COVID-19 and the Trump Administration

The administration's handling underscores its poor governance skills (and the degree to which it doesn't matter to supporters).

The Trump administration’s handling, to date, of the COVID-19 outbreak is an excellent illustration of its shortcomings. Moreover, it has underscored Trump’s incompetencies and the placing of his own personal gains and losses above those of the nation.

An outbreak of this type is the kind of event that should allow the federal government to act in a competent and largely non-partisan manner. After all, we have structures in place (the Department of Health and Human Services, the Center for Disease Control, and National Institutes of Health, etc) to address these things. Moreover, virii don’t care if you are a Democrat, Republican, Independent, or are apolitical.

As such, it is not unreasonable to expect any administration to approach these things with some level of competence and in a non-partisan manner.

Instead, we have seen a combo of semi-competence (at best) and clear concern about how the outbreak, and specifically its effects on the stock market, make Trump look.

For example, on Tuesday, February 24th, Trump tweeted the following:

Keep in mind that this was at the beginning of week that would end with the DJIA falling 3,583 points (or $3.18 trillion in value).

This tweet was irresponsible because the assurance that the virus was “under control” was a foolish one to make at the early stages of an outbreak (i.e., he really has no reason to make that assurance). Further, his focus on the stock market shows what his real concern is (and his nonsensical claim that it was looking “very good” just adds to the incompetence of it all).

Yes, a president should seek to calm fears and yes, he should want to calm the markets. One does that, however, with facts and calm competence, not wishful thinking on Twitter.

On Wednesday, Larry Kudlow was on CNBC and claimed “We have contained this. I won’t say [it’s] airtight, but it’s pretty close to airtight.” Kudlow is National Economic Council Director and is therefore in no position to make such claims. But, again, the focus is on the DJIA, not public health.

Moreover, in regards to the competence issue, it was patently stupid to makes claims about containment, when the odds were that we in the US are just starting to see the numbers go up. Since Tuesday the official number has grown to 71 (as of mid-day Sunday) with one death. It is almost a certainty that both of those numbers will grow (indeed, WaPo reports Coronavirus was probably spreading for six weeks in Washington state, study say meaning it is a near certainty that there are far more cases out there than we have identified).

From a pure public policy point of view (or just a public relations POV, let along a public health one), stating that things are under control (let alone “pretty close to airtight”) at the obvious beginning of an outbreak is foolish. It is a guaranteed way to decrease trust in the government at a time when trust is an asset.

And, of course, Trump himself has added to this.

On Thursday evening he stated the following at an event at the White House to discuss responses to the virus:

“As most of you know, the — the level that we’ve had in our country is very low, and those people are getting better, or we think that in almost all cases they’re better, or getting.  We have a total of 15.  We took in some from Japan — you heard about that — because they’re American citizens, and they’re in quarantine.  And they’re getting better too.”

The actual number of US cases on Thursday was 60 (Trump was treating repatriated Americans with the illness as separate).

As a side note, confessions such as the following do not fill me with confidence:

I want you to understand something that shocked me when I saw it that — and I spoke with Dr. Fauci on this, and I was really amazed, and I think most people are amazed to hear it: The flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year.  That was shocking to me.

While those are sobering numbers, it is disquieting that the President of the United States is so ill-informed that he is just learning of the annual consequences of flu in his 70s. Further, it is worrying that the probable lesson he will learn from those figures is that unless COVID-19 has similar numbers that it simply isn’t as big a deal as seasonal flu.

Then on Thursday, he said the following:

“It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear,” Trump said at the White House Thursday as the virus marched across Asia and Europe after US officials said the US should brace for severe disruption to everyday life.

The President also warned that things could “get worse before it gets better,” but he added it could “maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”

Worse, Trump is making this into a partisan issue. Via Politico: Trump rallies his base to treat coronavirus as a ‘hoax’.

“The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. They’re politicizing it,” he said. “They don’t have any clue. They can’t even count their votes in Iowa. No, they can’t. They can’t count their votes. One of my people came up to me and said, ‘Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.’ That did not work out too well. They could not do it. They tried the impeachment hoax.”

Then Trump called the coronavirus “their new hoax.”

And yes, I understand that Trump did not call the virus itself a hoax. But he did associate the word “hoax” with the discussion of the outbreak and the coverage on the news. He has made the very discussion of the virus a partisan issue. This is incredibly irresponsible.

Yes, the coverage of the outbreak on the news is overly dramatic. Yes, it is overblown. No, we are not all going to die (but, conversely, a lot of people have and many more could). It is the job of the president to be a calming voice in times like these, not to be another carnival barker exciting the crowd.

None of this can be described as effective governance.

I would also recommend this piece from WaPo: Inside Trump’s frantic attempts to minimize the coronavirus crisis and also CNN: Trump stumbles in first efforts to control virus response as fear spreads and markets fall.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Teve says:

    I work at a cell phone store and we are now seriously short of inventory. There are four major flagships we don’t have right now, and none of the other stores around do either. Port of Los Angeles says they’re expecting a 25% drop in shipping container volume this month.

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  2. CSK says:

    People are stealing the surgical masks Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston puts out for the use of visitors. I don’t think Trump is reassuring anyone but Cult45.

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  3. mattbernius says:

    Again, this is where cultivating trust and giving experts room to be experts matters. It’s also important to be able to convey an image that things aren’t perfect.

    The biggest problem that the administration faces is that, as diagnostic techniques improve and more kits become available, they number of infections detected is going to rise. Most likely spike. But they have been essentially minimizing things from the beginning. And, since this is an administration that’s constitutionally incapable of admitting they did or said anything wrong,, this is going to create a huge image/messaging problem.

    And ultimately, messaging has arguably been what has kept them going through the worst. I’m just not sure if that will work with the financial markets this time.

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  4. mattbernius says:

    For the record, I do think Democrats/liberals risk a lot if they fall into the trap of being seen as hoping the administration fails in its response. I know there are a lot of people who want to see Trump not get reelected — I’m one of them. But there is definitely a fine line to walk here — especially when failure in this case means a lot of harm inflicted in the lives of people.

    On the flip side, for those of us who grew up in the 80’s and the era of AIDs, it’s a bit of a hoot to hear Republicans complaining about the politicization of dealing with an epidemic (or heck, anyone whose looked at Trump’s own tweets from the period around the Ebola outbreak).

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  5. MarkedMan says:

    At some point Trump is going to tell his flunkies that no more bad news can show up in the press, and people are going to get fired.

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  6. MarkedMan says:

    @mattbernius:

    For the record, I do think Democrats/liberals risk a lot if they fall into the trap of being seen as hoping the administration fails in its response.

    I agree. Fortunately this is one case where, for Democratic leaders, the smart political move corresponds to the smart public health move: relentlessly beat the drum that we have to be better prepared, that the best people need to be leading this and not Trumpian flunkies and that Trump has to get over his undo-everything-Obama did knee jerk reaction.

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  7. @MarkedMan: I agree as well. It would be nice to treat the public health challenge as exactly that and not make this partisan.

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  8. Kari Q says:

    @mattbernius:

    For the record, I do think Democrats/liberals risk a lot if they fall into the trap of being seen as hoping the administration fails in its response.

    Have you seen people doing this? I don’t mean commenters or individuals spouting off, I mean elected officials or party leaders? I haven’t, but I’m not following as closely as many here do so I may have missed it.

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  9. Teve says:

    I said here more than once that I hope the mortality estimates are wrong. I hope that because I’m not a ghoul. I think Trump will lose to basically anybody for two or three different reasons. Trump fucking up the response to it, and eliminating the pandemic team because he has a psycho aversion to anything Obama did, may help win elections.

    If he loses because of this, I’ll be happy, but only in the sense of the word happy that I meant when I said that I was happy I didn’t have more brain damage when I got in that car crash. In both cases, you wish the thing had never happened. I’m only happy, within that horrible context.

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  10. mattbernius says:

    @Kari Q:

    I don’t mean commenters or individuals spouting off, I mean elected officials or party leaders?

    Generally speaking, no. In the talking class, yes.

    But in terms of party leadership, I do think some folks have been getting dangerously close to the line. See for example:

    https://www.politico.com/news/2020/02/28/house-coronavirus-trump-response-118121

    If you get past the first few paragraphs, you hit:

    [A]t least one Democrat was also irritated by DeLauro’s remarks. Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), who led the health department under President Bill Clinton, said it wasn’t the appropriate setting for the criticism.

    “No one wanted to hear that, either the Democrats or Republican. We just wanted to hear the substance,” she said.

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I give Trump 24 hours, tops, before he makes non-partisanship an impossibility.

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  12. gVOR08 says:

    Local news says there’s a case in Sarasota.

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    the best people need to be leading this and not Trumpian flunkies and that Trump has to get over his undo-everything-Obama did knee jerk reaction.

    I agree that this problem needs to not fall into the partisan conflict syndrome we’re experiencing now, but I fail to see how this part of the statement passes that test.

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  14. Liberal Capitalist says:

    So.

    We now have made sure we have a variety of staples that will last up through three weeks.

    In the local Walmart, a lot of the cold and flu items are gone (bulk drugs come from China). There and in other grocery stores canned foods are noticeably lower. Powered milk was difficult to get. Made sure to think more of the basics (flour, sugar, salt, coffee)… reminded me of movies… items that the cowboys would get when they were replenishing. No hardtack, which is OK with me. I’ll go with homemade pizza.

    I could not resist when Costco had legs of Spanish prosciutto for $50 / leg (boxed, with knife and stand) post Christmas. We bought 3. Now part of the larder.

    Weird.

    When we walked into the Walmart, they had bottles of bleach, paper towels, and Clorox wipes stocked in the welcome isle where the seasonal items are usually showcased.

    The cashier asked me: “Are people stocking up for something? A lot of people are buying a lot of bulk items”… so, it’s not just me.

    If I end up not needing this stuff, over time it will be part of various tasty meals.

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  15. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Is This Coronavirus ‘the Big One’?

    How to Be a Smart Coronavirus Prepper

    Yes, it may look like a little cozy shopping, but the raw psychological reality is that everyone I know is vacillating between freak-out and denial.

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  16. MarkedMan says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Being non-partisan doesn’t mean supporting Trump in everything. Insisting that he appoint real experts rather than Fox News political flacks is an important aspect of oversight. And cutting off Trump’s knee jerk reaction to cancel everything Obama did is crucial. If he hears that, say, the Obama administration worked with Massachusetts General to develop pandemic scenarios his instinct will be to crucify anyone in his administration who talks to anyone at Massachusetts General.

    Non-partisanship does not mean pretending the Trump administration has this.

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  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Could this be trump’s Katrina?

    So yeah, after 8 yrs of Republicans asking if this that or the other pending disaster was Obama’s Katrina, it’s beyond a little rich hearing Republicans complain about DEMs politicizing this, and people warning DEMs not to, even as Republicans do:

    https://twitter.com/marcowenjones/status/1234383314926161920

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  18. Teve says:

    324 days until we have a non-shitty person as president.

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  19. mattbernius says:

    Ok, so point of clarification — I am not saying that people shouldn’t criticize the handling of the virus response. Heck, I’d be a hypocrite if I said that as I’ve already spilled a lot of pixels over that.

    My point is that this is a slow rolling issue and its going to get worse before it gets better. That’s simply the reality. More people are going to die in the US and abroad. And that requires the Democrats to walk a fine line.

    Holding investigative hearings in the midst of things unfolding and using them to list everything the Administration is currently doing wrong strikes me as a bad strategy (regardless of whether or not it’s fair based on previous actions from the other side). If all goes well, there will be plenty of time to score those points later this year if that’s what you are looking for.

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  20. KM says:

    @Liberal Capitalist :
    I don’t understand people who *don’t* have at least a week’s supply of essentials for emergencies… and no, milk and bread are not essentials. You can make soup and mac & cheese with just water and oil and eat peanut butter out of a jar if you have to. If you’re getting into your emergency supplies, it’s an *emergency* so having food exactly the way you like it is the least of your concerns. So baffling to hear people complain about buying cereal to stockpile if they won’t have milk – are you saying you can’t eat a dry bowl of corn flakes or you won’t? You can absolutely do the first and if the second is the issue, you’re not really getting the “emergency” part, now are you?

    Maybe it’s because for most of my life I’ve lived places I could be snowed in for days for a good chunk of the year but I think people are NUTS for not having enough toilet paper and canned goods to survive a week or two. Just get some cans of ready to eat Campbell’s and some canned veggies then leave them in your cupboard. They’re good for at least a year and if this turns out to be nothing, guess what – you have soup and veggies for a year. Less groceries to buy down the road. Have a two week’s worth of toilet paper in your house because why in god’s name would you ever want to run out? It doesn’t expire so if it sits there for months, what’s the problem? Unless you have zero space to devote to a bags’ worth of non-perishables or are so poor you can’t afford to buy an extra can of corn for 50 cents every time you shop, everyone should have small larder of non-perishables at all times.

    It’s just common sense. Disaster can strike at time so why wait till the last second to try and get ready?

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  21. Jax says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: Heck, I shop like that every time I hit a WalMart or Sam’s Club! Mostly because the closest ones are 100 and 170 miles away, respectively. 😉

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  22. KM says:

    @Teve :
    I’m not sure the mortality rate will drop so much as who’s affected will change. Right now it seems to be hitting the elderly heavily and males in particular with children virtually escaping it’s grasp. A working theory has to do with respiratory irritants like pollution and smoking – hardest hit areas are also the most heavily polluted, elderly folks will have been exposed to more toxin damage over their lifetime and the Chinese smoke heavily with men smoking more then women. What happens when it switches to countries not so smog-ridden and where smoking and pollution heavily affected the elderly, dropped off in the middle-aged population due to DARE and environmental efforts but now has a youth that loves to vape? We may see cases in young adults rise sharply and decline in the 30-65 age group.

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  23. John430 says:

    Tsk, Tsk, Steven. You are employing the old trick of “Damning with faint praise”. While you admit that Trump did not use the word “hoax” as it pertains to the virus, you slide over the concerted effort of the Democrat-controlled press to smear him with it. E.G.:
    CNBC: Trump says the coronavirus is Democrats’ new ‘hoax’
    Politico: Trump rallies his base to treat coronavirus as a ‘hoax’–you quote this LOL!!!!!!
    ABC via AP: Trump lashes out at Dems, calls coronavirus their new ‘hoax’
    CNBC: Trump calls outbreak a ‘hoax,’ South Korea has record jump in cases.
    Politico: Biden blasts Trump for calling coronavirus a ‘hoax’
    The Hill: Democrat gets in heated exchange with Pompeo at hearing: ‘Do you believe coronavirus is a hoax?’
    MSNBC: Michael Moore: Trump calling coronavirus a ‘hoax’ is ‘dangerous’
    Needless to say, there’s been a lot of pushback on Twitter.

    New York Times science reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. noted that the Trump administration took “aggressive measures like barring entry to non-Americans who were recently in China and advising Americans not to go to China or South Korea,” and that this strategy worked, despite the fact that the World Health Organization officially opposes travel and trade restrictions, and “reiterated that even as it declared the epidemic a global emergency on Jan. 30.”

    Most recently–A top federal scientist sounded the alarm about what he feared was contamination in an Atlanta CDC lab where the government made test kits for the coronavirus, according to sources familiar with the situation in Atlanta. The Trump administration has ordered an independent investigation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab, and manufacturing of the virus test kits has been moved, the sources said.

    In his capacity as the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci is the perfect point person on COVID-19 updates. He is 79 years old, not prone to dramatic statements, and he is very professional in his public demeanor. In other words, he has been around and knows when to panic and when not to panic. This isn’t the time to panic, according to the information available to him. He also denied a NYT story that the Trump Administration was “muzzling him.”

  24. mattbernius says:

    Tsk tsk @John430, can’t you actually cite your copy pasta? I mean most of that post was cobbled together from direct quotes from three different sites (two of them being Pajamas Media and Hot Air). Is it that your trying to hide you’re just lifting text wholesale from Pro-Trump websites?

    Source 1:
    https://pjmedia.com/trending/trumps-decisive-actions-helped-save-lives-during-coronavirus-pandemic-experts-admit/

    Source 2:
    https://www.axios.com/cdc-lab-coronavirus-contaminated-6dc9726d-dea3-423f-b5ad-eb7b1e44c2e2.html

    Source 3:
    https://hotair.com/archives/karen-townsend/2020/03/01/fauci-nyt-article-completely-misconstrued-hes-not-muzzled/

    BTW, the Axios article, when read in its entirety, isn’t exactly a wringing endorsement of the handling of the testing situation in the weeks prior to the outbreak.

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  25. @John430: How about POTUS not associating the word “hoax” with a public health crisis?

    That is really the only appropriate response to this situation.

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  26. @John430: And to mattbernius’ point: if you are going to cite other sites, please be clear about it.

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  27. @John430: And to quote what I said in the OP:

    And yes, I understand that Trump did not call the virus itself a hoax. But he did associate the word “hoax” with the discussion of the outbreak and the coverage on the news. He has made the very discussion of the virus a partisan issue. This is incredibly irresponsible.

    Where am I wrong?

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  28. gVOR08 says:

    @KM:

    So baffling to hear people complain about buying cereal to stockpile if they won’t have milk – are you saying you can’t eat a dry bowl of corn flakes or you won’t?

    I just bought a couple boxes of cereal and a couple cans of condensed milk. If coronavirus doesn’t get to be a big problem, I got my hurricane stock a little early.

  29. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Where am I wrong?

    I dunno man… you’re asking him to form an independent thought and advance an argument he created himself.

    Given that every paragraph in his comment was a direct, verbatim copy and paste from another site, you might want to set the bar a little lower and have him work up to that.

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  30. @mattbernius: A fair point.

  31. An Interested Party says:

    Tsk tsk @John430, can’t you actually cite your copy pasta?

    Notice how it is usually conservative trolls who do this? I know, shocking, right…why, it’s almost as if they are embarrassed to cite their sources…even if they aren’t really embarrased, they should be…

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