“Who would have thought?” he asked during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nerve center for the government’s response to the outbreak. “Who would have thought we would even be having the subject?”
Actually, quite a few people would have thought, and did — including the officials in his own White House who were in charge of preparing for just such a pandemic only to have their office shut down in a reorganization in 2018. “The threat of pandemic flu is the No. 1 health security concern,” one of the officials said the day before that happened two years ago. “Are we ready to respond? I fear the answer is no.”
For a president who lives in the moment, rarely planning too far ahead, the coronavirus has proved to be a leadership challenge he was not prepared for either. The outbreak that has rattled the nation does not respond to Mr. Trump’s favorite instruments of power: It cannot be cowed by Twitter posts, it cannot be shot down by drones, it cannot be overcome by party solidarity, it cannot be overpowered by campaign rally chants
Mr. Trump, who is at his strongest politically when he has a human enemy to attack, has seemed less certain of how to take on an invisible killer. The role of calming natural leader is not one that has come easily as he struggles to find the balance between public reassurance and Panglossian dismissiveness. He has predictedthat the virus will “miraculously” disappear on its own with warmer weather, suggested a vaccine will be available soon and insisted anyone who wants to be tested can be — all overstated or inaccurate.
He has expressed an astonishing lack of knowledge while at the same time claiming to be a medical savant. He has treated the crisis as a partisan battle, wearing his red Keep America Great campaign cap to the C.D.C. and calling the governor presiding over the state with the highest death toll a “snake.” He even admitted that he wanted to leave passengers stranded on a cruise ship rather than see statistics for the number of cases on American soil go up because it would look bad.
“If we really want to talk about what is going to potentially create panic in this country, it’s an administration that’s just not being straight with the American public about the extent of this epidemic and the real-life consequences that could be put upon Americans,” Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, said Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS.
Dr. Jonathan S. Reiner, a prominent cardiologist who performed a heart transplant on former Vice President Dick Cheney and later wrote a book with him, said he was convinced that the Trump administration failed to move more quickly to test for the virus after it emerged in China because the White House did not want to admit the scope of the threat.
“When the story is finally written,” he said on Sunday, “we’ll come to understand that tens of thousands of lives were placed at risk because of a political decision made by the president.”