In other words: More than two months into this crisis, Trump doesn’t have an answer for why he didn’t do more in this crucial window to prepare the country for the coronavirus.
On Sunday, Trump got defensive when a reporter asked him why his administration had not done more to prepare. He told CBS’s Weijia Jiang to “lower her voice” and to take it “nice and easy.” Here’s their exchange:
JIANG: I had a question about something you said on Thursday, which is that you were angry because the information about the virus should have been told to us earlier. And a lot sooner people knew it was happening and people did not want to talk about it. Many Americans are saying the exact same thing about you, that you should have warned them the virus was spreading like wildfire through the month of February instead of holding rallies with thousands of people. Why did you wait so long to warn them, and why did you not have social distancing until March 16th?TRUMP: Who are you with?JIANG: I’m Weijia Jiang with CBS NewsTRUMP: So if you look at what I did in terms of cutting off of banning China for coming in --JIANG: Chinese nationals. But by the way, not Americans who were also coming from China.TRUMP: Nice and easy. Nice and easy. Just relax. We cut it off. People were amazed, these gentlemen. Everybody was amazed I did it. We had 21 people in a room, everyone was against it but me. Dr. Fauci said, had I not done that perhaps tens of thousands, and maybe much more than that, people would have died.
Trump announced the ban on Jan. 31 and it took effect Feb. 2. The decision was controversial in the global public health community.
On Sunday, Trump pointed out that there had not been any covid-19 deaths in the United States at the time of his ban, which would seem like an implicit acknowledgment that he didn’t think the outbreak was going to be serious. Here’s that exchange, where he again uses gendered language as Jiang asks tough questions:
TRUMP: How many cases were in the United States where I did my ban? How many people had died in the United States?JIANG: Could you acknowledge that you didn’t think this was going to spread?TRUMP: Keep your voice down, please.JIANG: Did you not think it was going to spread?TRUMP: How many cases were in the United States? I did a ban where I'm closing up the entire country. How many people died? How many people died in the United States?JIANG: And that’s a fair point —TRUMP: And yet I closed up the country. And I believe there were no deaths. Zero deaths. At the time I closed up the country. Nobody was there. And you should say thank you very much for good judgment.
Trump has been asked a version of this question before: why he didn’t do more in February after shutting down the borders to China (and later Europe). And he never has a good answer.
He has at times said that he knew how bad it could be but that he didn’t want to scare Americans: “I’m a cheerleader for this country.” Other times, like last week when he aired a campaign-style video of his actions that left out February, he snapped at the reporter who pointed that out.
Trump’s new defense, which he also gave Jiang: In a Democratic presidential debate in February, not one question was about the coronavirus. (He said Sunday that he saw this being discussed on Fox News and thought it was a good point.)
Former vice president Joe Biden was talking about the coronavirus in February, including in another debate. But more important, as Jiang noted, Trump is the president. He is the person with the most influence on the response.
The reality is that behind the scenes in February, according to multiple deeply reported accounts including in The Washington Post, Trump did not seem prepared, nor did he seem to want to acknowledge that the virus could ravage the United States.
He has yet to find a way to explain that and has instead fallen back on attacking the messenger who points it out.