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The unique incompetence of Donald Trump in a crisis

When bureaucratic mistakes are compounded by political incompetence

President Trump addresses the media at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s headquarters in Atlanta on Friday with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, left, and CDC Director Robert Redfield. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)

I needed to do two kinds of research when writing “Theories of International Politics and Zombies.” The first was mastering the zombie genre. The second was reading the social science literature on the politics of disasters and pandemics, because those kind of events most closely mirrored what a zombie apocalypse would look like. The conclusion I drew from that research, which I noted during the 2014 Ebola outbreak as well, was that conflicting trends would dominate the U.S. response to a emergent threat:

Recall the discussion of how domestic politics would affect counterzombie policies: government institutions would be able to act in an unconstrained manner at first, but politics would impose a stronger constraint over time. The organizational perspective offers the reverse narrative — bureaucratic competency will improve over time. If both domestic political pressures and bureaucratic politics play a role in affecting government policies, their combined effect could be doubly disastrous. Government agencies would have the most autonomy when they are most likely to make bad decisions. By the time these bureaucracies adapted to new zombie exigencies, they would face political hurdles that could hamper their performance.

This certainly happened during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. As Yuval Levin noted at the time, the Obama administration was overly confident in its ability to cope with the disease. Fortunately, bureaucracies moved quickly down the learning curve, the Obama administration got out in front of the politics, and the pandemic never got past the containment phase in the United States.

Over the past four months, President Trump has regularly sought to downplay the coronavirus threat with a mix of facts and false statements. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Fast forward to 2020, and some of the same dynamics seem to be at play in the Trump administration’s handling of the novel coronavirus that causes the disease covid-19. The bureaucracy — composed of the experts dedicated to solving the problem — royally screwed up its initial handling of the crisis. The Department of Health and Human Services overruled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in how infected Americans trapped in Japan were brought back to this country. According to a department whistleblower, HHS also appears to have bollixed its handling of Americans returning from Wuhan, China, leading to community spread of the virus in California.

The CDC is hardly blameless. Its initial test for the coronavirus was faulty. Furthermore, long-standing bureaucratic rivalries led to absurd moments like an FDA official getting locked out of the CDC’s Atlanta headquarters.

So let’s be clear, the experts were far from perfect in handling the initial stages of this crisis. And the politicians, as with the Ebola outbreak, also radiated a false sense of calm. In January and February, the Trump White House kept insisting all was well, even though it very clearly was not.

The result has been a passel of stories in the past 72 hours that all arrive at the same conclusion: The United States blew its window of opportunity to prepare for the pandemic that is now about to happen.

  • Time: “Experts say the U.S. response is now likely weeks — if not months — behind schedule.”
  • Atlantic: “The United States’ response to the coronavirus is far behind the spread of the disease within its borders.”
  • Politico: “The slowness of the testing regimen — which, administration officials acknowledged this week, is still not producing enough tests to meet the national demand — was the first, and most sweeping, of many failures.”
  • New York Times: “Public health officials are warning that no one knows how deeply the virus will spread, in part because the federal government’s flawed rollout of tests three weeks ago has snowballed into an embarrassing fiasco of national proportions.”
  • Washington Post: “Many public health officials say the administration did not make good use of crucial time before the virus emerged in the United States.”

There are, unfortunately, three important differences between the Obama administration’s Ebola response and the Trump administration’s covid-19 response. They are all related to the unique incompetence of President Trump coping with a crisis not of his own making.

First, Trump’s toddler traits have exacerbated the mismanagement of the situation. The president’s short attention span and quick temper compromised his administration’s ability to handle the crucial weeks when containment was still possible. According to my Post colleagues Ashley Parker, Yasmeen Abutaleb, and Lena H. Sun, “during a late January meeting at the White House, Azar was having trouble focusing Trump’s full attention on his coronavirus briefing.”

A month later, multiple reports confirm Trump blew his stack when Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on the record that the virus would spread.

All of this was before Trump’s train-wreck presser at the CDC on Friday. Trump flat-out acknowledged he wanted low numbers of reported infected Americans even if that meant doing things like not actively looking for possible infections or keeping people quarantined on cruise ships. It was so disconcerting that Wired’s Adam Rogers admitted to being rattled:

As a reporter, in general I’m not supposed to say something like this, but: The president’s statements to the press were terrifying. That press availability was a repudiation of good science and good crisis management from inside one of the world’s most respected scientific institutions. It was full of Dear Leader-ish compliments, non-sequitorial defenses of unrelated matters, attacks on an American governor, and — most importantly — misinformation about the virus and the US response. That’s particularly painful coming from inside the CDC, a longtime powerhouse in global public health now reduced to being a backdrop for grubby politics. During a public health crisis, clear and true information from leaders is the only way to avoid dangerous panic. Yet here we are.

For me, the most disconcerting part of it was watching public health officials just nod along to Trump’s falsehoods. Which leads to the second difference: Trump’s staff has now adopted some of the president’s worst toddler traits. According to Politico’s Dan Diamond, back in January “Trump’s aides mocked and belittled Azar as alarmist, as he warned the president of a major threat to public health and his own economic agenda.” The Post reported last week that Trump’s close advisers share Trump’s incapacity for long-range thinking:

Throughout his presidency, Trump has obsessed over hourly news cycles, looking to win each one as opposed to patiently executing long-range strategies. But with coronavirus, some of his own administration officials privately say they are struggling to impress upon the president and his close advisers that they may need to weather some difficult news cycles to win the best headline of all: the eradication of the virus.

Similarly, the AP’s Mike Stobbe reported “The White House overruled health officials who wanted to recommend that elderly and physically fragile Americans be advised not to fly on commercial airlines because of the new coronavirus.” That sounds like a White House that is trying so hard to avoid any immediate bad news that it cannot recognize the disaster it is overseeing.

Aides are jockeying so fiercely to stay in Trump’s good graces that it leads to absurd moments like the mid-40s U.S. surgeon general saying on a Sunday show that, “The president, he sleeps less than I do and he’s healthier than what I am.” As Politico’s Diamond reported, “Trump’s unpredictable demands and attention to public statements — and his own susceptibility to flattery — have created an administration where top officials feel constantly at siege, worried that the next presidential tweet will decide their professional future, and panicked that they need to regularly impress him.”

Trump cannot focus, and he has denuded his staff’s ability to do the same. Neither of these differences is good. Nor is the last the most important difference. Whatever mistakes were made back in 2014, the Obama administration kept Ebola contained. The novel coronavirus is now beyond containment, however. We are now in the mitigation phase. Trump’s go-to impulses of closing borders and blaming foreigners will not work, because the virus is now as American as apple pie.

Over the next week, as testing becomes more widely available and as community spread continues, the number of reported infections and deaths will rise. People who have not panicked yet will begin to freak out. And the federal government has squandered the good will it had among most of the country.

Everything in this column is about how Trump’s pathologies have compromised his administration’s ability to cope with the public health aspects of this crisis. But this extends beyond health. The hard-working staff here will address some of those other concerns in this week’s columns.