As concern about the COVID-19, the new coronavirus, grows globally and here at home, the White House’s response has brought into stark relief why being president is about much more than performance art, using a bullhorn to shout down opponents and staging rallies. The presidency, at its core, is about protecting the American people and managing the bureaucracy responsible for planning and executing the response to unexpected events.
For President Donald Trump, the coronavirus represents a personal threat: to his brand, to the economy he claims to be growing, and to his self-professed understanding of how society works. But unlike most of the people in his administration, the coronavirus does not listen, is not scared of mean tweets and can spread regardless of the information the president chooses to share or to diminish.
During a campaign rally in South Carolina on Friday, Trump went so far as to call the deadly outbreak — which has made approximately 83,000 people ill and killed over 2,8500 since it was first discovered in January — a "hoax."
To ensure that Trump both remains in control, and provides himself the perfect fall guy, he named Vice President Mike Pence the de facto czar overseeing the government’s response to the outbreak on Wednesday. This despite HHS Secretary Alex Azar’s greater expertise and proximity to the situation. But Trump has already shown a preference to prioritizing loyalty over experience. Anything outside the White House (and much within it) is beyond the reach of the president’s prying eyes — and paranoia.
This approach is already causing concern, with confusion remaining over Pence's role and who exactly is leading efforts from the public health side. According to The New York Times, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, will not be able to speak on the health crisis without White House approval.
During that same Wednesday news conference, Trump repeatedly downplayed the risk of coronavirus, comparing it to the flu. He also suggested that while the stock market had fallen in part because of coronavirus fears, investors were also spooked by Democrats.
"I think they're very upset when they look at the Democrat candidates standing on the stage making fools out of themselves," Trump said.
The way Trump operates may be fit for a family office, but it in no way translates to governance. The real estate business is on demand. If you’re building something, you need the bodies: carpenters, pipefitters, welders and the like. If there’s no construction, there’s no need to have those people around.
But the government and its response capabilities do not resemble a construction project. The civil servants at the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other responsible federal agencies have specific jobs they carry out. In the case of an emergency, though, they are the ones who know how to get things done. They provide the subject-matter expertise to ensure that policymakers can deploy appropriate resources.
Today, too many of their desks are empty.
This is in keeping with how Trump staffs his White House more generally. Earlier this week, acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Chad Smith stumbled and fumbled through a Senate appropriations hearing on the budget, spewing incorrect information and doubling down when pressed by Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. Not to be outdone, the department’s acting deputy secretary, Ken Cucinelli, took to Twitter for help figuring out how to access a map of coronavirus outbreaks.
Trump prefers these “acting” officialsin part because they do not require Senate confirmation. However, at least in the case of the Homeland Security Department, they appear to lack even the most basic experience in emergency response or management. During normal times, this inexperience is hidden from the American people by the shield of the Beltway and the normal hum drum of government activity. In an emergency however, their potential confusion drives down (already low) public confidence in institutions.
And how does the Trump White House find the people it chooses to lead these agencies? In recent weeks, the administration has dismantled the normal process for filling high-level government posts. In the month since his Senate acquittal, Trump has also systematically begun cleaning out any and all appointees who are not seen as sufficiently loyal to the “Trump agenda.” Very alarmingly, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is somehow at the center of an effort to sort people into lists of friends, of enemies and of those deemed worthy of service.
Meanwhile, the Presidential Personnel Office (PPO) is currently being run by John McEntee, Trump’s former personal aide with a gambling problem, with help from James Bacon, a college senior who McEntee recently named the office’s director of operations. Inundated with enormous power, these two people can reintroduce the spoils system to the civil service, stocking departments with the worst cronies — at all levels.
As the “best” people take their places within the government’s superstructure, the Trump propaganda machine kicks into gear.
Fox News has spent a significant amount of time this week pushing the idea that Democrats, the big bad liberal media and even the CDC is trying to use the coronavirus to make Trump look bad. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh said the whole thing was overblown hysteria "weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump." To muddy the waters, Trump supporters like Limbaugh tried to discredit CDC employees like Nancy Messonnier, who leads the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, because she is (gasp!) Rod Rosenstein’s sister.
And as Trump's South Carolina comments show, he's clearly paying attention.
Everything about our politics, and now our public health, is dictated by the whims, fears and sometimes fantasies of Trump. He appears outraged, not by a potential pandemic, but by the fact that concerns around the coronavirus have driven massive stock sell-offs. Of course, this makes perfect sense. Trump doesn't often bother himself with problems that do not personally affect him. That’s why he is slow to express sympathy for tragedies he does not connect to, and why his main concern consistently lies with public perception.
We hired an experienced, amoral bully to run the government. That Donald Trump is not handling a potential crisis effectively and empathetically should come as no surprise. The real question is how this president will handle mass concern over something he cannot control. Probably the same way he always reacts: blame, distract and move on.
- Reed Galen is an independent political strategist. He left the GOP in 2016 after Donald Trump’s nomination.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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