Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Trump Is Not a Crisis Leader

His badly botched coronavirus address reminds us why.
March 12, 2020
Trump Is Not a Crisis Leader
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 26: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the beginning of a new conference with members of the coronavirus task force, including Vice President Mike Pence in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House February 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump updated the American people about what his administration's 'whole of government' response to the global coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

For only the second time, President Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office Wednesday night, in an attempt  to convey gravitas and determination in the face of the global coronavirus pandemic now affecting the United States.

But if he was aware that he needed a drastic change of course after a disastrous six weeks of underplaying the looming pandemic, he didn’t get the reset he was thinking of.

In addition to proposing some policies to help workers and small businesses, the president managed, in just ten minutes, to:

  • announce a 30-day cessation of trade with Europe, when he meant to say only that travel of European persons to the United States would pause. European officials were reportedly “blindsided” by the announcement; even the State Department apparently didn’t know the details, and though the president quickly clarified (via Twitter) that trade would continue as usual, the confusion didn’t help after-hours trading—usually one of Trump’s primary concerns.
    The travel ban isn’t what it sounded like at first. It applies to persons who have been in any of the 26 “Schengen” countries in the last fourteen days—except for U.S. citizens, their family members, legal permanent residents, and “certain other individuals.” Oh, and U.K. citizens are not banned from traveling to the United States, for unstated reasons. (The U.K. health minister is presently being treated for COVID-19.)
  • blame the EU for “seeding” clusters of infection in the United States because it had not cut off travel from China as early and efficiently as he had, throwing in for good measure that we’re dealing with a “foreign virus.” (His much vaunted travel “bans” with China and Iran, like the present one with Europe, are far less stringent than he seems to believe, or at least than he seems to say.)
  • claim that the “health insurance companies” have agreed to waive fees for coronavirus treatments; at least some of them hastily clarified that they planned to waive fees only for testing.
  • announce, without any reference to concrete information, the cutting of “massive amounts of red tape” to make antiviral therapies available soon and claim that “we are moving very quickly” on testing. In fact, evidence increases daily that failure to test properly means that community spread of COVID-19 almost surely far exceeds the reported figures, and that we’re therefore playing catch-up in our efforts to mitigate an exponential spike in cases and a drastic burden on the healthcare system, the economy, and American morale.

Unusually for him, President Trump finished his speech with conventional encouragements. He suggested that we’re in it together, that we ought to put politics aside and help one another, that we should act with “compassion and love.” He expressed hope that we might “emerge from this challenge stronger and more unified than ever.” From another president, such sentiments might seem sincere, but they sound awfully odd from someone who only hours earlier brushed off a reporter’s question about coronavirus policy by dismissing the reporter’s network as “fake news” and decided recently to share his “hunch” that the coronavirus death rate couldn’t be as high as the World Health Organization suggests.

Sensible people have warned since before he was elected that Donald Trump lacks both the disposition and the basic competencies needed for the office of the presidency during a crisis. It has been our good fortune—and manifestly not the result of Trump’s leadership—that there have not been any major crises in the last few years.

Until now. The coronavirus pandemic makes Trump’s failings as a crisis leader painfully obvious:

We know that he lies about petty things; in a crisis we have to know we’re being told the truth.

We know that he often speaks thoughtlessly and sloppily when unscripted; a crisis puts a premium on clarity and precision.

We know that he prefers to surround himself with sycophants and to rely on the advice of family members and friends who lack relevant expertise—but leadership in this sort of crisis requires a president capable of listening to and learning from experts who may well disagree with him.

We know that he lacks technical knowledge about just about anything, as well as the curiosity to learn; since he believes otherwise—that is, since he considers himself masterfully knowledgeable—he creates confusion, slows progress, impedes action.

We know that he has spent the last three years denigrating news outlets and the government—that is, reliable purveyors of information; encouraging belief in conspiracy theories could have drastic consequences during an epidemic.

We know that he thinks about everything in terms of how it benefits him and his family, and tends to experience disagreement as a personal betrayal—but a crisis of this sort requires level-headed leaders who can make decisions dispassionately, not in fits of pique.

None of this will be news to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. Even his supporters will concede some of these points; in fact, some of these points are reasons they admire him. But these qualities make him the exact wrong man for the moment.

Priscilla M. Jensen

Priscilla M. Jensen is a writer living in Northern Virginia.