Trump is frantically rewriting his epic failures. Don’t let him.
Opinion | Trump fans believe him over the media on coronavirus. This is dangerous.
Trump may think he can sugarcoat coronavirus, but media critic Erik Wemple says it is time for the government to speak with one clear voice about public health.
Greg Sargent Opinion writer March 18, 2020
In retrospect, it’s now clear that when President Trump defiantly declared that “I don’t take responsibility at all” for key aspects of his catastrophic response to the coronavirus, he meant it both seriously and literally.
Two new developments drive this home with great clarity. Trump just rolled out a remarkably dishonest effort to rewrite the early history of this pandemic, and to blame the media for his own failings — at exactly the moment that a new report in the New York Times has now illustrated those failures in extraordinarily damning detail.
When Trump declared that “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he meant it seriously, in that this was more than a mere passing effort to dodge one reporter’s tough question. Rather, it was a clear statement of purpose and intent: Trump will not take responsibility for whatever we learn about his government’s failures, no matter how bad they are established to be.
Trump also meant this literally, in that he literally does not believe it’s his responsibility to effectively manage this response, and literally does not believe he is responsible for the consequences that will now unfold, which may end up proving unbearably awful.
“I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning,” Trump just tweeted, hailing his early decision to restrict travel from China. “Many lives were saved. The Fake News new narrative is disgraceful & false!”
This effort to erase the early history of the response is concerted and deliberate. It has been wholeheartedly embraced by some of his leading media propagandists. This rewriting effort will continue, and it will grow worse. Trump is set to hold a news conference on Wednesday, and when pressed about various failings, he will surely falsify key aspects of what really happened.
A damning report
On that score, the new report from the Times is nothing short of infuriating. Among its key revelations:
Numerous states made frantic early requests for equipment and help that went largely unheard and unmet. It was only last week, after an internal report shook up officials with its harrowing predictions of 18 months of hardships ahead, that the federal government pivoted to treating these state requests much more seriously.
Numerous federal agencies — such as the Army Corps of Engineers and other parts of the Defense Department — have not been pressed into service in a serious way, more than eight weeks in. As the Times puts it: “Much of that capacity is untapped.”
Trump’s apparent decision to put the Department of Health and Human Services in charge of the response might have hampered the role that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be playing, even though FEMA “traditionally is designed as the lead federal agency during major disasters to take requests from individual states.”
Several states put in requests for masks, and received far less than requested — and many were beyond their expiration date. As one Democratic governor put it: “We’ve been contacting this administration every single day since then and we have received nothing. Zip. Zero.”
It is becoming obvious that Trump genuinely does not “take any responsibility” for any of this.
When Trump declares that the “Fake News” media narrative about all of this is “disgraceful & false,” this really serves as yet another reminder that Trump is actively prioritizing protecting his reelection prospects over protecting the country.
The basic facts of how we got into this catastrophic mess must be rewritten wholesale. He now claims he took it seriously all along, even though a timeline of his own quotes and actions shows that this is steaming nonsense. And going forward, any media efforts to reconstruct the actual story, or inform the public about it, or impose accountability for it must be entirely discredited.
In short: We are heading into an exceptionally grim set of circumstances, yet the president recognizes zero institutional responsibility to publicly acknowledge his own failures in a way that might enable himself or all of us to learn from them — and thus benefit the country in the immediate term and in the long run.
“He’s likely to be responsible for many deaths,” Max Skidmore, a political science professor and the author of a book on presidential responses to pandemics, told me.
“We are weeks behind where we should have been if a competent administration had been handling the reaction," Skidmore continued. "The misinformation that he spread caused people to be cavalier.”
An unprecedented approach
Yet Skidmore told me that in one distressing sense, Trump’s handling of the pandemic may also be unprecedented. Unlike previous presidents, Trump appears to only care about appearances in a way that is entirely detached from concern about his government’s actual performance.
“We have seen presidents who refused to learn from the past,” Skidmore said. “But one great danger of the Trump presidency is that he’s uninterested in performance as long as he can create the image that he’s been successful. Actual success is irrelevant to him. The image of success is what’s important.”
Skidmore added that even presidents whose failures he has criticized — George W. Bush’s on Hurricane Katrina; Dwight Eisenhower’s on vaccinations; Woodrow Wilson’s on the Spanish flu — didn’t sink to quite this level of unconcern about actual results.
“Even if they twisted the truth, they hoped to have a good outcome,” Skidmore said. By contrast, Trump appears to be wholly “unconcerned about his performance, so long as he can look good.”
In sum, we want presidents to acknowledge their own failures as having actual and momentous consequences for real people, as teachable moments for themselves and the nation — not as nothing more than “fake news” that can be expunged and rewritten through sheer force of bluster or tweet.