Trump chose to do nothing for weeks. Now we're in a crisis with thousands of deaths and no end in sight
On March 24, President Trump held a Fox News town hall and sent shudders through every health care expert in the nation when he announced that he was planning to "open the country" on Easter Sunday. He said:
Look: Easter's a very special day for me. And I see it sort of in that timeline that I'm thinking about. And I say, wouldn't it be great to have all the churches full? ... So I think Easter Sunday and you'll have packed churches all over our country. I think it would be a beautiful time, and it's just about the timeline that I think is right.
On that same day, 16 states had enacted stay-at-home orders affecting more than 40% of the population. The military was getting ready to deploy field hospitals and dispatch Navy hospital ships to New York and Los Angeles. Governors all over the country were desperately begging for tests and supplies.
New York City announced that day that there were 15,597 positive cases of COVID-19 and 192 fatalities in the five boroughs. Two and a half weeks later, on Easter Sunday, the day Trump had wanted the churches packed with people, there were 103,208 cases in New York City alone, including at least 6,717 deaths.
Fortunately, Trump was talked out of the Easter "resurrection," as Fox News' Bill Hemmer called it, by the health experts who told him a quarter of a million people could die — and by his campaign staff, who told him it wasn't polling well. (I'll let you decide for yourself which of those sets of advisers was more persuasive.) It took him a few days but the president ultimately came around to announcing that he would keeping the federal CDC guidelines in place until the end of April.
But now he's getting antsy again. Over the last few days, he's made it clear that he's getting ready to "open the country" at the end of the month. But he still doesn't understand what that means.
During last Friday's coronavirus rally (that is, his so-called press briefing at the White House), Trump declared that the virus "will soon be in full retreat." When a reporter asked how he could possibly know this without widespread testing he said that he would know, because "people aren't going to go to the hospital, people aren't going to get sick. You're gonna see nobody's gonna be getting sick anymore. It will be gone and it won't be that much longer."
Apparently he doesn't know that asymptomatic people can spread the virus which means that in order for people to be safe going outside for normal social activities we will need a massive testing and contact tracing program. We don't have anything close to that at the moment. Testing is still far below what's needed to truly understand the scope of the epidemic. People won't be able to go out to work or go to restaurants and sporting events until they feel safe. Just saying that everything's fine won't work.
Moreover, while Trump may insist he has "absolute authority" to reopen the country, he really doesn't. He can lift the guidelines and tell everyone they should go back to their workplaces and go out and have fun, but most state governors won't go along with that, which will lead to yet more division, dysfunction and death.
Trump simply cannot grasp the enormity of the crisis he is supposed to be dealing with. From the very beginning, his response has been dismissive, sluggish and chaotic, and that continues to this day.
The New York Times published a sweeping account over the weekend of the early days of the crisis and the Washington Post followed up with a similar report. These and other news reports over the past couple of weeks form what The Atlantic's James Fallows calls "the real-time Pentagon Papers of this administration's pandemic disaster."
The Times report added quite a bit of new detail to what we knew already. The National Security Council got word early in January that the country was at risk from the virus and discussed the necessity of making people stay at home for some length of time. The Trump administration, of course, made no move to do so until the middle of March.
Trump lied when he said he didn't know about his trade adviser Peter Navarro's memo of Jan. 29, in which Navarro made the stark prediction that there could be half a million deaths and severe economic devastation. Because of all the infighting within Trump's White House, Trump and his inner circle dismissed many of these concerns as China-hawk paranoia, which Trump was in no mood to hear because he was desperate to make a trade agreement with President Xi Jinping that he could use to prove his dealmaking prowess in the upcoming election.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar attempted to warn Trump more than once, and was told he was being alarmist. Azar also tried to institute programs back in February to project virus hotspots, which were inexplicably delayed. Combined with the massive failure to produce tests this meant that the government was clueless about the spread of the virus across the country for several crucial weeks.
Trump spent the entire month of February basically paralyzed, refusing to do much of anything to stem the crisis, wishing and hoping, both in public and private, that this nightmare would just go away. By the time he agreed to recommend social distancing in mid-March, observers describe him as feeling "subdued" and "baffled" by the whole thing.
The Washington Post story goes along similar lines, at one point making this devastating observation:
It may never be known how many thousands of deaths, or millions of infections, might have been prevented with a response that was more coherent, urgent and effective. But even now, there are many indications that the administration's handling of the crisis had potentially devastating consequences.
Trump is now busy blaming everyone but himself, starting with China, the governors, the Congress and, any day now, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who told the truth on CNN this past Sunday when he admitted that earlier mitigation would have saved lives. Trump retweeted a #FireFauci tweet on Sunday night.
When asked on Friday what metrics he plans to use to decide whether to open the country, the president pointed to his head and said, "The metric is right here. That's my metrics. That's all I can do." Later that night he phoned in to Judge Jeanine Pirro's Fox News show and further explained that he would make the decision "based on a lot of facts and a lot of instincts also."
In other words, he's just going to wing it, as he always does.
At Friday's rally, Trump characterized this as the biggest decision of his presidency. It's a big one, to be sure. But he already made the biggest decision of his presidency when he refused to take the coming pandemic seriously and failed to take necessary steps to respond effectively to and protect American lives. Every day since then has meant one bad decision after another. There's little reason to assume this one will be any different.