How Trump bungled the coronavirus response

With a death toll from coronavirus steadily rising and an enormous spike in unemployment, recent news is grim indeed.

While President Donald Trump isn’t responsible for the existence of this dangerous virus, his actions made the situation worse. Not long ago, Trump denied that coronavirus was going to be a problem and his allies claimed it was basically like influenza or the common cold.

Denial isn’t a strategy worthy of any leader and, in the case of a pandemic, it’s deadly. 

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Briefing Room on Thursday. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

The time from when the disease was first detected until its explosive growth could have been used to prepare for outbreaks in our country. Extensive testing could have tracked the emergence and spread of the disease and limited its reach and impact but the White House didn’t act with urgency. 

After leaving a Feb. 5 briefing, Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, reported on Twitter that the administration “wasn’t taking this seriously.” Murphy lamented there was “no request for ANY emergency funding, which is a big mistake. Local health systems need supplies, training, screening staff etc. And they need it now.”

That very day Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar requested funds to buy respirators and masks; the administration was to cut it by 75%.

The Trump administration undermined the response by not only failing to prepare but also reversing or ignoring past efforts to confront epidemics. Rather than being something that, as Trump claimed, “no one could have expected,” American intelligence agencies warned for years that a global pandemic could arise and issued new warnings in early 2020.

Why did the Trump administration act this way? There was bungling from a chaotic, poorly organized administration with many interim appointments, along with infighting and a reliance on Trump’s ill-informed son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

But the Trump’s administration’s deep incompetence also seems based in politically motivated decision-making, presidential narcissism and ideological blind spots.

Health journalist Dan Diamond discovered that early testing was limited because “the president had made clear — the lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the president, the better for his potential reelection this fall.”

Trump’s attacks on governors and certain parts of the country look political, as do the administration’s decisions about what states are getting the most help. Maine has received only 5% of the supplies it requested from the federal government, while Florida got everything it asked for in mid-March, with the same amount arriving again soon after. Trump said he won’t talk to certain governors seeking help and told Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the administration’s coronavirus response, not to talk to those who aren’t “appreciative.”

A political impulse may have led the administration to neglect others’ policy recommendations. The outgoing Obama administration ran a pandemic crisis simulation before the 2017 inauguration with the incoming administration and left a report on lessons learned from past outbreaks and a playbook for further action. But there’s no evidence that any of that influenced what Trump did, and the administration removed from China the epidemiologist who could have raised warnings about COVID-19.

At the same time, something broader was behind the bungling. The Koch brothers’ approach to governance that so influenced congressional Republicans and some top administration officials undermined public health, administrative capacity and expertise with the false claim that markets alone could solve public problems. 

What has unfolded is a sharp reminder that our economy can’t function without an effective government led by people who rely on evidence and experts. Trump’s incompetence demonstrated a contempt for science all too common among contemporary Republicans.

The idea that government ensuring good health care and public health undermines free enterprise was always incorrect, but it’s now blatantly obvious that a healthy population and a thriving economy reinforce each other. 

Libertarianism and Trumpism thwarted a robust response to the pandemic when it could have made a significant difference. The result was disaster.

As we battle this pandemic, we should herald so many and help each other. And it’s critical to know who and what is responsible for this avoidable tragedy and to lay the groundwork for expanding our commitment to better healthcare and public health systems.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.