The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

McEnany has mastered the ‘all of the credit, none of the blame’ approach to the pandemic

White House press secretary on Dec. 2 took credit for the rapid development of the coronavirus vaccine, calling it the “Trump vaccine.” (Video: The Washington Post)

There’s always an element of deja vu to one of White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s appearances before reporters. She has a tendency to fall back on talking points made familiar by frequent reiteration on Fox News and to engage in the same “whataboutism” seen on her boss’s Twitter feed.

On Wednesday, though, that sensation was heightened by the video feed that played in a loop next to her. It featured classic snippets of video like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) walking through a hair salon without a mask and CNN anchor Chris Cuomo coming out of his basement after being quarantined with the coronavirus — clips that McEnany and other allies of President Trump have repeatedly used to argue that support for efforts to contain the coronavirus at the heart of the pandemic are often insincere or hypocritical.

As McEnany did Wednesday.

“These Democrats do not follow their own edicts,” she declared, lumping Cuomo in with his brother, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D-N.Y.). “They act in a way that their citizens are barred from acting.”

After criticizing Gov. Cuomo's response to a Supreme Court ruling tossing out a New York state rule limiting religious gatherings, McEnany expanded on the thought.

“Democrats seek control,” she said. “These images behind me make clear Democrats’ mind set: rules for thee, but not for me.”

“The president stands with you, your freedom, your ability to decide how to best protect your health,” she continued. “We all know how to protect ourselves from covid-19”— the disease caused by the virus: “Wash your hands, socially distance, wear a mask. But as one federal court put it, there is no pandemic exception to the Constitution.”

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This is the heart of the administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Efforts to limit the virus’s spread are presented as draconian attempts to impede personal freedom, while Trump himself declines to actually offer any leadership aimed at the same thing. McEnany’s insistence that “we know how to protect ourselves” may be true, but it’s obviously not the case that enough people actually are protecting themselves, given that 160,000 people a day are being infected with the virus on average. Elected officials in some states, concerned about that spread, have mandated rules to get people to actually do the things “we” know we need to do. But since, for example, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) went to an ill-advised dinner party, all of those efforts have been waved away as insincere and indictments of Trump’s political opponents at large. There was Newsom in McEnany’s video feed; how can we trust anything any Democrat says?

Basically since the moment he took office, Trump’s approach to his job has been to avoid criticism, no matter how warranted, and to take credit, no matter how inappropriate. The pandemic response has been a great example of that instinct, with McEnany’s briefing Wednesday encapsulating it neatly.

For example, McEnany was asked about the United Kingdom moving forward with deployment of the vaccine developed by Pfizer.

“We will have 40 million doses by the end of the year, which is a tremendous achievement. Not just to have gotten a vaccine in this time, but to have produced 40 million in advance,” she said. “It’s having a businessman as president. It’s the Trump vaccine.”

Never mind that this is fewer doses than the administration had previously promised. The idea that the vaccine’s development and deployment was solely a function of Trump is ridiculous. Pfizer, for example, declined a federal investment in the development of its vaccine, its CEO said in September, to avoid being mired in political disputes. Moderna, which did take federal money, began working on its vaccine in mid-January, back when Trump was dismissing out of hand the idea that the virus would pose any risk to the country.

How the United Kingdom has already begun deploying Pfizer’s vaccine despite not having a businessman as prime minister remains unexplained.

McEnany also criticized Trump’s opponents for pushing back on his call to rapidly reopen schools earlier this year, insisting repeatedly that the Trump White House had always hewed carefully to the recommendations of experts. Trump was “always following the science,” she claimed — shortly after she acknowledged that the White House would be hosting a number of indoor holiday celebrations.

Her excuse for doing so? Whataboutism, of course.

“If you can loot businesses, burn down buildings, engage in protest,” she replied, “you can also go to a Christmas party.”

To anyone unfamiliar with the past six months of political discourse in the country, this must have seemed like an utterly baffling rationalization. That's in part because it was rote, McEnany's knee-jerk response to any question about Trump-hosted crowds.

The train of thought, as you probably know, flows like this: Democrats didn’t object to racial-justice protests that emerged in late May of this year, in part because they were held outside where the risk of infections was known to be lower. Some of those protests devolved into violent acts or looting. Trump and his allies, seeking to diminish the protests and their participants, intentionally conflated the protests with the violence. When Trump was criticized for holding campaign rallies — at times indoors, usually involving people standing in one place for hours — his team pushed back by comparing them to the protests, which, again, they dismissed as acts of violence. So, asked about the Christmas parties, McEnany’s rhetorical muscle memory kicked in: Oh, so Democrats are okay with looting but not Christmas?

It’s asinine in the specifics but also (intentionally) doesn’t answer the question. Just as it was hypocritical for Newsom to attend that dinner party, it’s hypocritical to claim that people know to social distance and to insist you follow the science while hosting indoor holiday parties. But McEnany can’t admit her boss’s hypocrisies, so she attacks his opponents.

The throughline is consistent, though: Trump is doing everything right. He’s not insisting that people wear masks, because people get mad when you make them do that. It’s their failing, not his, that so many people forgo face coverings. But it’s entirely to his credit that companies, which will be paid enormous amounts of money and earn immeasurable goodwill to generate vaccines, are doing so. Democrats are authoritarians for banning large gatherings and hypocrites for instances in which they deviate from those edicts. Trump, on the other hand, declines to endorse containment efforts but bears no blame for surging infection rates. And Trump isn’t at all hypocritical for claiming the mantle of science while welcoming people into the White House to celebrate the holidays.

There's no good faith effort here to find a balance between the unpleasantness of containing the virus and living lives as normal. There's Trump doing what he wants and his team rationalizing it.

This, again, is not a new pattern for this administration.