In other words, not even a crisis as massive as the novel coronavirus has stopped the president from behaving like a cranky toddler.
Trump’s toddler traits have significantly hampered America’s response to the pandemic. They aren’t new, either. In the first three years of his term, I’ve collected 1,300 instances when a Trump staffer, subordinate or ally — in other words, someone with a rooting interest in the success of Trump’s presidency — nonetheless described him the way most of us might describe a petulant 2-year-old. Trump offers the greatest example of pervasive developmental delay in American political history.
The elevation of a toddler to the Oval Office intersected with a trend that predates Trump and has made the problem worse: the increasing agglomeration of power in the hands of the president. In the half-century since Watergate, presidents from both sides of the aisle have beaten back formal and informal constraints. They have resisted congressional oversight, cowed judges into submission and disciplined bureaucrats into obeying their every whim. Increasing political polarization has facilitated presidential power grabs by enervating congressional oversight, increasing the political loyalty of Cabinet officers, and eroding the norms and unwritten rules of the presidency.
As these problems mounted, the presidency was redesigned to be occupied by the last grown-up inside the Beltway. And then Trump was elected. True, his brand of immature leadership is not the only reason the United States lags behind South Korea in its pandemic response, including testing and containment. Organizational inertia and garden-variety bureaucratic politics matter as well.
Still, the Trump White House’s inadequate handling of the outbreak highlights his every toddler-like instinct. The most obvious one is his predilection for temper tantrums. Some advisers describe an angry Trump as a whistling teapot that needs to either let off steam or explode. Politico has reported on the myriad triggers for his tantrums: “if he’s caught by surprise, if someone criticizes him, or if someone stops him from trying to do something or seeks to control him.”
Like a toddler’s, Trump’s temper has flared repeatedly as the pandemic has worsened and the stock market has tanked. Multiple reports confirm that Trump was irate with prescient statements in late February by Nancy Messonnier, a senior official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who warned that a coronavirus outbreak in the United States was inevitable at a time when Trump was insisting he’d prevented one by banning travel from China. A report in Vanity Fair quoted “a person close to the administration” saying that Trump was “melting down” over the pandemic. He pitched a fit after his Oval Office address in early March was widely panned. His temper has acted as an obvious deterrent for other officials to contradict Trump’s happy talk about the pandemic: In early March, Defense Secretary Mark Esper ordered his overseas commanders not to take any action mitigating the coronavirus that might surprise the president. For Trump’s staff, crisis management revolves around managing the president’s temper, not managing the actual problem.
Trump, like most toddlers, also has poor impulse control. Some White House advisers reportedly refer to it as the “shiny-object phenomenon” — his tendency to react to breaking news rather than focusing on more important issues. This is a problem for competent governance. As White House counselor Kellyanne Conway noted back in 2017, “The hallmark of leadership is a deliberative process, not an impulsive reaction.”
During the coronavirus outbreak, Trump’s access to Twitter has exacerbated his impulsiveness. He has tweeted out statements that aides have scrambled to interpret or reverse-engineer into existence, on topics including whether he would invoke the Defense Production Act to force manufacturers to make ventilators. Health experts have reportedly tried to get him to focus beyond the immediate bad news cycles of rising infections and look at the larger picture of “flattening the curve” and preventing a much bigger health disaster, to little avail. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) complained on the record about Trump’s erratic public statements, noting that “he at times just says whatever comes to mind or tweets, then someone on TV is saying the opposite.”
Trump’s short, toddler-like attention span has been a problem throughout his administration. One former high-ranking government official told me that a 45-minute meeting with the president was really 45 different one-minute meetings, in which Trump would ask disconnected, rapid-fire questions such as “What do you think of NATO?” and “How big is an aircraft carrier?” One book reported that Trump would interrupt his first chief of staff to pepper him with questions about badgers. That inability to focus laid the groundwork for the bad pandemic response. During the transition, the Obama administration prepared a tabletop exercise to brief the incoming Trump team about how to handle an influenza pandemic. The president-elect did not participate, and a former senior official acknowledged that “to get the president to be focused on something like this would be quite hard.”
Trump’s inability to sit still has been on display recently. His aides have questioned whether he has the capacity to focus on what will be a months-long emergency. White House staffers acknowledged that the one time he tried to read a prepared speech from the Oval Office was an unmitigated disaster. Multiple reports confirm that he has grown restless while confined on the White House grounds. He has crashed staff meetings because he does not know what else to do.
Toddlers are natural contrarians, who love to test boundaries by pushing back on whatever they’re told. So is Trump. In the first two months of the outbreak, he insisted that the coronavirus would never spread within the United States, despite expert assessments to the contrary. In late February, he said: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” He repeatedly claimed that the virus was not a serious problem, even as mayors, governors and his own administration said otherwise. After finally declaring a national emergency, he clung to the idea that most of the country would be back to normal by Easter. And he insisted that anti-malarial drugs offered an effective treatment despite minimal evidence because, according to one source, he “wants this magical moment when this is all over.” Each time, Trump’s advisers have had to expend precious time and energy to change his mind and soothe his ego rather than focus on the crisis at hand.
The final and most disturbing parallel between Trump and a toddler is that, like at a day-care center that doesn’t pay caregivers enough, the staff turnover in this administration has hampered the government’s response. The burn rate of senior officials has been much higher under Trump than under any of his post-Cold War predecessors.
The GOP did not send its best to staff Trump’s administration in January 2017, and he is now scraping from the bottom of the barrel. As the coronavirus crisis metastasized, Trump fired his third, and hired his fourth, chief of staff. His fourth national security adviser shrunk his staff by more than a third before the outbreak — including shuffling the National Security Council’s planning for pandemics into a larger sub-office, diluting its power within the White House. Two-thirds of the senior positions at the Department of Homeland Security are vacant or filled with acting officials. Civilian vacancies at the Pentagon are at record highs.
Much like frazzled preschool teachers, the remaining competent people staffing Trump are clearly past the point of exasperation. In response to an interview question about why he failed to correct Trump at a news conference, Anthony Fauci, who’s been running the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for decades, responded: “I know, but what do you want me to do? I mean, seriously . . . let’s get real, what do you want me to do?”
Indeed, the rest of Washington seems as frustrated as Fauci: Despite his meltdowns, Trump has been able to use the enhanced powers of the presidency with minimal pushback. When he signed the $2 trillion stimulus bill, he rejected congressional oversight of the spending. The president told his vice president not to respond to governors who complain too much about the federal response. Despite his bad behavior, a bizarre aspect of this crisis is that some officials have complained that Trump has not used his emergency powers enough.
Any parent of a badly behaved toddler can identify with what Fauci is saying. Fortunately for parents — but unfortunately for all of us — no household up to now has had to cope with a toddler with the sprawling powers of the modern presidency.