CHINA’S FAILURE to respond promptly to the covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan in December revealed a weakness of authoritarian rule. News was stifled, honest doctors were punished, and the Communist Party allowed illness to spread in a vain attempt to protect its image.

Now we are seeing that democracy can produce its own version of leadership failure, when the person in charge is more concerned with his own image than the well-being of the nation. President Trump has spent three years demeaning and weakening the U.S. government. Now that the United States desperately needs that government to function well, we are paying a steep price.

The failure to produce sufficient test kits early in the epidemic squandered an opportunity to contain the virus. But the problem was not simply the faulty kit. More telling, as Ashley Parker, Yasmeen Abutaleb and Lena H. Sun showed in their dissection of the administration’s flailing response, was the backbiting, finger-pointing and overall lack of urgency that ensued.

That flailing should come as no surprise. Virtually every federal agency should be responding as part of a team to this crisis, either to help contain and treat or to figure out how to continue serving the public in difficult conditions. But Mr. Trump derides these agencies as a hostile “deep state” and defunds branches that gather data. Many agencies suffer from an absence of leaders. Here are a few positions that should be responding to the virus but have no Senate-confirmed appointees, and haven’t for more than a year: secretary of homeland security; deputy secretary of homeland security; undersecretary of homeland security for science and technology; assistant secretary of state for oceans and international, environmental and scientific affairs; USAID assistant administrator for global health; deputy director of the National Science Foundation; at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the associate directors for science, for national security and international affairs, and for technology; at the Transportation Department, the assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs; and on and on.

Most notoriously, Mr. Trump in 2018 abolished the directorate for global health security and biodefense on his own National Security Council. “Who would have thought we would even be having the subject?” the president said in apparent amazement while touring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week. But this epidemic was not just predictable, it was predicted. Preparing for it was the purpose of the office that he shut down.

Ignorant statements such as that, along with his falsehoods about test kits being widely available and his constant minimizing of the seriousness of the crisis, are damaging in their own right. But they are especially damaging because those who work for him know their jobs are at risk if they do not back up his lies. Mr. Trump not only denies established facts, he fires people, such as acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire, who contradict his falsehoods. Of course aides hesitate to surface bad news.

Even this week, as officials everywhere began calling for precautions, Mr. Trump continued his wrongheaded public relations campaign. “Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on,” he tweeted. As public health officials belatedly stress the importance of social distancing, Mr. Trump’s countermessaging does more than cause confusion. It will cost lives.

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