Over two weeks ago, Donald Trump embraced the idea of being a "wartime president." Yet more than two months into an unprecedented attack on our country, Trump continues to push the nation ever deeper into the hole he dug through his punishing ineptitude. All the while, the so-called “wartime president” has inexplicably refused to employ the powers uniquely vested in him as president to help the country claw its way back out. Far from leading, Trump has ensured the coronavirus will wreak "vicious" (to borrow his term), extensive, and prolonged damage on the nation he pretends to lead in front TV cameras every day.
First and foremost, Trump still has not issued a national stay-at-home order. Even Trump's de facto coronavirus spokesperson, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, seems baffled by the inaction as the U.S. now dominates the world in confirmed coronavirus cases and our hospitals buckle under a crush of patients requiring critical care. “If you look at what’s going on in this country, I just don’t understand why we’re not doing that,” Fauci told CNN Thursday of a national directive from the president.
On Sunday, Trump did extend voluntary social distancing guidelines through the end of April. But Washington Post reporter Ashley Parker explained on MSNBC Thursday that Trump was largely backed into a corner on the issue. Since about half the states had already implemented statewide stay-at-home orders at the time, Trump came to the "realization" that he couldn't "overrule the governors." It's classic lead-from-behind posturing. Trying to get the nation back to work would have just made Trump look weak, so he caved.
Nonetheless, Trump still spent the week dithering on whether GOP governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida—widely viewed as an emerging hotspot with an extremely vulnerable retiree population—should implement a statewide directive. DeSantis finally did issue that order Wednesday, specifically saying he took Trump's extension of the national guidelines as "a signal" that "it’s a very serious situation." In other words, DeSantis used an action Trump was forced into taking as cover for finally issuing a directive he should have given weeks ago when spring break revelers started flooding Florida's beaches. Yet in the mold of Trump, DeSantis left giant holes in the statewide directive—still excluding beaches (though many counties have acted on their own) and religious services. Still, by week's end, nearly 40 states had issued statewide stay-at-home orders of some kind. Naturally, all the remaining holdouts were headed by Republican governors.
But what is made glaringly obvious by the hodgepodge of varying statewide directives amid the nation’s most massive public health emergency in a century is the chasmal lack of leadership coming from the nation's chief executive. Trump's extraordinary failure started with testing—which continues to be in short supply to this day and is presently dooming the capacity of rural states to contain the virus just like it kneecapped New York at the outset. Every day the federal government continues in its failure to make efficient testing widely available, the country is paying the price in lost lives and extended economic fallout. There is simply no way to contain a virus when you can’t track where it is.
Next Trump has failed a million times over to provide the proper medical equipment needed so badly by hospitals across the country, with the shortage presently being felt most acutely in New York. Medical workers have been forced to protest for this life-saving medical gear even as Trump simultaneously accused them of stealing the materials this week. Trump has also refused to use the power of the federal government to centralize both the production and distribution of this material, which has left states and counties bidding against each other—and even the federal government—to obtain the precious resources.
“It’s like being on eBay with 50 other states, bidding on a ventilator,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo explained at a press conference this week. "And then FEMA gets involved and FEMA starts bidding. And now FEMA is bidding on top of the 50," Cuomo added of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But the bidding war is just one of an exponential number of insurmountable hurdles states have confronted in getting the equipment they need. Some materials are arriving in unusable condition, such as rotten masks or broken ventilators (which are extraordinarily complex, parts-intensive machines). The distribution of materials is also entirely inequitable and based on preferential treatment rather than who needs the resources and when. In theory, since the apex of the crisis is staggered for states across the country, the nation should be able to pool resources to deploy on an as-needed basis around the nation. Instead, a state like Florida has gotten the full complement of materials its governor requested from the federal government because Trump considers the state "so important for his reelection," as one White House official put it. Meanwhile, Trump has publicly questioned whether New York really needed as many ventilators as Gov. Cuomo estimated and then turned around and blamed Cuomo for not having enough to begin with. "They should've had more ventilators," Trump said Friday, refusing to reassure New Yorkers they would get the ventilators they so desperately need. Trump’s latest coronavirus czar Jared Kushner also said Thursday that the federal government finally made a shipment of much-needed N95 masks to New York after Trump heard “from friends” there that the city was running low on critical supplies. Not the governor, not the hospitals, “friends.” Trump has also singled out certain governors for abuse and derision. "Don't call the woman in Michigan," Trump told Vice President Mike Pence last week of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who had dared to suggest the state needed more help from the federal government.
Finally, there's the matter of national messaging, which Trump has personally screwed six ways to Sunday. Friday, Trump provided yet another perfect example of his bungling when he announced new CDC guidelines urging people nationwide to wear nonsurgical masks when they're out in public. Moments later Trump stressed that the guidelines were strictly voluntary and he would likely ignore them personally.
"It's voluntary, you don't have to do it," Trump said. "I don't think I'm going to be doing it."
Frankly, trying to sum up the massive deficit of coherent leadership from the White House and the president himself at this most urgent moment in our history is nearly impossible. Team Trump hasn't just consistently failed the American people, it has undoubtedly and irrevocably made matters worse. More Americans will die. More Americans will suffer profound financial hardship. More Americans will never see a loved one again.
New York-based disaster preparedness Dr. Irwin Redlener was almost speechless Friday while trying to explain the scale of the ineptitude we are witnessing. "I can't understand why we got so incompetent," said Dr. Redlener, whose son works as an ER doctor in New York and has already lost colleagues close to him. Redlener said he had been reviewing the impeachment articles that were passed by the House and acquitted by the Senate. "They seem naive compared to the incompetence we're seeing in this pandemic crisis, it's shocking," he said, adding, "it did not need to be like this."
No, it did not. Competence matters. Government matters. Public service matters. Integrity matters. Humanity matters. Life matters.
Trump doesn't value a single one of those things as they relate to anyone but himself. Not one. Our country will be paying the price exacted by his hideousness for years if not decades to come, not to mention the incalculable toll on each and every one of us individually.