It’s difficult to overstate the Trump Administration’s botched handling of its response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
The mixed messaging, the countless contradictions, the sheer incompetency on display has cast the image of a leadership team uncoordinated and fully unprepared in handling this issue. Instead, they’ve given us something else: a textbook example of how not to respond to a crisis.
Trump had a chance to control the narrative. He could’ve allayed our concerns with specific updates on what his administration and health experts are doing to contain the virus. He could’ve educated us regarding what steps officials are taking to coordinate with other countries, updated us on how the virus is spreading and what its short- and long-term impacts on the U.S. might be, clued us in on our chances of contracting it (especially for the elderly and those with weakened immune systems). He could’ve laid out common symptoms as well as provided direction on how Americans can be screened, or when—if ever—a vaccine is on the way.
Instead, Trump decided to combat the crisis by downplaying it, dismissing the outbreak during a February South Carolina rally as a “hoax” cooked up by Democrats, and later claiming the media were “panicking markets,” effectively exaggerating the virus’ threat in an attempt to undermine his leadership. Of course.
He suggested at one point that the coronavirus might mysteriously be eradicated, and even asked medical experts during a bizarre press conference if it could be treated with a common flu vaccine.
He framed the outbreak only in terms of its economic repercussions, the effects it might have on the stock markets, and used the opportunity to ask the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates. He used the opportunity to further other areas of his political agenda as well, expanding travel restrictions from Iran and even admitting at one point that his administration is now considering closing the border with Mexico in an effort to prevent contagion.
Impossibly, senior White House staff managed to fumble the messaging even worse. Trump sent National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow to tell the press that containment of the virus is “pretty close to airtight,” days before the virus claimed its first American casualty. White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney similarly told the Conservative Political Action Conference in late February that the virus “is not a death sentence, it’s not the same as the Ebola crisis.”
Worst of all, Trump threw the health experts we need to hear from most under the bus, directly contradicting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s previous statement that the virus’s spread to the U.S. was no longer a question of “if” but “when this will happen.” He then muzzled scientists at the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services from educating the public on the virus, and instead put VP Mike Pence in charge of overseeing the White House’s coronavirus response efforts, the same guy who enabled an HIV outbreak when he was Governor of Indiana.
All this has sent a different message altogether: the government’s emergency-response infrastructure is woefully unprepared in protecting us. Public health crises matter only when they stand to undermine our economy.
Ironically, the Trump Admin. crisis playbook here is remarkably similar to the Chinese government’s, which similarly downplayed the coronavirus and even punished health experts who sounded the initial alarm about the virus’ threat.
The Trump Admin.'s communications failures came on the heels of similar high-profile mistakes, such as when the State Department stepped over the CDC in its decision to fly infected evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan back to the U.S. on the same plane as healthy passengers, or when the CDC shipped hundreds of faulty diagnostic test kits to detect the virus to state laboratories. Or when it was revealed that Trump last year had proposed major cuts to the CDC’s 2021 budget. Or when HHS Secretary Alex Azar said he couldn’t guarantee that a forthcoming COVID-19 vaccine would be financially available to all Americans, because we’d “need the private sector to invest” it in (thankfully, the White House walked back that statement).
As of press time, nine Americans in Washington State have died as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, and more than 100 cases have been reported so far throughout the country. The virus has also sent the financial markets into a free-fall, has wounded the U.S. tourism sector and has disrupted our global supply chain, essentially bringing manufacturing to a halt in China, the world’s second-largest economy and a country that manufactures much of the goods sold in the U.S. (and consumes a lot of American goods as well).
Communication has always been Trump’s greatest enemy and his best friend. On one hand, no President in history has understood how the media works—and used it to his advantage—better than Trump. One the other hand, his messaging has always required an audience dumb enough to believe the things he says.
It’s the same game we’ve seen in action for more than three years now: If you don’t like the facts, just change what the facts are. Scientific evidence doesn’t matter, nothing bad is happening unless I say it is, and then it’s the Democrats’ fault.
Suffice to say, Trump should spend more time attempting to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus at home than silencing our health leaders and his critics. It’s becoming more apparent that it will take the efforts of our local and state leaders to address our concerns, educate us on the health facts and identify ways to fight this crisis and, hopefully, contain it.
In the meantime, the Federal Reserve came through and slashed interest rates—in its first emergency cut since the 2008 financial crisis—in an effort to lessen the virus’ economic impact on the markets. Feel safer now?