The Coronavirus Task Force will hold its daily briefing at the White House. #FoxBusiness
It has taken a good deal longer than it should have, but Americans have now seen the con man behind the curtain.
When, in January 2016, I wrote that despite being a lifelong Republican who worked in the previous three GOP administrations, I would never vote for Donald Trump, even though his administration would align much more with my policy views than a Hillary Clinton presidency would, a lot of my Republican friends were befuddled. How could I not vote for a person who checked far more of my policy boxes than his opponent?
What I explained then, and what I have said many times since, is that Trump is fundamentally unfit—intellectually, morally, temperamentally, and psychologically—for office. For me, that is the paramount consideration in electing a president, in part because at some point it’s reasonable to expect that a president will face an unexpected crisis—and at that point, the president’s judgment and discernment, his character and leadership ability, will really matter.
“Mr. Trump has no desire to acquaint himself with most issues, let alone master them” is how I put it four years ago. “No major presidential candidate has ever been quite as disdainful of knowledge, as indifferent to facts, as untroubled by his benightedness.” I added this:
Mr. Trump’s virulent combination of ignorance, emotional instability, demagogy, solipsism and vindictiveness would do more than result in a failed presidency; it could very well lead to national catastrophe. The prospect of Donald Trump as commander in chief should send a chill down the spine of every American.
It took until the second half of Trump’s first term, but the crisis has arrived in the form of the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s hard to name a president who has been as overwhelmed by a crisis as the coronavirus has overwhelmed Donald Trump.
To be sure, the president isn’t responsible for either the coronavirus or the disease it causes, COVID-19, and he couldn’t have stopped it from hitting our shores even if he had done everything right. Nor is it the case that the president hasn’t done anything right; in fact, his decision to implement a travel ban on China was prudent. And any narrative that attempts to pin all of the blame on Trump for the coronavirus is simply unfair. The temptation among the president’s critics to use the pandemic to get back at Trump for every bad thing he’s done should be resisted, and schadenfreude is never a good look. That said, the president and his administration are responsible for grave, costly errors, most especially the epic manufacturing failures in diagnostic testing, the decision to test too few people, the delay in expanding testing to labs outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and problems in the supply chain. These mistakes have left us blind and badly behind the curve, and, for a few crucial weeks, they created a false sense of security. What we now know is that the coronavirus silently spread for several weeks, without us being aware of it and while we were doing nothing to stop it. Containment and mitigation efforts could have significantly slowed its spread at an early, critical point, but we frittered away that opportunity.
“They’ve simply lost time they can’t make up. You can’t get back six weeks of blindness,” Jeremy Konyndyk, who helped oversee the international response to Ebola during the Obama administration and is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, told The Washington Post. “To the extent that there’s someone to blame here, the blame is on poor, chaotic management from the White House and failure to acknowledge the big picture.”
Earlier this week, Anthony Fauci, the widely respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases whose reputation for honesty and integrity has been only enhanced during this crisis, admitted in congressional testimony that the United States is still not providing adequate testing for the coronavirus. “It is failing. Let’s admit it.” He added, “The idea of anybody getting [testing] easily, the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that. I think it should be, but we’re not.”
We also know the World Health Organization had working tests that the United States refused, and researchers at a project in Seattle tried to conduct early tests for the coronavirus but were prevented from doing so by federal officials. (Doctors at the research project eventually decided to perform coronavirus tests without federal approval.)
But that’s not all. The president reportedly ignored early warnings of the severity of the virus and grew angry at a CDC official who in February warned that an outbreak was inevitable. The Trump administration dismantled the National Security Council’s global-health office, whose purpose was to address global pandemics; we’re now paying the price for that. “We worked very well with that office,” Fauci told Congress. “It would be nice if the office was still there.” We may face a shortage of ventilators and medical supplies, and hospitals may soon be overwhelmed, certainly if the number of coronavirus cases increases at a rate anything like that in countries such as Italy. (This would cause not only needless coronavirus-related deaths, but deaths from those suffering from other ailments who won’t have ready access to hospital care.)
Some of these mistakes are less serious and more understandable than others. One has to take into account that in government, when people are forced to make important decisions based on incomplete information in a compressed period of time, things go wrong.
Yet in some respects, the avalanche of false information from the president has been most alarming of all. It’s been one rock slide after another, the likes of which we have never seen. Day after day after day he brazenly denied reality, in an effort to blunt the economic and political harm he faced. But Trump is in the process of discovering that he can’t spin or tweet his way out of a pandemic. There is no one who can do to the coronavirus what Attorney General William Barr did to the Mueller report: lie about it and get away with it.
The president’s misinformation and mendacity about the coronavirus are head-snapping.
- He claimed that it was contained in America when it was actually spreading.
- He claimed that we had “shut it down” when we had not.
- He claimed that testing was available when it wasn’t.
- He claimed that the coronavirus will one day disappear “like a miracle”; it won’t.
- He claimed that a vaccine would be available in months; Fauci says it will not be available for a year or more.
- Trump falsely blamed the Obama administration for impeding coronavirus testing.
- He stated that the coronavirus first hit the United States later than it actually did. (He said that it was three weeks prior to the point at which he spoke; the actual figure was twice that.)
- The president claimed that the number of cases in Italy was getting “much better” when it was getting much worse. And in one of the more stunning statements an American president has ever made,
- Trump admitted that his preference was to keep a cruise ship off the California coast rather than allowing it to dock, because he wanted to keep the number of reported cases of the coronavirus artificially low.
“I like the numbers,” Trump said. “I would rather have the numbers stay where they are. But if they want to take them off, they’ll take them off. But if that happens, all of a sudden your 240 [cases] is obviously going to be a much higher number, and probably the 11 [deaths] will be a higher number too.” (Cooler heads prevailed, and over the president’s objections, the Grand Princess was allowed to dock at the Port of Oakland.)
On and on it goes.
To make matters worse, the president delivered an Oval Office address that was meant to reassure the nation and the markets but instead shook both. The president’s delivery was awkward and stilted; worse, at several points, the president, who decided to ad-lib the teleprompter speech, misstated his administration’s own policies, which the administration had to correct. Stock futures plunged even as the president was still delivering his speech. In his address, the president called for Americans to “unify together as one nation and one family,” despite having referred to Washington Governor Jay Inslee as a “snake” days before the speech and attacking Democrats the morning after it. As The Washington Post’s Dan Balz put it, “Almost everything that could have gone wrong with the speech did go wrong.”
Taken together, this is a massive failure in leadership that stems from a massive defect in character. Trump is such a habitual liar that he is incapable of being honest, even when being honest would serve his interests. He is so impulsive, shortsighted, and undisciplined that he is unable to plan or even think beyond the moment. He is such a divisive and polarizing figure that he long ago lost the ability to unite the nation under any circumstances and for any cause. And he is so narcissistic and unreflective that he is completely incapable of learning from his mistakes. The president’s disordered personality makes him as ill-equipped to deal with a crisis as any president has ever been. With few exceptions, what Trump has said is not just useless; it is downright injurious.
he nation is recognizing this, treating him as a bystander “as school superintendents, sports commissioners, college presidents, governors and business owners across the country take it upon themselves to shut down much of American life without clear guidance from the president,” in the words of Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times.
Donald Trump is shrinking before our eyes.
The coronavirus is quite likely to be the Trump presidency’s inflection point, when everything changed, when the bluster and ignorance and shallowness of America’s 45th president became undeniable, an empirical reality, as indisputable as the laws of science or a mathematical equation.
It has taken a good deal longer than it should have, but Americans have now seen the con man behind the curtain. The president, enraged for having been unmasked, will become more desperate, more embittered, more unhinged. He knows nothing will be the same. His administration may stagger on, but it will be only a hollow shell. The Trump presidency is over.
To eject the president, you need to beat him.
All you have to do is beat him.
Donald Trump is not a Caesar; he does not bestride our narrow world like a colossus, undefeatable save by desperate or underhanded means. He is an instinct-driven chancer who has exploited the decadence of his party and the larger system to grasp and hold a certain kind of power.
But he is also a reckless and distracted figure, a serial squanderer of opportunities, who barely won the presidency and whose coalition is united only in partisan solidarity and fear of liberalism. He may not be removable by the impeachment process, but is not a king; he is a widely hated, legislatively constrained president facing a difficult re-election.
All you have to do is beat him.
For a long time during Trump’s ascent I wrote columns demanding that the leaders of the Republican Party do something to keep this obviously unfit, chaotic, cruel man from becoming their nominee for president. Those columns were morally correct but structurally naïve, based on theories of party decision-making that no longer obtain in our era of institutional decay.
But Trump could have been stopped in the Republican primaries the old-fashioned way — by being beaten at the polls. His base was limited, his popularity fluctuated, and if his rivals had recognized the threat earlier, campaigned against him consistently, strategized with one another more effectively, and avoided their own meltdowns and missteps, there was no reason he could not have been defeated.
All you have to do is beat him.
After Trump’s administration began and immediately descended into chaos, I had one last flare of institutionalism, one last moment of outrage and 25th Amendment fantasy. But since then I have left the outrage to my liberal friends, watching them put their hopes in Robert Mueller’s investigation, in law-enforcement and intelligence-agency leaks and whistle-blowing, and finally — though with less real hope, and more grim resignation — in the House’s articles of impeachment.
Now that last effort is ending, as everyone with eyes could see it would, with the Republicans who failed to beat Trump when it counted declining to turn on him now that partisan consolidation and improving national conditions have sealed their base to him. The mix of expedience and cravenness with which the institutional G.O.P. approached impeachment is no different than the way the institutional G.O.P. behaved during Trump’s initial ascent, and it leaves Trump’s opposition no worse off than before. A failed impeachment doesn’t give him new powers or new popularity; it just shows that the normal way to be rid of an unpopular president is the way that Democrats must take.
All you have to do is beat him.
Of course, in trying to beat him they have to cope with the fact that he is chronically unscrupulous, as the Biden-Ukraine foray shows. And they have to overcome the advantage that his particular coalition enjoys in the Electoral College.
But in other ways the Democrats are lucky to have Trump to run against, as they were lucky in 2016. In a year when the fundamentals mildly favored Republicans, Hillary Clinton got to face off against the most-disliked G.O.P. nominee of modern times. And she would have beaten him — even with Russia, even with Comey — had her campaign taken just a few more steps to counter his team’s long-shot strategy to flip the Midwest.
All you have to do is beat him.
As with 2016, so with politics since. Liberal hand-wringing about their structural disadvantages ignores the advantages that Trump keeps giving them — the fact that in the best economy in 20 years he can’t stop making people hate him, can’t stop missing opportunities to expand his base, can’t stop forcing vulnerable Republicans to kiss his ring and thereby weaken their own prospects.
Impeachment has only extended this pattern, with Republicans voting to shorten the trial even when it makes them look like lackeys, and too cowed in many cases to even take the acquit-but-still-condemn approach that Democrats took with Bill Clinton. So now most of the country thinks the president did something wrong, most of the country thinks Republicans are protecting him, and most of the country is open, entirely open, to voting Trump and the most vulnerable Republican senators out in nine short months.
All you have to do is beat him.
It’s worth remembering, too, that liberalism is not just struggling in America, with our Electoral College and right-tilting Senate; it is struggling all around the world. Which, again, suggests that American liberals are fortunate to have Trump as their Great Foe. If he were merely as disciplined and competent as Boris Johnson or Viktor Orban, to choose leaders with whom he has a few things in common, he would be coasting to re-election.
Instead it is very likely that he will lose. But it was likely that he would lose in 2016 as well. One essential lesson of the Trump era is that likelihoods are not enough; if you want to end the Trump era only one thing will suffice.
You have to beat him.
I don’t think it’s possible to fully grasp the Ukraine scandal without understanding the dynamic outlined by former homeland security adviser Thomas Bossert last weekend. Recall that he told ABC News and the New York Times that a pernicious cycle had taken hold in the White House — even as aides debunked 2016 conspiracy theories, Trump allies (including Rudy Giuliani) would sell the president once again on wild tales. Here’s the Times report on Bossert:
“It is completely debunked,” Mr. Bossert said of the Ukraine theory on ABC. Speaking with George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Bossert blamed Mr. Giuliani for filling the president’s head with misinformation. “I am deeply frustrated with what he and the legal team is doing and repeating that debunked theory to the president. It sticks in his mind when he hears it over and over again, and for clarity here, George, let me just again repeat that it has no validity.”
Other former aides said separately on Sunday that the president had a particular weakness for conspiracy theories involving Ukraine, which in the past three years has become the focus of far-right media outlets and political figures. Mr. Trump was more willing to listen to outside advisers like Mr. Giuliani than his own national security team.
I’ve heard many of these conspiracy theories, and — like many conspiracies — they can use a base of troubling truth as a launching pad for the most bizarre of claims. For example,
- the origin of the Steele Dossier is troubling and worth investigating.
- The Carter Page FISA applications should also be closely examined. It is not at all uncommon (sadly) for to find examples of overreach or abuse in any far-flung and complex investigation — that’s one reason why defense lawyers often spend so much time on suppression motions before trials.
But the theories floating around online Trumpworld go far, far beyond any discernible connection to logic or evidence.
But here’s the problem — the wildest theories are floated in the quarters that are most fiercely devoted to the president. They’re the ones who constantly to refer to the “real collusion” as the connection between Democrats and the Ukrainian government. They’re the ones who cast doubt on the very idea that Russia interfered in the election at all, much less on Trump’s behalf. They’re the ones constantly using absurd words like “coup” to describe constitutional and legal processes that are adverse to Trump. And, based on the transcript of the call with Volodymyr Zelensky, it seems as if Trump is drinking deeply of their conspiratorial Kool-Aid.
In their click-bait zeal to curry favor with the world’s most powerful man, they are feeding Trump’s worst instincts, and now we know that he’s warped American diplomacy in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods as a result.
In an interview earlier today, I described the scandal as one part corruption, one part fitness. Yes, it’s venal and corrupt to depart from any conventional legal process to urge a dependent foreign government (or a hostile foreign government, like China) to investigate a domestic political rival — especially in the absence of evidence of criminal wrongdoing. But the willingness to believe in conspiracy theories and conduct diplomacy accordingly also speaks less to Trump’s corruption than whether he has the character, knowledge, and temperament to be president. In fact, I’m starting to believe that the fitness aspect of this controversy may well be dominant.
Trump’s most extreme allies have built a large media following, but the most important person in that audience is the current occupant of the Oval Office. They’ve succeeded in convincing the most powerful man in the world that their theories are right. They’re influencing diplomacy at the highest levels. But they just might be planting the seeds of Trump’s political destruction. They’ve helped put their beloved president on the path to impeachment.