The weakness of Donald Trump’s response to the covid-19 crisis—the weakness of Trump’s character—was captured in a response that Vice-President Mike Pence gave, on Thursday, to CNN’s Alisyn Camerota. She noted that, within hours of Trump’s address to the nation the previous night, the Administration had to issue “clarifications”: that the travel ban he had announced, which he said would apply to “Europe” except for the United Kingdom, cover a “tremendous amount of trade and cargo,” and have exemptions only for “Americans” who had undergone screening, would, in fact, not apply to cargo, cover only countries in the Schengen zone (a subset of European countries with limited border checks between them), and would also have exemptions for permanent residents and citizens’ immediate family members.
Those are big clarifications. It was bad enough that Trump’s actions were entirely inadequate—he didn’t address problems with testing, for example. But it was stunning that he seemingly could not accurately explain his bad ideas. International financial markets began dropping as he spoke, and the inadequacy of his words and his Presidency became manifest.
And so, Camerota asked Pence, “Why the confusion?”
“I don’t think there was confusion,” Pence replied, blankly, loyally, absurdly. “The President took another historic step, just like he did in January with China, to suspend all travel from Europe, Alisyn, for the next thirty days.”
Instead of explaining the President’s confused remarks, Pence echoed them, adding to the muddle. Pence, it should be remembered, is not only the Vice-President but the nation’s dedicated coronavirus point man—his function is to coördinate and clarify and at least give the illusion of leadership.
And yet it took another few sentences before he mentioned that there would be “Americans coming home”—so not a suspension of all travel—after being screened, followed by a reference to every returning “American and legal resident,” with a note that they would be asked to self-quarantine for fourteen days.
But, a couple of minutes later, Pence again referred to “suspending all travel for thirty days from Europe.” Who coming from where is allowed or required to do what? The main thing to remember is that the President did something “historic.”
The incompetence and the sycophancy are connected. Pence delivers what Trump demands, even when Trump demands the pretense that covid-19 will simply go away if people stop worrying about it. It won’t. It is not just that Trump doesn’t always have the very best people around him; he has too many people who seem to care only whether he is happy.
Even people with great expertise spend too much time, at almost every public briefing, ritually noting his leadership. Such words are not confidence-inspiring. There have been reports that Pence at various points suggested that Trump take some practical actions—for example, in managing the plight of a cruise ship—and that Trump said no. Other officials have reportedly had similar experiences.
But, as long as they do not publicly confront their boss or pressure him to take real action on a growing crisis, that only means so much. And Pence, for one, is not doing so; instead, he kept telling Camerota that what looked like haphazard moves were “all part of the President’s strategy,” extolling him as a leader who “took action.” But someone very prominent in the Administration or the Republican leadership has to get angry, in a way that is demonstrative, dramatic, and even, for whoever it is, out of character.
Instead, Pence is not alone. He is behaving in a way that Republicans have come to regard as normal. They must engage in the increasingly farcical exercise of praise for Trump.
Sometimes, as when they join him onstage at a rally, the main immediate damage may be to their self-respect.
At others, as in the impeachment hearings, when Republican after Republican claimed that the President was an innocent victim of the deep state, the damage was to their duty to the Constitution.
During a pandemic, the harm is not only to public health but to the country’s structure, as fissures in the health and social-welfare systems widen, exposing just how vulnerable many Americans are—the hundred thousand homeless children in New York City’s public schools, for example—and a larger order breaks apart. (The damage may even be to their own health: Senators Lindsey Graham and Rick Scott are under self-quarantine, after mingling at a Mar-a-Lago event that included a Brazilian official who has now been confirmed as having covid-19; Trump was also present but has so far neither been tested nor quarantined himself.)
On Thursday, Senator Mitch McConnell, who has praised what he decided to call Trump’s “early, bold action” on covid-19, reportedly had to be pressured to delay a Senate recess until a covid-19 relief bill was passed. And among Fox News commentators, as Dylan Byers notes, there is still outrage that some virus has the nerve to undermine Trump. Pence, speaking to Camerota, tried to pin the blame on Europe, which he said was the site of most new cases. What will he say when America wins that title?
One of the most mangled sections of Pence’s interview had to do with testing. He suggested that anyone who needed a test could get one just by going to a doctor, who would arrange one—or maybe that would happen soon, if not yet. When Camerota showed him figures suggesting that the number of tests completed was still just in the thousands, he said he thought that the information was wrong. But he refused to even estimate the right number.
The mismanagement of testing, particularly as coronavirus was just reaching the United States, appears to have triggered a disaster. It remains shockingly hard for people to get tested—test kits and the chemical reagents needed for them are a scarce resource—even when they have symptoms and known contact with covid-19 patients.
According to the COVID Tracking Project, in which The Atlantic is a partner, the tally of tests completed was nearing sixteen thousand five hundred on Friday; South Korea has conducted more than ten times as many. “It is a failing. Let’s admit it,” Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, of the U.S.’s testing system, at a hearing of the House Oversight Committee. Trump will never admit it.
The testing situation is such a shambles that even some Republicans have begun to acknowledge it. Senator Lamar Alexander called it “a serious deficiency,” according to Politico, and Senator James Lankford said that the idea that people could simply go and get tested—which Trump has pushed—was just wrong. Senator Mitt Romney (who might actually be good at managing this sort of thing) said that the situation is “frustrating.”
The question is whether that consciousness of failure will lead to a breaking point in the Republicans’ system of obedience to Trump.
This is not a matter of using the coronavirus crisis to bring him down; it’s a question of the President’s party really pushing him to do what he can to stop the virus from bringing the country down.
And if he won’t, they can start voting with Democrats in Congress, and give support to governors and other local officials—and, most fundamentally, they can be honest with the public.
Perhaps Republicans could even nominate someone else at the convention this August (if, given the fears of covid-19, it’s still held). That seems far-fetched, but so, a month ago, did trading being halted on the New York Stock Exchange, campuses closing, Broadway shutting down, major-league seasons getting suspended, and parts of the city of New Rochelle being cordoned off. Unimaginable scenes at overwhelmed hospitals may be ahead.