Donald Trump bails out: From "total authority" to totally passing the buck

Trump claims we've beaten the virus and it's now someone else's problem. Honestly, that might be an improvement

By Heather Digby Parton


Published April 17, 2020 9:45AM (EDT)

President Donald Trump speaks during a FOX News Channel virtual town hall with members of the coronavirus task force, in the Rose Garden at the White House, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during a FOX News Channel virtual town hall with members of the coronavirus task force, in the Rose Garden at the White House, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

If there's one thing the Trump era has prepared us for it's how to deal with stress. Ever since November 2016 we've been running at high speed, with everything feeling out of control on a daily basis. So this pandemic, horrible as it is, is probably being experienced differently than it would have been if we'd had a normal government all this time. This year alone began with the president being impeached and tried in the Senate for abusing his power, for heaven's sake. We came this close to war with Iran due to the president's provocative actions. Now, just three months later, the world is turned upside down as we deal with an unprecedented public health crisis and the possibility of another Great Depression, all greatly exacerbated by the administration's ineptitude.

It's certainly inappropriate to thank Donald Trump for building our national resilience in the face of utter chaos, but it's possible that all this nonstop dysfunction has built our character enough to withstand the utter horror of his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We'd better hope so, because it's not getting any better.

On Thursday, the administration rolled out its Big Plan to "reopen the economy," a prospect Trump has been touting almost since the day a month ago that he finally agreed to issue the social distancing guidelines recommending that people stay home and avoid contact with others in hopes of "flattening the curve." Since his administration so grievously ignored the initial response to the threat and ended up bringing the country to its knees, you might have thought they'd have learned their lesson and at least worked to put in place a workable plan to raise it back up.

Needless to say, that did not happen. His lead-up to the big unveiling of his plan has been utter confusion. On Monday, Fox News announced that the "Council to Re-Open America" would be staffed by all the best experts in the nation:

That didn't go over so well and it was soon reported that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump would not be named to the council. So Trump took a different tack and decided to get the CEOs of all the big companies he could think of on the horn to join his "advisory council," a set of awkwardly named "Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups." That didn't go so well either. The Washington Post reported earlier this week:

Some of the groups involved in the calls were notified in advance of Trump's announcement, while others heard their names for the first time during the Rose Garden event Tuesday night. "We got a note about a conference call, like you'd get an invite to a Zoom thing, a few lines in an email, and that was it. Then our CEO heard his name in the Rose Garden? What the [expletive]?" said one prominent Washington lobbyist for a leading global corporation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. "My company is furious. How do you go from 'Join us on a call' to, 'Well, you're on our team?'"

Trump claimed these people were all on board with his "plan" to reopen right away, but in fact they were all reluctant to promise anything like that without full-scale testing in place to reassure their employees and customers that they would be safe.

Trump likewise asked a hundred or so legislators to join this council, including 32 House members and 64 senators, a number that included all the Senate Republicans except Mitt Romney of Utah. (What would he possibly know about business or state government or health care?) Senators who spoke to the president also made it clear that reopening anything could not happen until a full-fledged testing regime was in place. Trump reportedly believes that's not his problem.

The huge number of people involved means that this council is completely useless. It's clear that Trump is not taking their advice anyway, so all of this is just another Trump pageant that bears no relationship to actual governing.

The "plan" Trump made public on Thursday wasn't a plan. He opened by declaring victory over the virus, saying we have hit the peak. He then basically showed a series of posters that Mike Pence will be able to hold up, on the rare occasions he speaks these days, to replace the poster with the social distancing guidelines he's been holding up for the last month. They outline three phases to be used to begin to resume normal business. There's nothing especially wrong with them — except for the fact that none of it can happen as long as the virus is still in the population and there's no way of knowing who has it now or who had it in the past.

He did say that he would "let the governors call the shots" on decisions to relax restrictions state by state. According to the Washington Post, that's by design:

Trump's the-buck-stops-with-the-states posture is largely designed to shield himself from blame should there be new outbreaks after states reopen or for other problems, according to several current and former senior administration officials involved in the response who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

At the briefing on Thursday, CDC director Robert Redfield emphasized the importance of "early diagnosis, isolation and contact tracing," and Trump interrupted him saying there are "wide open plains, wide open spaces ... where you're not going to have to do that." He said there are places where the virus has been completely eradicated and that he expects to see stadiums full there, all of which is simply not true. There are hotspots developing in less populated areas all over the country, including a horrific outbreak in one of his favored states, South Dakota, whose Republican governor continues to carry the Trump banner and pretend it isn't happening.

Trump is still engaging in magical thinking, believing that if he vamps long enough, this crisis will go away. And his aides have obviously devised a strategy for him to blame others when it doesn't. Since there is no national testing strategy, and no way to reopen successfully without one, the president of the United States is essentially washing his hands of the crisis.

At this point, I think that may be a blessing. Many of the governors are way ahead of him as far as putting together plans to reopen and have formed regional compacts to try to coordinate their processes. Maybe they can form their own "advisory council" and find a way to establish the kind of national testing and contact tracing that has to be done. We'd better hope so. The Trump administration has abdicated its responsibility and is nothing but an impediment to getting anything done properly at this point. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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