That phrasing is a unsubtle update on President Harry Truman’s adage about the president bearing ultimate responsibility for the decisions of government. Another Trump rebranding.
There have been few moments in which Trump’s leadership has been as tested as the emergence of the novel coronavirus that’s spreading throughout the United States. Early efforts to contain the virus were unsuccessful and the scale of the problem remains unclear, given the limited number of tests that have been conducted. The state of Ohio has five confirmed cases of coronavirus exposure; the director of the state’s Department of Health announced Thursday that the actual figure probably was somewhere above 100,000.
At a congressional hearing earlier this week, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a leading member of the president’s coronavirus task force, acknowledged that the lack of testing was a “failing” in efforts to contain the virus.
During a news conference Friday in the White House Rose Garden, Trump was asked about Fauci’s comment.
“Dr. Fauci said earlier this week that the lag in testing was, in fact, a failing,” a reporter said to Trump. “Do you take responsibility for that?”
“Yeah, no, I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump replied, “because we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time. It wasn’t meant for this kind of an event with the kind of numbers that we’re talking about. And what we’ve done is redesigned it very quickly with the help of the people behind me. And we’re now in very, very strong shape.”
He invited Fauci to the microphone. Fauci broadly agreed that the procedures in place for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were insufficient for measuring a virus at the scale necessary. The CDC’s response has been criticized for having rejected an established test in use in other countries; its own test was hobbled by problems.
There has also been reporting, including by Politico’s Dan Diamond, that Trump encouraged limited testing because he equated low numbers of confirmed cases with success — an important consideration with his reelection looming. After Fauci spoke, in fact, Trump recentered his response on the much greater number of deaths that followed an outbreak of influenza in the first year of President Barack Obama’s administration. That outbreak has been a constant reference point for Trump in recent days, certainly in large part because he uses it to attack former vice president Joe Biden, his most likely opponent in November.
“If you go back to the swine flu, it was nothing like this,” Trump added. “They didn’t do testing like this. And actually they had lost approximately 14,000 people and they didn’t do the testing. They started thinking about testing when it was far too late. What we’ve done and one of the reasons I think people are respecting what we’ve done, we’ve done it very early. We’ve gotten it very early."
His representation of what happened in that event is inaccurate. A former Obama administration official has reported that the administration tested about 1 million people for that particular flu, compared with about 20,000 coronavirus tests that have been completed. The death toll from that event was out of 60 million infections, a much lower relative toll than the nearly 50 deaths that have been tied to the nearly 2,000 demonstrated coronavirus infections.
Later, Trump was asked about the shuttering of an office focused on addressing viral outbreaks early in his administration.
“You said that you don’t take responsibility, but you did disband the White House pandemic office,” Yamiche Alcindor from “PBS NewsHour” said. “The officials that were working in that office left this administration abruptly. So what responsibility do you take to that? And the officials that worked in that office said that you — that the White House lost valuable time because that office was disbanded. What do you make of that?”
“Well, I just think it’s a nasty question, because what we’ve done is — and Tony has said numerous times that we’ve saved thousands of lives because of the quick closing,” Trump replied. “And when you say me, I didn’t do it.”
“It was your administration,” Alcindor replied.
“We have a group of people. I could — I could ask perhaps in my administration, but I could perhaps ask Tony about that, because I don’t know anything about it,” Trump replied. “I mean, you say — you say we did that. I don’t know anything about it.”
“You don’t know about the reorganization that happened at the National Security Council?” Alcindor asked.
“We’re spending — no, I don’t know. It’s the administration,” Trump replied. “Perhaps they do that. You know, people let people go. You used to be with a different newspaper than you are now. You know, things like that happen."
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) subsequently tweeted that he had asked the president about the office closure nearly two years ago.
It’s a remarkable abdication by the president who, in other contexts, is more than happy to celebrate reductions in the size of government that aren’t directly a function of his decision-making. In this case, the reduction was within the executive branch itself, but Trump decided that Alcindor was being “nasty” for suggesting that he might have been expected to have been aware of it happening.
“We’re doing a great job. Let me tell you,” Trump then said, going on to praise the team that has been working on the outbreak.
”We have 40 people right now,” he continued, referring to the current death toll. “Forty. Compare that with other countries that have many, many times that amount. Now, one of the reasons we have 40 and others have — and again, that number is going up, just so you understand, and the number of cases which are very small, relatively speaking, it’s going up.
“But we’ve done a great job because we acted quickly, we acted early,” he said.
The reason that the death toll is currently at 40 is because the number of cases is only starting to climb higher. An estimate of the toll from the coronavirus over the next several years ranges from a few hundred to more than 1.6 million. Most experts expect the toll to surpass the number of deaths from the outbreak in 2009. This, of course, was Trump’s approach to Hurricane Maria in 2017: Celebrate when only a few dozen people had died — and then deny the actual total when it was reported months later.
That Trump acknowledged that the number of infections and deaths would increase is, itself, a shift in his rhetoric. For weeks, he ignored the rate of increase, preferring to isolate specific figures relative to other deadly outbreaks, like the seasonal flu. At one point last month, he even predicted that the number of cases in the country would wither to none.
That came up at the news conference.
“Mr. President, you said the cases would go down to zero,” CNN’s Jim Acosta asked as Trump left the lectern. “Can you explain why that didn’t happen?”
Trump didn’t reply.