Donald Trump's fixation on setting a deadline for "reopening" the country — first it was Easter Sunday, now it appears to be May 1 — is currently the leading indicator of his complete lack of understanding of what is required from a government during a pandemic.
If the goal is to get society back to normal, you don't announce a date and then try to justify it.
You set conditions that must be met, and then try to meet them.
Just look at what Gov. Gavin Newsom is doing in California. On Tuesday, he unveiled a list of six goals that need to be achieved before local officials can begin letting residents go back to work and school.
Top of the list is that the community has enough routine and widespread testing to monitor its residents for coronavirus infection, has the ability to trace patients' recent contacts, and has ways to isolate or quarantine those who test positive or may have been exposed.
That should be the standard to which Big Journalism holds Trump accountable every single day.
And these are the most important questions the press should be asking at every single briefing: Have you established what conditions need to be met before parts of the country can start to lift their stay-at-home orders? What are you doing to help the states meet those conditions? How much progress are you making?
A key subsidiary question: Since widespread testing is so essential — and, by some estimates, we will need millions of tests performed daily — why aren't we testing dramatically more people every day? Why is the daily testing rate over the last two weeks essentially flat? That should be setting off alarm bells.
Everything else is a distraction: Which date has Trump settled on now? Did he really mean it when he talked smack about his "absolute authority"? Did he mean it when he seemed to back off? Why is he attacking the World Health Organization? What is Jared up to?
That doesn't mean these other stories don't deserve some coverage — they most certainly do. But just because they seem newsy, it doesn't follow that they're the biggest news, deserving the top of the page, the multiple analyses and the star bylines.
The biggest news is: How much closer are we to getting back to normal? Or has Trump wasted yet another day?
How much progress have we made? How much further do we need to go?
Newsom's announcement on Tuesday made the California governor a useful point of comparison for Trump.
As the Associated Press reported, Newsom announced that before allowing residents to return to work and school, local officials must be sure:
- They have enough routine and widespread testing to monitor the population at large for coronavirus infections, and have the ability to trace patients' recent contacts and isolate or quarantine those who test positive or may have been exposed to someone who has the virus.
- They can protect the most vulnerable populations: those who are older, have underlying health issues, or are in crowded settings like nursing homes, prisons or jails.
- That the state's health care system can handle surges, with enough ventilators, staff and personal protective equipment ready to go.
- That it has the best known treatment options identified and in proper supply to meet demand, and is working with academia, technology companies and medical researchers to develop more and better options.
- That businesses, schools and child care facilities can function while keeping people at least six feet apart to limit coronavirus spread.
- Finally, that they can quickly reimpose restrictions like stay-at-home orders if the virus flares again.
Think about it. That's quite a list. And there's not a state in the union that's anywhere close.
In his remarks, Newsom made it clear that he is not setting any arbitrary deadlines:
[T]his phase is one where science, where public health, not politics, must be the guide, where we must be open to argument, interested in evidence, where we cannot be ideological in any way, shape or form in terms of how we approach a condition that changes on an hourly and daily basis, conditions that will ultimately determine what better decisions we make in terms of that transition.
His announcement, he explained, was the result of "a process that we've been having and that we've been engaged in for the last few weeks." It was time to "basically pull back the curtain on those private conversations and make them public," he said. The next step is to hear back from the "teams assembled in each of these six categories that are working to answer the questions."
Compare that to Trump.
He's never said anything remotely that direct about the way forward. Instead, he predicts miracles. Two weeks ago, for instance, he said we were due for "a burst of light" — right about now — after which things would "get better all of a sudden."
And whether he does this on purpose or whether it's the instinctive behavior of a born showman or whether it's a symptom of his deeply compromised mental condition, Trump is constantly disgorging distractions — storylines so extreme or bizarre or repulsive, that the assembled press corps just can't resist jumping all over them.
The result is that they are not holding him accountable, in real time, for his ongoing failures to act.
They are not pressing him to do better.
They are simply letting him blather on as people continue to hide and die.