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Opinion Directions on safely reopening the country must come from credible officials — not Trump

President Trump speaks with members of the coronavirus task force during a briefing in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 15 in Washington.
President Trump speaks with members of the coronavirus task force during a briefing in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 15 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Unless and until D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), in concert with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), tells me otherwise, I am going to follow her stay-at-home order and abide by all other social distancing measures now in place. I will also respect decisions by these regional leaders regarding the reopening of schools, parks, restaurants and other nonessential businesses.

Bowser, Hogan and Northam — and most of the governors and public officials across the nation struggling to deal with devastation brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic — are acting in the public interest. They are doing their best to make decisions based on facts and what’s right for the people they serve — not out of the narcissistic self-preoccupation that governs the White House.

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President Trump, who contributed to chaos and confusion surrounding the federal response to this deadly disease, initially said he wanted the country reopened next month in the midst of the pandemic, contending that some areas can dispense with social distancing and other mitigation measures.

“Our country,” he declared at Tuesday’s Rose Garden news conference, “has to get open, and it will get open, and it’ll get open safely.” To Trump’s assertion, I apply the dictum made famous by Ronald Reagan: “Trust, but verify.”

Trump is as good as his word, and his word on the coronavirus and how to reopen the country is no good.

Fortunately, the Constitution tops bombast, and Trump’s nonsense about having “total authority” to declare the nation reopened, gave way Thursday to recognition that states and localities will call the shots. Their assessments of risks and benefits, supported by federally supplied science-based timetables — not Trump’s gut — will determine where, when and how.

The nation relies upon Trump’s word at its peril.

Questions about Trump’s credibility are settled.

The Post has been keeping close track of this phenomenon. As of April 3, reports The Post’s Fact Checker, Trump has made 18,000 false or misleading claims, an average of more than 15 a day since taking office.

But he has outdone himself with his coronavirus performance. Misinformation, falsehoods and specious claims dominate his public pronouncements. Remember “it’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control”?

While showering the country with happy talk, Trump ignored warnings, played down risk and delayed action on advising the public on steps to slow the spread of the virus — bungling confirmed by in-depth Post and New York Times reporting.

Yet Trump wants praise. His chief justification rests on his oft-repeated tale that he imposed travel restrictions on China all on his own and over the objections of health experts, thus saving “thousands and thousands of people” from dying. An Associated Press fact check disputes that claim.

Trump’s restrictions, reports the Associated Press, were not made over the objection of health experts; his decision followed a consensus reached by his public health advisers that restrictions should take place. Moreover, the AP noted, most major airlines had already suspended flights to China before Trump’s announcement.

Not only is there no information about the impact of the restrictions to back up his claim of having saved thousands, the AP reports, but Trump’s restrictions didn’t fully “close” off China from the United States, as he bragged.

“It temporarily barred entry by foreign nationals who had traveled in China within the previous 14 days, with exceptions for the immediate family of U.S. citizens and permanent residents,” according to the AP. Trump’s ban allowed Americans to return from China after getting enhanced screening at select entry points and for 14 days afterward. But the procedure wasn’t airtight. The AP noted that screenings can miss people who don’t yet show symptoms.

Besides, by the time Trump acted, large numbers of people exposed to the virus had already been traveling internationally, the AP pointed out. And they were arriving in the United States from Rome and other places in Europe.

Instead of a hero, Trump emerges as a case study in failed leadership.

Citing what it describes as “critical errors,” “corruption and incompetence” and “callousness, self-concern, and a lack of compass,” manifested in his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, the Boston Globe declared in a March 30 editorial that “the president has blood on his hands.” A trenchant metaphor, perhaps. But the Globe spoke truth when it said, “Much of the suffering and death coming was preventable.”

Trump may be president, but he has no moral standing.

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Let us hope the president can stick to his newfound deference to our governors and mayors (his “LIBERATE!” outbursts on Twitter Friday do not inspire confidence), but I know whom I’ll listen to regardless. Directions on safely reopening the country and conquering the virus — including actions to restart the economy — must come from credible, competent and trusted public officials, in coordination with economic experts and top business and labor executives.

They shouldn’t come from Trump.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.

Read more:

Megan McArdle: Why the lockdown skeptics are wrong

Eugene Robinson: Trump refuses to lead a country in crisis

Paul Waldman: Trump’s retreat from responsibility will fail

Sergio Peçanha: Lessons from the confinement