The spread around the globe of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has exposed a vulnerability in President Donald Trump's White House that he is fundamentally ill-equipped to manage. Unlike previous obstacles, this isn't something Trump can bully his way out of. He can't neutralize it with a nickname or intimidate it with a slogan at a rally. This isn't the Mueller probe or the impeachment inquiry that the president can dismiss as a "hoax" or a "witch hunt" — although he has already tried. For one of the first times in his presidency, Trump is confronted by an adversary that won't be defeated by his repertoire of slights, jabs and lies.
In recent days, the president has dismissed criticism of his comments on the virus as a "hoax" and a political conspiracy concocted by Democrats. He has attacked the "Fake News" media, accusing them of putting out "disinformation," when all that they've done is report verbatim and in context what the president has said. Even Trump's own officials are reportedly getting frustrated with him.
After New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told MSNBC this weekend that he was "battling" the federal government's "mixed messages" about coronavirus, Trump tweeted back that "there are no mixed messages, only political weaponization."
The irony, of course, is Trump is (mostly falsely) accusing Democrats and the media of the very behavior he enthusiastically embraced during the Ebola crisis. Indeed, the germaphobic Trump's obsession with Ebola — and President Barack Obama's response to it — feels like the textbook definition of politicizing a crisis. And it's all documented.
In the summer and fall of 2014, Trump posted close to 100 tweets criticizing and, for lack of a better word, weaponizing, the Obama administration's response to the Ebola crisis. Trump's tweets included the observation "I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent." He called Obama "stupid" and suggested that he "personally embrace all people in the US who contract Ebola!" He also callously tweeted that an American medical worker who had contracted Ebola while abroad shouldn't be allowed back home, arguing that the person should instead "suffer the consequences!"
It's a familiar, if not predictable, pattern.
Trump was quick to criticize the appointment of Obama's Ebola czar, Ron Klain, tweeting that he had "zero experience in the medical area and zero experience in infectious disease control. A TOTAL JOKE!" And yet, Trump saw fit to tap Vice President Mike Pence to lead the federal government's coronavirus response. Pence, of course, has no experience in medicine or infectious disease control. In fact, his one brush with public health crises was a complete disaster. As governor of Indiana, Pence ignored signs of an HIV outbreak in Austin, Indiana. According to the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pence's inaction led to the city's getting a higher incidence of HIV "than any country in sub-Saharan Africa."
Trump also criticized Obama for playing golf during Ebola, and yet pictures surfaced over the weekend of Trump playing golf with baseball players at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida. During the 2014 crisis, those who were exposed to the virus and went on to participate in everyday activities like taking the subway or bowling were "SELFISH," according to the then-reality TV star.
However, Trump suggested that Americans with mild coronavirus cases should still go to work while they recover. (The CDC recommends that people who are mildly ill "isolate at home during their illness. You should restrict activities outside your home, except for getting medical care. Do not go to work, school, or public areas. Avoid using public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis.")
Trump has said in the past that he has a "natural instinct for science" — whether talking about climate change or a potentially deadly epidemic, this "instinct" seems to supersede the observations of public health experts. This instinct is also what enables him to say with such unyielding certainty that coronavirus death rate figures are "false," a "hunch" he shared with Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Once again, the president's baseless musings and the facts are on a collision course. The question people, especially Trump's devout supporters, need to ask themselves is how willing they are to rely on the president's gut for their welfare.
In a public health crisis, information must be communicated efficiently and directly. There is no place for partisan game playing. Trump's Ebola obsession suggests he didn't understand that truth in 2014 — and his actions and hypocritical rhetoric thus far suggest he still hasn't learned this lesson.
- Kurt Bardella is a "Morning Joe" and NBC News THINK contributor. He served as the spokesperson and senior adviser for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2009 to 2013.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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