By David Remnick
March 15, 2020
The Administration’s stumbling response to the pandemic was, alas, no surprise. Photograph by Jason Redmond / Reuters
The best of modern Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, believed in the responsibilities of government and the realities of fact. Despite his place in America’s patrician caste, he suffered the consequences of an earlier epidemic, and he derived from it a code of empathy and endurance. In August, 1921, when Roosevelt was thirty-nine, he came down with polio while at his summer retreat on Campobello Island. From then on, he was unable to walk and could stand only with the aid of steel-and-leather braces that reached from his ankles to his hips. His ambition and sense of mission, however, would not be denied. At the 1924 Democratic Convention, Roosevelt—sweating profusely, swaying slightly at the rostrum—spoke for thirty-four minutes and set off an hour-long demonstration of cheering and the choruses of “The Sidewalks of New York.”
Four years later, Roosevelt became the governor of New York, and, in 1932, he was elected to the first of four terms as President. The quotation that defined his temperament was revealed in his first Inaugural Address, which he delivered as the nation faced the “common difficulties” of a Great Depression and the dawning of Fascism in Europe.
“In every dark hour of our national life,” he said, “a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.” In asking Congress for the authority to “wage a war against the emergency,” Roosevelt fearlessly answered what his biographer Jean Edward Smith called “the spiritual need of the people, the need for hope, not despair.” The next morning, he commenced what he had promised, a radical campaign to rescue the economic well-being of the American people.
The crisis that has now enveloped the nation is a vastly different one—a pandemic called covid-19. The Presidency that faces it is also a vastly different one. Donald Trump’s ascent has been framed by two of his most characteristic remarks: “I alone can fix it” and “I don’t take responsibility at all,” and the journey from one to the other has been long and excruciating.
Confronted by crisis, Trump’s response has been to minimize it, downplaying the realities of the new coronavirus while bragging about what an “amazing” job he’s been doing. He squandered the most valuable resource in a pandemic: time.
When the virus was first identified, in January, Tom Bossert was one of several prominent voices in the realm of emergency preparedness to sound a warning. “We face a global health threat,” he said on Twitter. The problem was that Bossert—a Homeland Security adviser and an official with deep experience in emergency management—was a formerAdministration figure, having been pushed out last year. Scott Gottlieb, who called for immediate preventive measures, including the closure of public venues to slow the spread of the virus, was another such voice, but he was the former head of the Food and Drug Administration under Trump.
“What the American people need to brace themselves for is a large rate of sickness and death in this country,” Bossert told me. Actions to reduce the spread of the virus, and the timing of those actions, will have profound consequences. Bossert recalled the decision by Philadelphia authorities during the Spanish-flu epidemic of 1918 to allow a Liberty Loan parade to raise money for the war effort. On a late September day, two hundred thousand people marched up Broad Street and, at parade’s end, listened to a concert by John Philip Sousa. Within three days, the cities’ hospitals were overflowing; thousands were dead. “Bodies stacked like cordwood” became the phrase of the day. In St. Louis, by contrast, officials took quick, extreme measures to close schools, churches, theatres, and playgrounds––the measures that we refer to in our new language of pandemic as “social distancing.” In the end, the per-capita death rate from influenza in St. Louis was half that of Philadelphia.
It is a saddening experience to read Beth Cameron’s recent account, in the Washington Post, of what happened to the office she led during the Obama Administration: the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense. In 2018, the Trump Administration closed it. Cameron writes that she was “mystified” by the decision, one that left the United States less prepared for pandemics such as the current one.
When Yamiche Alcindor, a reporter for “PBS NewsHour,” asked the President at a Rose Garden press conference last week why he shut down the office, Trump’s response was evasive and petulant: “I think it’s a nasty question.” Testifying before Congress, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, allowed, “It would be nice if the office was still there.” You had to wonder why Trump didn’t replace Fauci with Elizabeth Holmes.
Bossert, who has been pressing for a far greater sense of urgency since January, said he did not want to spend too much time criticizing anyone for actions taken or not taken in the early stages of the crisis. “While there are myriad questions that are legitimate about the Administration’s timeliness and decision-making processes, the President nevertheless did us a favor this week by yelling ‘fire’ while there is still time to do something about that fire,” he said. “That is critical. While the fire is still on the stove, you can’t sit back and watch it burn. It will spread.”
The Trump Administration has been more interested in setting fires than in investing in fire prevention or containment: it has been eager to dismantle the “administrative state,” to upend a raft of international agreements (notably the Paris climate agreement and the nuclear pact with Iran), and to reduce spending for science, health, the environment, and emergency preparedness. Expertise has offended Trump. He has found his enemies not among foreign dictators but among members of the American “deep state,” including career diplomats and intelligence analysts, as well as university teachers, journalists, congressional Democrats, and “disloyal” Republicans––dissenters of all kinds. His circle of loyalists is so lacking in policy expertise that the writing of his speech on the coronavirus from the Oval Office last week was left mainly to his nativist immigration counsellor Stephen Miller and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The Administration’s stumbling response to the pandemic was, alas, no surprise. Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico, in September, 2017, and left three thousand people dead, was at least as shambolic. Now, as he tries to craft a response to covid-19, he remains, at best, distracted by ego. Just hours before the Oval Office speech on Wednesday, he went on Twitter to complain about “another phony & boring hit piece” in Vanity Fair.
In a rational universe, Trump would have no chance at reëlection. But, even if the Democratic Party front-runner, Joe Biden, despite all his flaws, runs a coherent, competent, and dignified race, there are no guarantees. Is it a stretch to wonder whether Donald Trump has given thought to postponing or otherwise derailing the November election? Just days ago, Vladimir Putin had his loyalist legislature amend the Russian constitution to allow him to remain in office, if he wishes, until 2036. Trump did not protest, and no one expected that he would.
Pretexts for postponing the election are not hard to conjure. There’s no shortage of public-health officials warning of the possibility of alarming medical and social conditions ahead, especially if a second surge of covid-19 arrives in the fall: overrun hospitals, soaring rates of infection and illness, a stalled economy. Thankfully, Trump would face significant, probably insurmountable, obstacles in trying to alter the date of the election. Federal law demands that the ballot take place “on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November, in every fourth year succeeding every election of a President and Vice President.” The Constitution requires that a new Congress gather on January 3rd and a new President be sworn in on January 20th. Legal scholars agree that, even if Trump appealed for emergency powers, he would not have the authority to put off the election.
From the start, Trump has made loyalty to the Leader, not to the law, the ultimate value in government service. In June, 2017, he presided over a Cabinet meeting that made it clear that the ticket of admission was not competence or truth-telling but rather a self-abasing fealty to him. One by one, with the exception of James Mattis, Trump’s Cabinet secretaries and Vice-President spoke of the great privilege of serving an omniscient and very stable genius. It was a tableau that might have seemed over the top in the highest councils of Ashgabat or Pyongyang. In fact, the picture has grown only worse since impeachment, as public servants, who, rightly or not, thought they could guide Trump away from his worst instincts, have been swept from the White House stables.
Once more in the history of this disturbing and destructive Presidency, we depend on democratic institutions, on civil society, on decent men and women of competence and perseverance, to safeguard American democracy and the commonwealth. What gives hope in this crisis is the way that society has responded to the pandemic with a sense of sacrifice and relative calm. What gives hope is a medical professional like Helen Chu, an infectious-disease specialist, in Seattle, who found a way around bureaucratic barriers and led a team of colleagues who conducted crucial tests. It was an act that undoubtedly saved lives. What gives hope is someone like Anthony Fauci, who has the political finesse not to risk the temper of the President but who also has the expertise to speak with authority on what’s demanded of all of us, and who insists on telling the truth about the realities we face.
In hospitals, Tom Bossert told me, “the fire is going to burn brighter and hotter”: the operational tempo will accelerate; absenteeism and the need for isolation among health-care workers will increase as they themselves get sick; doctors and nurses may have to make decisions about triage that will exhaust and demoralize them. Strategic attention to the public-health system will be critical. Large things are required of everyone. F.D.R., in his first Inaugural Address, announced, “This is preëminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.” That’s still the right place to start.