'He's an idiot': critics say Trump has failed the US in this test of reassurance

David Smith in Washington
Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP

It was just before 9am and the sky was overcast when a small group of reporters were suddenly ushered through the White House’s south portico. They gathered in the diplomatic reception room, once home to Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats”, and stared at a desk with pen, documents and the presidential seal.

Donald Trump strode in, wearing a black bomber jacket and white shirt unbuttoned at the top, and settled down beneath a portrait of George Washington. He signed a congressional emergency spending bill to combat the coronavirus for $8.3bn – more than three times what the president himself had requested – and held it up to a chorus of clicking cameras.

“We’re doing very well,” he insisted. “But it’s an unforeseen problem. What a problem. Came out of nowhere, but we’re taking care of it.” He gazed around the oval-shaped room, wallpapered romantic American landscapes, and took questions. Someone asked: “How do you keep people from panicking?” Trump’s response in part: “Calm. You have to be calm. It’ll go away.”

It has not gone away.

A week later, coronavirus cases in the US have soared past 1,300, with at least 38 deaths. The stock market suffered its worst percentage drop since the 1987 Wall Street crash. On Wednesday night alone, Trump announced a travel ban on most of Europe during an Oval Office address, the National Basketball Association suspended its season and it emerged the Hollywood actor Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson had tested positive. The New York Post’s front page headline declared: A world turned upside down.

It is at such moments of peril that a nation looks to its leader for reassurance and direction. Trump, critics say, has failed the test in both words and deeds. Uniquely unqualified, he is the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, said: “He’s an idiot. He’s handled it horribly. When things are rough, you want somebody who can exude confidence and competence and Trump does not do that.

“We’ve been incredibly lucky. For the last three years, there was nothing big going on that had a real bearing on the lives of the ordinary American. This does.”

The coronavirus outbreak plays to the weaknesses of Trump, a germaphobe and gut instinct politician who prefers to slug it out with human foes on Twitter. He has spent years undermining experts, institutions, scientists, media outlets, global alliances and trust in government, all of which are now needed more than ever.

Related: Trump used to flirt with anti-vaxxers. Now he is demanding a coronavirus vaccine | H Holden Thorp

His first misstep came two years ago when he disbanded the global health security team on the National Security Council (NSC) that was responsible for preparing for a pandemic. The NSC’s global health security chief, Rear Admiral Tim Ziemer, was fired the day after an Ebola outbreak was declared in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Last year intelligence agencies warned that the US remained vulnerable to the next flu pandemic but Trump, it seems, hoped that his long streak of political luck would hold.

Distracted by impeachment in January, the president showed little urgency when the coronavirus exploded in China, apparently unwilling to sour his relationship with authoritarian leader Xi Jinping, whom he praised for having the outbreak “totally under control” even as it raced across that country and beyond.

The White House did impose a limited travel ban on China but that alone was not enough. Former US Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler told the Politico website: “They needed and still need to be searching for where the cases are, instead of trusting that limited travel bans were keeping out a virus that was probably already on the march.”

Perhaps Trump’s greatest blunder was turning down the offer of a German-made diagnostic test approved by the World Health Organization and taken up by many countries. The US government’s own painfully slow progress led to a nationwide shortage of test kits at the most critical moment. It was reported that just 11,000 tests have been conducted in America so far, whereas South Korea is carrying out 10,000 tests per day.

Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told the Bloomberg news agency: “This is an unmitigated disaster that the administration has brought upon the population, and I don’t say this lightly. We have had a much worse response than Iran, than Italy, than China and South Korea.”

It seems that Trump only began to take the issue seriously two weeks ago when he saw a 1,000-point drop on Wall Street. Even then, he urged aides, including Kellyanne Conway and senior economic adviser Larry Kudlow, to go on television and preach confidence, according to five White House officials and Republicans interviewed by the Associated Press.

Trump himself constantly downplayed the threat and contradicted his own health officials, asserting that the virus was “very much under control” and infections were “going very substantially down, not up”. On 26 February, he confidently claimed that total cases will be “close to zero”.

He also accused Democrats of using the coronavirus as “their new hoax”, promised a vaccine much sooner than scientifically possible, prophesied that the virus will be killed off by warmer spring weather and kept comparing it to the common flu (though experts say coronavirus is 10 times more deadly). But the usual playbook of deny and distract proved futile against a nimble germ without an ego.

Robert Shrum, a Democratic strategist and political science professor at the University of Southern California, said: “Before it happened, he dismantled a lot of the preparedness that had been put in place under Obama and Ron Klain [Ebola czar] and Joe Biden, I suppose because they were things Obama had done so he wanted to get rid of them, like the Paris climate accords.

“And since then he has over and over again contradicted his own health people and at one point tried to muzzle them. He called the coronavirus ‘a Democratic hoax’ and then they ran out to explain, ‘No, no, the hoax was that they were blaming Trump for not handling it well’. Well, I think almost universally people would say Trump has not handled this well.”

Even if Trump tried to dismiss the health statistics, he could not ignore the financial markets, an obsession he has made central to his reelection. He put vice-president Mike Pence in charge of a coronavirus task force, demoting Health Secretary Alex Azar, but continued to get in the way of the message.

Soon after signing the congressional funding bill last Friday, Trump donned a “Keep America great” campaign cap and visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. In remarks that many found confounding and frightening, he described the governor of Washington state as a “snake”, praised his own expertise and falsely claimed that anyone who wants a coronavirus test can get one. Pence was later forced to correct this.

But on Monday the full horror of the economic implications dawned on Trump as he flew from Florida to Washington on Air Force One. In his on-board office, Fox News showed graphics illustrating the single day for markets since the financial crisis of 2008. Fellow passenger Matt Gaetz, a Republican congressman, had isolated himself in part of the plane after learning he had come into contact with an infected person.

Trump travelled to Capitol Hill for lunch with Senate Republicans on Tuesday. He promised: “We’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” A day later, Dr Anthony Fauci, one of the government’s top public health experts, testified: “Bottom line, it’s going to get worse.”

The president tried to provide further reassurance in only his second Oval Office address on Wednesday night. But it had the exact opposite effect. He blindsided European governments by announcing a 30-day travel ban to keep out the “foreign virus”. He also failed to explain how tests will become available and committed factual errors the White House was forced to hastily correct.

Susan Rice, former national security adviser, tweeted simply: “OMG.”

Eight months from a presidential election, the virus has jeopardised Trump’s central reelection argument – a strong economy – just as Joe Biden, the candidate emerging from the Democratic field, seems poised to take advantage by offering stability and a safe pair of hands.

Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: “The most calming and reassuring presidential voice of the past 24 hours has been Joe Biden. As a Republican, this is hard for me to say but it’s true.”

The coronavirus pandemic is being described as a once-in-a-lifetime event. History remembers how presidents handle such crises – and to Trump, it seems unlikely to be kind. He may be regarded as a Nero, fiddling while Rome burned.

Moe Vela, a former senior adviser to Biden, said: “He is unable to express compassion and empathy; I don’t believe he possesses those two values. This was his chance to show that he could lead, to show that he was as tough as he said he was for three years. And then what does he do? He falls on his face.”

Vela, an LGBTQ and Latino activist and board director at TransparentBusiness, added: “We’re walking around in ghost towns. Kids aren’t going to school. Not enough people are getting tested. We have no clue what the reality of this pandemic is because information is being withheld and reaction from this administration was slow at best. It’s disgusting. It’s disconcerting. It’s scary as hell.”