As America heads into the final week of the 2020 presidential election, it is baffling and frustrating that the Trump administration continues to do so little to meaningfully confront the coronavirus pandemic.
It's baffling because the White House's bungling of the crisis might be President Trump's biggest obstacle to re-election. Appearing to take the virus seriously this late in the game might not win the president enough votes by next week, but it might help staunch the bleeding in the polls. And it's frustrating because — Trump's political future aside — the health and well-being of millions of Americans remains in the balance, threatened both by the virus and its social and economic effects.
Yet on Sunday, Trump's chief of staff signaled to the world that this president has all but given up. "We are not going to control the pandemic," Mark Meadows said on CNN. "We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics, and other mitigation areas."
And why isn't the U.S. going to try to control the pandemic? "Because it is a contagious virus just like the flu," Meadows said.
The production of vaccines and therapeutic treatments for COVID-19 is important, of course, but Meadows' comments sounded like a surrender. At the beginning of the crisis, back in the spring, Trump likened himself to a "wartime president." But Franklin Roosevelt didn't shrug at the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Trump's pandemic failures are well-documented by now. Even at this late date, though, the administration's mistakes remain shockingly persistent and prominent. The last few days have been a microcosm of the president's shortcomings.
The most obvious problem has been the White House's inability to take the coronavirus seriously. Over the weekend we learned that five members of Vice President Mike Pence's inner circle, including his chief of staff, Marc Short, have contracted the virus. As with Trump's own illness a few weeks ago, these incidents threaten the good functioning of American government. Pence — despite being in close contact with Short — plans to maintain his busy schedule rather than isolate. Meanwhile Trump himself continues to hold large rallies in the final days of the campaign, even though coronavirus cases appear to surge in the cities he visits. And as The New York Times reports, "masks are not routinely worn" in the White House.
Rather than try to limit the spread of the virus, the president and his advisers have focused on obscuring its devastating effects using a mix of lies, omissions, and misdirections. Meadows, for example, tried to keep secret the outbreak among Pence's associates. Trump repeats the false claim that the rise in cases — the United States is experiencing record daily numbers — is the result of increased testing, or profit-hungry doctors. He ignores the fact that hospitals in some states are increasingly overwhelmed by patients needing intensive treatment. And the president continues to assert "we have turned the corner" in the pandemic, even though that is clearly not the case.
Meanwhile, Trump refuses to do the one thing that could make a tremendous difference but takes very little effort. He could unabashedly endorse — and model — mask wearing. A new study suggests that 130,000 lives could be saved this winter if 95 percent of Americans wore masks. Instead, the president continues to equivocate on the matter.
Mostly, Trump seems irritated that COVID-19 continues to dominate headlines.
"Turn on the television. 'COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID,'" he told rallygoers over the weekend. "A plane goes down, 500 people dead, they don't talk about it. 'COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID.' By the way, on November 4th, you won't hear about it anymore."
That statement is a mockery of the many lives ended and upended by the pandemic. More than 220,000 Americans have died from the virus. The unemployment rate is historically high. The pandemic remains a world-historical challenge. Until the president takes it seriously — or is replaced — the United States will continue to fail, to deadly effect.
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.