Coronavirus response shows Donald Trump's failure of leadership

The Editorial Board, USA TODAY
·6 min read

Early in his fight against a novel coronavirus, Donald Trump proclaimed himself in a call-to-arms moment a "wartime president."

But as a third surge of COVID-19 infections sweeps across the country, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows capitulated on Trump's behalf. "We are not going to control the pandemic," he told CNN last Sunday.

Beyond consigning Americans to a wretched winter of sickness before a vaccine becomes widely available, surrendering in the face of a viral enemy is a tragically fitting capstone to perhaps the worst crisis-management performance for a president in U.S. history.

Among highest COVID-19 death rates

The United States has faced plenty of dark moments. The Civil War. The Great Depression. Pearl Harbor. The 9/11 attacks. Throughout it all, there was never contemplation of just giving up, or tossing the problem to states and localities, or trying to wish the problem away. Not until now.

With Election Day fast approaching, voters have a right to ask why the virus hasn't been better controlled. The pandemic was always going to be bad, regardless of who occupied the White House, but it didn't have to be this bad: All but four of the world's countries have lower COVID-19 death rates (measured in fatalities per 100,000 residents) than the United States.

South Korea, which saw its first infection almost the same day as America did, has more than 26,000 confirmed infections; the United States has nearly 9 million cases.

"Unfortunately for us," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, "the United States is clearly the worst hit country in the world."

Anniversary of 1st COVID-19 death

With 4% of the global population, the USA accounts for 20% of COVID-19 deaths — nearly 230,000.

Projections are that by Feb. 6, anniversary of the first reported U.S. death from the virus, the toll could exceed 400,000 and match the number of Americans lost in four years of World War II.

Protesters in front of the White House on Oct. 8, 2020.
Protesters in front of the White House on Oct. 8, 2020.

Mistakes and mishandling unfolded by seasons:

Winter. From the beginning, Trump deceived Americans about the coronavirus. In late January, a top adviser warned him that it would be "the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency." In early February, the president told journalist Bob Woodward in a taped interview that he understood the fierce lethality and contagiousness of the virus ("more deadly than your strenuous flus"). Yet the president lied to the public about the potential severity, claiming he didn't want to spark a panic, when that information could have helped people prepare. More likely, Trump didn't want to upset a stock market he relies upon as an economic barometer.

Trump issued restrictions on travel from China on Jan. 31, after 45 other countries did the same. The partial ban could have helped contain the spread, but it became lost in a cascade of other incompetent decisions. For weeks, he resisted advice to ban travel from Europe, from where strains of the virus generated a deadly New York outbreak. Federal agencies botched the creation of a coronavirus test and then severely restricted its use, leaving health experts flying blind through a mushrooming crisis.

February was largely squandered as the president played golf, attended a Super Bowl party and held rallies while the virus silently infected thousands in the United States.

Through it all, he ignored a playbook left by previous administrations with step-by-step guidance on how to act urgently, with a unified voice and sweeping powers to quell a pandemic.

Spring. Even as the pandemic spread, the president refused to wear a mask; peddled phony cures (a Cornell study found Trump the leading disseminator of false information about COVID-19); and lost patience with slow-the-spread restrictions, agitating against states ("LIBERATE MICHIGAN!") that followed his own administration's health guidelines.

Trump proclaimed ultimate power for directing pandemic relief and then quickly abandoned that responsibility to the states. He was too timid about implementing the Defense Production Act to ensure a steady stream of necessary supplies, a deficit that still haunts hospitals to this day. And he rejected a federal role in tracing and isolating infections, a respected and time-honored health mitigation tool that other nations used to stem the virus.

Summer. Trump's prediction that the virus would go away in the warm weather proved false, as new surges hit the South and West. His administration undermined public health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sidelined CDC's scientists, and blocked top government experts from communicating with the American people through the national news media.

Fall. As Trump has barnstormed across battleground states in recent weeks — leaving clusters of new infections in his wake from campaign rallies where social distancing and mask wearing were frequently ignored — dueling storylines have emerged. One is the president's relentless assertion that the nation is "rounding the turn" on defeating COVID-19. The other is the direct opposite: that an America beset by what are now record high daily infections and rising numbers of hospitalizations and deaths is entering a third viral surge.

Saving both Americans and economy

One of Trump's greatest mistakes throughout the crisis was failing to grasp that the economy could not be saved without first saving Americans from the risk of serious illness. The president presented it as a binary choice. By contrast, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden recognizes that "to fix the economy, we have to get control over the virus."

So far, the best part of the federal response has been Operation Warp Speed, which appears to be on track to start delivering millions of doses of a vaccine early next year, if ongoing trials show one or more to be safe and effective. Yet, even here, Trump's meddling and pressure on regulators have undermined public confidence in vaccines.

The coronavirus presented Trump with a historic test. To give him a second term, after hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their lives, would be to reward a failure of leadership.

This is the fourth in a series of editorials about major issues in the 2020 presidential election. Previous editorials covered climate change, health care and foreign policy.

USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff and the USA TODAY Network. Most editorials are coupled with an Opposing View, a unique USA TODAY feature.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Wartime president' Donald Trump surrenders to COVID-19