Imagine if, in November 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had decided to check out of World War II because it wasn’t going as well as he had hoped. Imagine if he had secluded himself in the Oval Office, listening to the radio all day, laughing at “Fibber McGee and Molly” and cursing at Walter Winchell’s news program. Imagine if, instead of attending meetings with his military chiefs, he spent his time purging government officials who weren’t loyal New Dealers and screaming about supposed fraud in the midterm elections (a big Republican victory).
That’s roughly where we stand today with President Trump and the coronavirus. A million new cases of covid-19 were recorded in the United States last week. On Saturday alone, we lost more than 1,300 people — equivalent to some three Boeing 747 crashes. To put our tragedy in perspective: As economist Jeremy Horpedahl pointed out, South Dakota (pop. 885,000) has about 25 percent more covid-19 deaths than South Korea (pop. 51 million). On the current trajectory, the United States will lose more lives by March 1 — roughly 440,000 — than the number of Americans who died in all of World War II.
Yet instead of providing leadership in a time of crisis, Trump prefers to golf, nurse his grudges and try to overturn the results of the election. The Post reports that “the president has not attended a coronavirus task force meeting in ‘at least five months,’” “is no longer regularly briefed on the pandemic by his team of doctors,” “rarely reads the daily virus reports” prepared by his staff and “has all but ceased to actively manage the deadly pandemic.”
Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, asked Trump to call for reducing in-person dining in restaurants and bars. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, asked him to stress the importance of mask-wearing and to let health officials work with the Biden transition team. Trump has simply ignored these urgently needed requests.
It is left to President-elect Joe Biden to urge mask-wearing. But his words are likely to be ignored by Trump’s cult followers. Imagine how much good the president could do if he were to rebuke the dangerous rantings of Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). This QAnon supporter just tweeted that “masks are oppressive”: “In GA, we work out, shop, go to restaurants, go to work, and school without masks. My body, my choice.” That’s like saying that stoplights, seat belts and drunken driving laws are oppressive: “My car, my choice.” Yet Trump is silent even though scientists estimate that universal mask use could save 130,000 lives by the end of February.
Trump is ignoring the scientists just as he is ignoring the economists. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell keeps warning that it’s imperative to pass a new stimulus bill to give a boost to the economy, which is likely to stagger under the weight of renewed closings. “The next few months could be challenging,” Powell said on Thursday, despite promising vaccine news.
Yet hopes for an economic stimulus package in the lame-duck Congress are fading, with Democrats and Republicans too far apart in their demands. Democratic leaders are asking for at least $2.4 trillion, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wants to spend only $500 billion. This is the kind of impasse where presidential leadership — even from a lame-duck president — could make all the difference in forcing Republicans to negotiate in good faith, while the president-elect pressures Democrats to do the same.
But Trump is missing in action in stimulus talks just as he is in strategy sessions to fight the pandemic. On Oct. 27, he promised: “After the election, we’ll get the best stimulus package you’ve ever seen.” But he has done next to nothing to deliver on his promise beyond sending out a solitary tweet on Saturday demanding that Congress pass a “Covid Relief Bill” — “Get it done!” Tweeting is no substitute for legislating.
Trump’s focus in his final days seems to be on replacing competent officials with unqualified loyalists. A purge directed by his 30-year-old former “body man” has heads rolling at the Defense Department, Homeland Security, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Energy Department and even at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — where a climate-change denier has been put in charge of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. These capricious personnel moves simply heighten the United States’ vulnerability while Trump still refuses to work with the Biden transition team.
Trump could not be doing more damage if he were consciously attempting to sabotage the U.S. government. For the record: I don’t believe that he is deliberately burning everything down on his way out the door to punish Americans for rejecting him. He is merely salving his ego, and is heedless of the causes, as always. But it wouldn’t look much different if he were. Why is he fighting to keep a job that he shows no interest in performing? He should resign now and give Vice President Pence a chance to govern in the administration’s waning days.