Trump's 'mission accomplished' moment
Don't be fooled by the president's happy talk about the pandemic
Former President George W. Bush was widely considered — by his opponents, anyway — something of a dim bulb. But he did one smart thing during the otherwise-disastrous Iraq War: He only gave the "Mission Accomplished" speech once. President Trump and his allies are destined to give it repeatedly, despite the plain facts of the coronavirus pandemic. But Americans shouldn't be fooled by the happy talk of presidents slogging through a disaster.
Bush's speech took place on May 1, 2003, a little more than a month after U.S. forces invaded Iraq. Baghdad had been captured, but Saddam Hussein was still at large. The fierce insurgency that would come to define the war hadn't really flowered yet. And Bush flew out to the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare victory.
No, he didn't actually utter the words "mission accomplished." But the proclamation was prominent on a banner behind him. And his words to the country sounded definitive. "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended," the president said. "In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." Americans celebrated.
In fact, the battle was just beginning. In important respects, it continues still. Seventeen years later, U.S. troops are still fighting and dying in Iraq. We're still waiting for the mission to finally be accomplished.
There were echoes of Bush's speech when Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, went on Fox News Wednesday to suggest the country is ready to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying city and state lockdowns. "I think that we've achieved all the different milestones that are needed," Kushner said. "So the government, federal government, rose to the challenge and this is a great success story. I think that's really what needs to be told."
To hear him speak, you would think the virus had been defeated. Instead, the official American death toll from the pandemic reached 60,000 souls on Wednesday. The number of daily deaths seems to have leveled off, but the numbers are still substantial — just under 2,000 people are dying each day — and, in any case, the actual death toll is probably higher than the official statistics.
Granted, there are reasons for optimism, too. Warmer weather may help the disease subside. New treatments and vaccines for the virus may be on the way sooner than expected. But there is also reason to be cautious: Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of Trump's chief medical advisers, said Wednesday a second wave of outbreaks is "inevitable" when cold weather returns.
It's a bit early to be declaring a "success story," in other words. This administration just wants to declare victory and move on.
It has been that way since the pandemic began, of course. The president and his allies have proclaimed success in the battle against COVID-19 repeatedly, only to be undermined by reality. In February, Trump said the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. would be "close to zero" in just a few days. He was wrong. He has repeatedly suggested that testing for the virus is much more widespread than it really is. Most bizarrely, he has suggested the coronavirus would just go away on its own. It hasn't, and there is little reason to think it will.
This isn't good for public health, and it isn't good politics. When big challenges arise, savvy politicians set expectations so they can appear to have exceeded them. Trump instead keeps asking the public to believe in miracles, then blames state governors or Democrats or the media when they don't materialize — and rages behind closed doors when polls show he is losing public support.
You would think by now that Trump and his closest advisers would have learned their lesson — to consider the possibility that things can get worse, and to prepare the public accordingly. Instead, the president's son-in-law is promoting the "success story" narrative, and Trump is again telling the public that coronavirus will disappear, vaccine or no vaccine.
"It's gonna go," he said Wednesday. "It's gonna leave. It's gonna be gone. It's gonna be eradicated."
Even Bush learned to show a little humility about the war in Iraq, though he remained stubbornly committed to it. "The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people and it is unacceptable to me," he said when announcing the infamous troop "surge" in 2007. "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me."
It is impossible to imagine Trump displaying such meekness. Instead, he treats reality as an act of disloyalty — every day is a success, every moment brings victory, and woe betide the journalist or unlucky campaign manager who suggests otherwise. It is mission accomplished, today and tomorrow and forever and ever.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.