successfully manage an unfolding crisis if you refuse to hear bad news? You don’t.
The third major error was the Trump administration’s early decision to shift burdens and blame to the states.
By April, an administration strategy had solidified: hand off responsibility for pandemic response to the governors and cease to “own the problem.” With the death toll around 58,000, the administration hoped to declare victory and be done with it. “We have met the moment, and we have prevailed,” Trump said on May 11.
The official handoff involved creating federal guidelines for the safe and careful reopening of states that had closed to fight the pandemic. Trump agreed to the CDC guidelines in an Oval Office meeting on April 15, and they were announced broadly the next day. “If they had been adopted universally,” a senior administration figure told me, “it would have saved tens of thousands of lives.”
The unofficial handoff came on April 17, when Trump tweeted calls to “LIBERATE” Michigan, Virginia and Minnesota. It was, according to one administration official, “the most profound shock of all.” Trump had cast his lot with the shutdown’s populist critics, some of them armed. He began criticizing governors for lacking courage and speed in the process of reopening. And he shelved a second round of more detailed guidance from the CDC.
Blaming the states gave Trump a convenient excuse not to have his own comprehensive, national plan. And sabotaging the reopening standards had the rebounding influence of politicizing public health itself. In a highly polarized environment, reckless behavior became viewed as patriotism. In a crisis requiring behavioral change on a vast scale — wearing masks, social distancing — Trump consistently treated behavioral change as a sign of weakness. “It was increasingly destructive,” a senior administration official said. “It led to thousands of deaths.”
The fourth mistake was the administration’s undermining of expertise.
The tendency is most obvious in Trump’s elevation of quack cures. He suggested hydroxychloroquine would be “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” It has become one of the greatest jokes, with real damage done in the wasted time and resources that could have gone to productive medical purposes.
A greater danger in the midst of the pandemic has been Trump’s irrational trust in outliers. Neither Peter Navarro nor Scott Atlas is an expert in public health or infectious disease. But both gained influence with the president by massaging a portion of his preexisting beliefs — Navarro on rapid reopening, Atlas on herd immunity. These anti-experts have provided bad advice and sought to sabotage rival sources of information. “Not only does the president want to surround himself with yes-men,” a senior administration official told me, “he wants to use yes-men to discredit the reputations of truth tellers.”
Attempting to argue with Trump on scientific matters is a difficult enterprise. He doesn’t distinguish between anecdote and evidence, and political need outweighs actual science. “He only sees through the lens of his political fortunes,” said one official. “Nothing else counts.”
The past several months have not been without successes in the fight against covid-19. Because of improvements in treatment, fewer who get the disease die. Progress on vaccines has come more quickly than any precedent. These achievements may eventually mitigate some of the failures of the first eight months.
But today we start from a shockingly high level of new infections. Coming are holiday travel and increasing time spent indoors in winter. On Election Day 2020, the United States will be in another precarious place. Once again, Trump is insisting we are turning the corner on covid-19. One administration official responds: “We are turning the corner — into a dark alley.”
The covid-19 crisis does not have a single cause, but it has revealed Trump as he is. His leadership skills are nonexistent. He is not talented, effective or even particularly cunning. He is simply outmatched, and eager to shift the blame. In the past eight months, the United States has led the world in deaths from covid-19. Trump has led the world in the production of alibis. His failures of wisdom and judgment have imposed massive, tragic costs on our country. And justice will be served if they cost him reelection.