The worst possible president for this crisis
President Trump's well-known shortcomings are problematic in the best of times. During the coronavirus pandemic, they are positively dangerous.
President Trump is a clear and present danger to the health and safety of America.
The coronavirus pandemic would be a challenge for any leader and any system of government. Nature has thrown a powerful left hook at all of humanity, a blow of the kind that arrives only once a century or so. Even the best and most-capable president would have a difficult time with the health and economic problems caused by the global spread of COVID-19.
But Donald Trump is nowhere near being the best and most-capable president that America has ever had. His well-known shortcomings — his disdain for expert advice and evidence, his penchant for grievance, his narcissism and self-congratulation— are problematic in the best of times. During this pandemic, those characteristics are positively dangerous to the country he leads.
Even now, President Trump shows more passion for trolling his rivals than for serving the needs of desperate Americans. Consider his response during Sunday's news briefing that four senators — including Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted for Trump's impeachment — were under quarantine for the virus.
"Romney's in isolation?" Trump sneered. "Gee. That's too bad." Trump had just praised American unity in the face of the pandemic — a stance he couldn't pretend to hold for more than about five minutes.
Trump's problems go far deeper than a failure of style or grace, though.
Late Sunday night, he sent out an all-caps tweet that suggested he might scrap the quarantine approach to confronting the pandemic in favor of reviving the economy. "WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF," he wrote. "AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!"
Now Americans have to fear that the president will sacrifice their health — or the lives of their parents — just to goose the stock market.
It's part of a pattern: Trump's acts consistently make it more difficult to get COVID-19 under control — and shake confidence in his leadership when that confidence is badly needed.
CNN on Sunday documented 33 false claims the president has made about the coronavirus just since the beginning of March, including the untrue assertion that "anybody who wants a test can get a test" for the virus.
"He understated the extent of the crisis. He overstated the availability of tests. He falsely blamed Obama. He said he didn't shake hands in India despite many photos of him shaking hands in India," CNN's Daniel Dale noted on Sunday. "Trump has been serially dishonest about the coronavirus."
Most dangerously, Trump claimed on March 15 that the United States had "tremendous control" of the virus. No such control existed, but the president's unwarranted optimism may have made it more difficult to sell the "stay at home" message that health officials across the country are still struggling — sometimes in vain — to get across to the American public.
Trump's utter inability to stick to the truth is endangering lives. So is his effort to hype a pair of anti-malarial drugs as possible answers to the pandemic — describing them last week as "essentially approved for prescribed use." But that's not true — and it's not yet clear at this point if the drugs work against COVID-19. "We've got to determine if they work and if they're safe," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has repeatedly worked to correct Trump's misstatements in real time.
Trump's claims, though, have already had one effect. One of the drugs he has hyped — hydroxychloroquine — is used in the treatment of lupus, an autoimmune disease. ProPublica on Sunday reported the president's comments have "triggered a run on the drug. Healthy people are stocking up just in case they come down with the disease." Lupus patients, meanwhile, are suddenly facing a shortage of a drug they need to live.
"This is endangering lives," one lupus patient tweeted on Sunday.
All of this is compounded, as ever, by Trump's demagoguery and perpetual, narcissistic grievance-mongering. He has labeled COVID-19 the "Chinese virus" — a deliberate provocation — while feuding with Democratic governors and inquisitive journalists. He spent an extended portion of Sunday's news conference lamenting that he had never been thanked for giving up "billions" of dollars to serve as president. Trump's focus, even now, is mostly on himself.
What to do? A growing number of journalists are calling on news and broadcast networks to quit showing Trump's briefings live — arguing that public safety is best-served by fact-checking the president's statements before reporting them out to the broader public.
"Even this far into his term, it is still a bit of a shock to be reminded that the single most potent force for misinforming the American public is the current president of the United States," NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote over the weekend. "On everything that involves the coronavirus Donald Trump's public statements have been unreliable."
It is difficult to give a president less attention in a moment of national crisis, but that might be required. With the federal government shirking the task, the action of saving America from COVID-19 is taking place at the state and local levels, anyway. That's where journalists should focus their attention.
Trump illustrated the depth of the problem Sunday, when he was asked if he had thought about contacting previous presidents to get their help and advice on managing the coronavirus threat.
No, the president said. "I don't think I'm going to learn much."
That's the problem of course. We have the worst possible president for this crisis. He is making it worse, not better. So it couldn't be more clear: Winning the "war" on coronavirus will happen despite Trump, not because of him.