One can have some sympathy for the president in the face of criticism that he reacted insufficiently to the coronavirus outbreak in China. After partly banning air travelers from China he then dithered for a month, doubtless hoping that he would get lucky and the costly mitigation procedures now in place would not be necessary. Hindsight is, as the saying goes, 20/20.
Yes, there were warnings about our preparedness for a pandemic—I’ve written some of them myself—but the speed and scope of the COVID-19 virus would have tested any chief executive. To say that there is “blood on his hands” for not taking more decisive action sooner is just to say that any of us, in his role, facing such fast-breaking developments, might well have done no better. After all, the warnings about a coming pandemic and about a lack of preparedness have themselves been coming for some time; how many presidents and members of Congress took adequate heed?
But it is not February any longer. By now the American public knows the potential for large numbers of deaths and persons incapacitated. Whatever excuses can be made for the lack of available, workable tests and life-sustaining ventilators and hospital capacity in February will sound hollow in May and June. Doubtless this accounts for the president’s recent remarks that he would hold the governors accountable for any shortfall in effective tests or health infrastructure.
If the president carries out his threat to defund the World Health Organization—however culpable he may deem it to be in not exposing China’s efforts to obscure the scale of the virus—he can no longer be afforded the sympathetic understanding that others might well have made the same mistake. In crippling the one global agency addressing a global pandemic, the president really will have “blood on his hands” and it won’t just be foreign blood either. Where a transnational pandemic is concerned, the course of American health is inextricably intertwined with the health of the peoples of other countries.
If the president proceeds with this threat, or if he vetoes the guidance of his health advisers by encouraging the states to prematurely reopen businesses, schools and mass events I would be surprised if those advisers did not resign. Stimulated by a mischievous retweet by the president, there has recently been some speculation that the he might dismiss Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In fact, President Trump is far too shrewd for that, however much he might try to intimidate the Director. What is more likely is that Fauci would himself threaten to resign if Trump continues on his present course. That possibility may be all that stands between us and a truly reckless initiative by the president.
I confess I have been surprised at how little impact the resignations of Defense Secretary Mattis, National Security Adviser Bolton and Chief of Staff Kelly made. Perhaps the public doesn’t pay much attention to North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, and other foreign policy misadventures. But the president must know that the public is quite engaged with respect to the coronavirus issue and if, just as our mitigation efforts appear to be working Trump manages to undo all for which we have suffered I doubt Americans will be quite as forgiving.
On Thursday, we learned that the president plans to announce a phased reopening of the economy linked to the availability of testing and healthcare, deferring to the states as to the actual timing of the reopening. In contrast to his remarks on Monday (“the president of the United States calls the shots”), Trump told governors on Thursday that the governors could “call their own shots” regarding a phase-out of the lockdowns in their states. For the time being, cooler heads appeared to have prevailed.
Then Friday the president through his preferred medium of tweets apparently called on protesters in three states to defy the governors’ shelter-in-place orders. “Liberate Minnesota,” “Liberate Michigan,” “Liberate Virginia, ” he tweeted, giving support to thousands of protesters whose very presence in such large groups was itself in defiance of the plans the president, standing next to his senior health officials, had endorsed the day before.
The president has an unerring eye for walking up to a red line, pirouetting and dancing away from it, only to lunge forward—a routine that is as nerve-wracking for observers as it must be for his colleagues. But where so much is at stake we must hope that his well-honed sense of self-preservation will restrain him from indulging his equally well-developed need for attracting attention and generating excitement.