Last Friday, Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., wrote a letter signed by 56 colleagues urging Donald Trump to invoke a law called the Defense Production Act in the fight against coronavirus. Passed during the Korean War in 1950, the law lets the president direct manufacturers to make supplies necessary for national security.
“It very clearly allows the president to use the same powers for a public health emergency,” Levin told me.
At a time when the coronavirus pandemic is leading to a critical shortage of tests, ventilators, respirators, ICU beds and protective gear for medical professionals, it seemed like an obvious move.
“He has the power to get what we need,” Levin said. “And this is tens and hundreds of thousands of lives at stake in real time here.”
Finally, Wednesday, Trump invoked the law, and it briefly looked as if things were going to get moving. But later that day, he tweeted that he’s holding off on actually using the powers the law gives him: “I only signed the Defense Production Act to combat the Chinese Virus should we need to invoke it in a worst case scenario in the future. Hopefully there will be no need, but we are all in this TOGETHER!”
Levin was incredulous.
“The worst-case scenario is right now,” he said, adding: “This is something that is completely beyond partisanship. It’s an all-hands-on-deck crisis.”
With the world plunged into the most terrifying emergency in living memory, some people, and not just right-wing hacks, are saying that now is not the time to talk about the malfeasance of Donald Trump.
Barack Obama’s former political guru David Axelrod, commenting on a planned Democratic ad blitz hitting Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, tweeted that “now doesn’t seem the moment for negative ads.” On Wednesday I appeared on MSNBC with Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, who acknowledged that Trump made a grave mistake in initially downplaying the severity of the coronavirus. But, Hogan said, “We can’t waste a lot of time, you know, finger-pointing and talking about what mistakes the president made or anybody made in Washington. Let’s talk about what we can do right now.”
I understand this impulse. Those in the trenches fighting the pandemic can’t afford to waste time inveighing against presidential inadequacy. The rest of us are dealing with extraordinary personal upheaval and ever-present fear. In the four years that Donald Trump has dominated the national conversation, he’s gnawed away at the sanity of those of us who see him for what he is. In this new, even more dystopian era of coronavirus, it would be nice to be furloughed from having to think about him.
But while the calamity we are experiencing is not Trump’s doing, his dishonesty and incompetence have exacerbated it and continue to do so. To point this out is not to dwell on the past but to confront the scale of our present crisis. Trump has been giving daily televised briefings in which he overpromises and spreads misinformation. He makes bad decisions and reverses himself only under the pressure of bad press. That makes frankness about his catastrophic ineptitude imperative.
Because of Trump’s disdain for expertise and his obsession with loyalty, we entered this crisis with a government from which many competent professionals have been purged and whose political appointees tend to be lackeys and mediocrities.
As has been widely reported, Trump’s administration dissolved the National Security Council’s global health security office, which was responsible for planning for disease outbreaks.
“Some of the people we cut, they haven’t been used for many, many years, and if we ever need them we can get them very quickly and rather than spending the money,” he said at a briefing last month.
On Thursday The Times reported that Trump’s own Department of Health and Human Services ran a series of simulations last year about a pandemic respiratory virus originating in China that ultimately infected 110 million Americans. The exercise “drove home just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.” Yet there’s little evidence of a serious push to increase America’s readiness.
When this coronavirus emerged in China, Trump’s instinct was to treat it as a public relations problem, insisting repeatedly that it would “go away.” South Korea and the United States announced their first coronavirus cases at around the same time; while South Korea ramped up the production of tests, the United States dithered. As Reuters reported, South Korea, a country of around 51 million, has tested 290,000 people. In the United States, a country of 330 million, only 60,000 tests had been conducted as of Tuesday.
Trump’s decision to ban some travel from Europe might have made sense, but the mistake-ridden Oval Office address announcing the move caused mass panic among Americans abroad. No one made adequate preparations to get hordes of travelers returning from coronavirus hot zones through security quickly, leading to crowds of people waiting as long as seven hours at some airports, a situation that seemed bound to spread infections.
Steven Teles is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and a political science professor at Johns Hopkins, where he teaches a class on policy disasters. He points out that most government decisions never reach the president’s desk, but that people in the bureaucracy tend to respond to the president’s priorities.
“What an executive can do is to inject energy and a general sense of direction to people who are going to make decisions without them pushing them all the way up the chain of command,” Teles told me. He suspects that when books are finally written about this debacle, a big part of the story will be that much of “the government didn’t get sufficiently energized early enough because there wasn’t a signal from the top.”
There still isn’t. Trump spent his news conference Thursday attacking the media and putting the onus on governors to acquire medical supplies.
“The federal government’s not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping, you know, we’re not a shipping clerk,” he said.
He also touted an anti-malarial drug, chloroquine, saying that it “was approved very, very quickly, and it’s now approved by prescription.” In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved chloroquine for treating COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Though doctors can prescribe it off label, it’s not yet established that the drug works for this purpose.
It can become tedious to dwell on the fact that the president is a dangerous and ignorant narcissist who has utterly failed as an executive, leaving state governments on their own to confront a generational cataclysm. But no one should ever forget it.
Soon, even if the pandemic is still raging, there will be an election, and the public will be asked to render a verdict on Trump’s leadership. Being clear that people are suffering and dying needlessly because the president can’t do his job isn’t looking backward. It’s the only way to move forward.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.