First, let me offer a statement on which I hope we can all agree. We want the president to succeed. Moreover, it is not an overstatement to say our lives depend on it. More than 55,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. At current morbidity rates, that toll will be far exceeded by the time you read this.
Yes, we wish the president all the success he can muster. But wishes are very different than expectations. It’s not too much to expect our president to act in a timely and informed manner when facts point to a crisis. Until President Trump’s hand-picked national security adviser, John Bolton, disbanded it, the security team that briefs the president daily included a medical panel whose sole job was to detect emerging epidemics that might spread into an attack far more deadly than even 9/11.
President Obama developed it. Trump dumped it. But, as Donald says, almost bragging, “I take no responsibility.”
It is the primary responsibility in the presidential oath of office to keep all of us safe from harm. President Trump points repeatedly to his China travel restriction on the last day of January as the difference between tens of thousands of U.S. deaths to as many as 2.2 million. Yet more than 40,000 eluded his ban.
In mid-January, when Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar tried to alert his boss to an impending disaster, Trump dismissed him as an “alarmist” and cited lifting restrictions on flavored vaping products, popular with kids, as more urgent.
In February, the president hibernated.
In March and April, he lied about or exaggerated the availability of COVID-19 testing and life-saving medical equipment while refusing to fully invoke the Defense Production Act to fill those gaps. On March 6 at the Center for Disease Control, he falsely claimed, “Anyone that wants a test can get one”—while boasting, “Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this stuff.’ Maybe I have a natural ability,” and extolling a “super-genius” uncle who was, in fact (rare for Donald), an MIT professor.
The self-described “stable genius” offered this “I’m-not-a-doctor” medical opinion in an April 23 coronavirus briefing: “I see the disinfectant that knocks [the virus] out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning? As you see, it gets in the lungs, it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check in on that.”
As usual, Trump had skipped the task force meeting prior to the briefing.
Any of us who’ve raised children recall child-proof locks on cupboards containing bleach and other poisonous cleaning solutions. By the time kids reach a certain age, they figure out locks. But even 10-year-olds know better than to swallow Clorox. Maybe Trump confused Clorox with his previous favorite “cure”—hydroxychloroquine. (Federal and state governments stockpiled 10s of millions of doses of the malaria-and-lupus treatment, making it scarce for those who need it.)
Trump’s spokeswoman and Fox News acolytes said the president was taken out of context—begging the question: In what context is this appropriate? Trump later said he was being sarcastic in a twisted attempt to trick “Fake News” reporters. Anyone who reviews the briefing on video knows he directed his remarks to Dr. Deborah Birx, who feebly said fever might substitute for ultraviolet heat as a treatment.
Here’s the true context for the president’s incomprehensibly stupid and dangerous remarks. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, cited hundreds of calls by Marylanders who wondered if there was any merit to Trump’s speculation.
Grasping at straws for any silver lining, Trump invited to this calamitous briefing William Bryan, acting undersecretary of science, Department of Homeland Security. Bryan, whose background is in infrastructure—not health or science—was the subject of an investigation into whistleblower complaints that he massaged federal policy to benefit himself financially, then lying to Congress about it. The Senate rejected his nomination for a permanent post. At the briefing, acting-so-and-so Bryan said ultraviolet light and disinfectants are useful in killing virus on surfaces—inanimate ones, like your kitchen counter. He then overstretched that legitimate finding by theorizing summer heat and sun rays might kill the virus.
The president immediately leapt to a conclusion he hoped would “trump” Dr. Anthony Fauci’s declaration that COVID-19 will return in the fall—directly disputing Trump’s wishful thinking. (Joe Biden offered this astute advice to his 2020 presidential rival: “Stop thinking out loud.”)
Meanwhile, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield’s warned that a coronavirus comeback combined with a vigorous flu season would mean a “difficult” fall and winter. Trump set himself up for further rebuttal by declaring that CNN had “totally misquoted” Redfield—actually it was the Washington Post; Trump heard about it on CNN because he’s allergic to reading—the CDC director said unequivocally that he was quoted accurately. Trump glowered, not quite socially distanced, on the podium.
The president faces a November election with an unrelenting pandemic possibly ticking toward 100,000 deaths and an economy that, no matter what “reopening” occurs, will be limping along at an employment rate above 10 percent. Such Trump zealots as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingram—but not many Republicans running for re-election—obscenely suggest that Democrats are rooting for high body counts and jobless numbers.
No one wants that. It could be your father or grandfather, your mother or grandmother, sister or brother, wife or husband, even your kid who becomes a grim personal statistic.
We need a leader. Donald Trump, crossing his arms like a grumpy Mr. Clean, is no leader. We wish him the best, expecting the worst. Most of his monotone condolences delivered during pathologically narcissistic briefings are scripted. He’s incapable of authentic empathy. And because he never admits to mistakes—we all make mistakes—he cannot learn from them.
Steve Parks is a retired journalist now living in Easton.