Monday, February 24, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He pretended to have a potential worldwide pandemic "under control."

Trump was spooked today by the plummeting stock market. As many did, he blamed the recent surge in cases of the deadly coronavirus COVID-19, although the continued decline in American factories driven by Trump's trade war is also a factor.

Most Americans aren't directly affected by the stock market, something Trump doesn't seem to understand: he routinely takes credit for an audience's 401(k) portfolio, even when that audience—like Coast Guard members, for instance—doesn't get to participate in one. But Trump's wealthy supporters are affected by day-to-day market swings, and blaming any single bad day on a virus takes the pressure off him. 

Trump's excuse-making, then, would have been at least a forgivable sort of exaggeration. But he also claimed that he had the COVID-19 outbreak "under control" in the United States, which is a much more dangerous kind of lie.

For one thing, Trump himself doesn't control the rest of the world's response. Where he does have a say, he's already sided against the United States' experts at the CDC by allowing American cruise ship passengers known to be infected to break quarantine. Or rather, his desperately understaffed State Department did, apparently confused by the messages coming from the White House. Trump himself, a self-described "germophobe," was horrified when he belatedly found out.

The confusion arose in part because Trump had already disbanded the United States' pandemic response infrastructure. He shut down the National Security Council's global health security unit in 2018, and forced through $15 billion dollars in cuts to programs aimed at preventing disease outbreaks. Since $15 billion is still a small amount in the overall federal budget, the reason this infrastructure was targeted may have been simply that it was put in place by the Obama administration.

Trump's own hastily-assembled coronavirus team hasn't had to deal with a major outbreak of COVID-19 on American soil yet, which is probably just as well. The person in charge of it, Ken Cuccinelli—not a public health official but a former state-level Virginia politician best known for his anti-immigrant rhetoric—went begging to Twitter today for help accessing a Johns Hopkins University-produced map of the outbreak. This did not inspire confidence

Why should I care about this?

  • It's wrong to take credit for things you haven't done.
  • Worldwide infectious disease outbreaks are one of those situations where a president has to be able to listen to people who actually know what they're doing.