Column: Trump's 'I'm not responsible' presidency

Doyle McManus
Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower gives the order of the day, "Full victory -- nothing else," to paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division in England before the D-day invasion of Nazi-occupied France in June 1944.  (Associated Press)

On the eve of the D-day invasion of France in June 1944, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote down the words he planned to say if the largest amphibious landing in history failed on the Normandy beaches.

“The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do,” he scribbled in pencil. “If any blame or fault attaches to this attempt, it is mine alone.”

With the United States now in a war against the coronavirus, President Trump has taken the opposite approach — constantly blaming others and denying any responsibility for problems under his command.

From the start, Trump has delivered an inconsistent message: The virus is not a threat; the virus is upon us. The economy must not be harmed; the economy must be shut down. There’s no need to wear a mask; everyone should wear a mask — unless, like the president, you prefer not to.

But Trump is certain about one thing — he and his administration are doing a "tremendous" job. "I'd rate it a 10," the president said.

And if anything goes wrong, it’s someone else’s fault.

States are running out of ventilators to keep hospital patients alive? That’s your problem, Governor; you should have bought more machines three years ago.

Hospitals are running low on masks and gloves? You’re just not bidding hard enough — and maybe the employees are stealing them.

New supplies aren’t reaching hospitals fast enough? “We’re not a shipping clerk,” Trump said.

The federal emergency stockpile was disastrously low? That’s President Obama’s fault — never mind that he left office more than three years ago. Or, more creatively, the Trump campaign charged that it was actually Joe Biden’s fault.

Tests weren’t available when we needed them? That’s on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Obama again. “We inherited a broken system.”

When Trump’s own inspector general reported this week that hospitals are still desperately short of supplies, the answer from the president was: "Another Fake Dossier!"

Has the president ever acknowledged that he or anyone he appointed ever contributed to any of these problems, even inadvertently? If he has, I missed it — despite diligent and punishing attention to his marathon White House briefings.

For Trump, the buck always stops somewhere else.

Meanwhile, the president has walked away from a list of promises he made to show how he was acting boldly to quell the pandemic.

The first were his orders to ban most foreigners from traveling to the United States from China and Europe, decisive actions that he says stopped the contagion from spreading.

Except the bans were partial and ineffective. Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens and residents returned from countries where the coronavirus was already loose. Many were not subjected to serious medical screening or quarantine, measures that could have made a difference.

Trump also promised drive-through testing stations at Walmart and other major retail stores, coordinated by a Google website.

Three weeks later, only seven such testing stations have opened, and most are restricted to first responders and healthcare workers. The website Trump described covers only five Northern California counties.

Then there was the Defense Production Act, a wartime measure Trump dramatically invoked last month, saying it would allow the federal government to seize factories and manage supply chains to provide desperately needed medical goods.

Since then, he’s only used it twice. He brandished it at General Motors, claiming GM was dragging its feet on a commitment to make ventilators. GM, which had volunteered for the job, said it was working as fast as it could.

Then he invoked it against 3M, demanding it stop exporting surgical masks to Canada and other countries. 3M complied but warned that it risked drawing retaliation from overseas that would end up reducing the supply of masks to the U.S. market.

No factories have been seized, no supply chains federalized — although governors have complained that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has hijacked purchases by jumping to the front of the line.

Trump has also been busy rewriting the history of the crisis. After months of saying the coronavirus didn't pose a serious threat to Americans, he now insists he saw it coming all along. "I've felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic," he said.

He’s even tried to rewrite history overnight. When a reporter asked him about his charge that New York's Andrew Cuomo and other governors were asking for more equipment than they needed, he replied: “I didn’t say that.”

When the reporter read Trump’s quote from a television interview the night before, the president’s response was: “Why don’t you act a little more positive?”

To be sure, the federal government has done some things well as it has scrambled to meet an unprecedented public health challenge.

The Army Corps of Engineers has built massive field hospitals in New York, Chicago and other cities. The Navy sent two aging hospital ships to New York and Los Angeles. The Food and Drug Administration, after a slow initial response, issued emergency permits for new test kits. In some hard-hit states, FEMA has moved supplies before governors even asked for them.

There will be time after the crisis recedes to assess which agencies performed well, which performed badly — and what the verdict on Trump’s record as a crisis manager should be.

But the president has already given historians what may be the most enduring quote of his voluble administration: his March 13 answer to the never-ending question of why so few test kits are available.

In six words, it was the essence of Trump’s management style: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

Eisenhower won two presidential elections thanks partly to his stature as the hero of D-day. Trump had better hope voters don’t hold him to the same standard in November.