Just hear me out.
President Trump has made mistakes in his response to the coronavirus pandemic. Every President has made mistakes – large or small – in his handling of a crisis. Not many have had to manage one of this scale. Those who have weren’t flawless in their execution. Lincoln, FDR, Ford and George W. Bush presided over some of the darkest days in our nation’s history. Critics panned each of them at the time – and some still do to this day. Nevertheless, our nation rose above the calamities of the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War Two, Watergate and 9/11. The Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 will one day find its place in the history books. It will be another tale of American resilience, an obstacle overcome on our journey as a free and prosperous nation.
No doubt, some historians will harshly criticize the President and his response. If they are honest, their criticism will focus more on the superficial – his tirades against reporters, his “reopen by Easter” wistfulness, his shameless self promotion – than on the steps taken or not taken to actually combat the virus. Because despite the pettiness and grandstanding that we have all become used to from this President, the things he has actually done to manage this crisis to date have been quite effective.
The leaders of every nation can say now that they should have done more, earlier to combat the spread of the virus in their countries. The United States though, took early, preventative steps against the virus. On January 16, we began screening passengers arriving from Wuhan. President Trump downplayed the significance of the first confirmed US case of the virus five days later, but who could blame him? He assembled the White House Coronavirus Task Force on January 29, and two days later, issued an executive order banning non-U.S. citizens from entering the country if they had recently been in China. The same day, Health and Human Services Secretary, Alex Azar declared a public health emergency.
The “China travel ban,” as it has come to be known was a big deal. It would have likely been more impactful if issued ten days earlier and with fewer loopholes. But make no mistake – the order kept thousands of travelers from entering the country and almost certainly limited the spread of the virus. It was a bold step that came with a high degree of political risk. The decision was immediately blasted by China, the World Health Organization (WHO), many in the media and the Democrat party – namely Nancy Pelosi. The left and the media – often one and the same – used the familiar refrain of “racist and xenophobic” to describe the President in the wake of the travel ban announcement. Never mind that several countries had already issued similar bans, and many more would do so in the weeks that followed. Joe Biden eventually agreed – more than two months later – that Trump’s China travel ban was the right thing to do.
The administration issued further travel restrictions in February and March, including banning travel from Iran, screening of travelers from Italy and South Korea, and eventually banning all travel from Europe. The latter was one of the defining factors in essentially shuttering worldwide air travel – an extraordinary step by a pro-business, anti-regulation President.
In February, Trump placed Vice President Mike Pence at the helm of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Some in the media panned this as a takeover of a select panel of experts, and others questioned Pence’s fitness to lead such a group. While straw-grasping journalists tripped over themselves, a capable Vice President took a lead role in the outreach to American companies and became a calm, soothing spokesperson to the nation each day. You see, the notion of Pence leading the task force wasn’t about medical expertise. It was about executive leadership of a group of medical and logistical experts – the kind of leadership a successful former governor was well qualified to provide.
The pro-business President was largely effective at coaxing American corporations to shift their production lines to make unfamiliar products like respirators, ventilators, gloves and gowns. At his urging, General Electric, General Motors, 3M, Ford and many other companies cranked up their factories to help equip hospitals with the necessary equipment to combat the virus. Of course, the companies are being paid for their efforts, and many were seeing a huge dropoff in sales due to nationwide stay-at-home orders, so their patriotic duty also helps their bottom line. Still, the early willingness of these companies to answer the President’s request was impressive. When some dragged their feet, Trump utilized the Defense Production Act to compel them to act. Again, Trump defied his natural inclination against government-mandates to private business and took the steps he knew – or at least feared – were necessary.
The ramped-up production helped to restock government coffers that were woefully devoid of such emergency supplies. This enabled the task force to direct resources to states in need, particularly “hotspots” like New York, California and Michigan. The President weathered the desperate cries from some governors for supplies that exceeded the federal response capability – like 40,000 ventilators for New York State. While states were clamoring for more ventilators than they would need (understandable at the time), Trump was calmly providing them all that he could and commandeering more from American industry each day. When he had taken enough punches, the President revealed the fact that New York was warehousing ventilators instead of the disbursing them to hospitals, a claim that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo admitted to, while still saying he needed more. As it turned out, New York never needed close to 40,000 ventilators. In fact, they had so many that they were able to donate hundreds of them to other states in recent days. California, also, was able to donate surplus ventilators. Governor Gavin Newsom, the prototypical anti-Trump politician, has repeatedly and admirably praised the President for his response.
Part of that response was dispatching the USNS Comfort two New York City and its sister ship, the USNS Mercy to Los Angeles. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow notoriously ridiculed the President, saying it would take “weeks” for the ship to reach New York. It took ten days – perhaps two days longer than the President’r prediction. While Maddow acknowledged she was wrong, she conspicuously left praise for Trump out of her comments.
Like Maddow, most in the media have refused to credit the President, and even struggled to digest the praise from Newsom and Cuomo. Meanwhile, they have tried their best to drive a wedge between the President and his top epidemiologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci. As the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Fauci is a key member of the task force. He is naturally much more cautious about the response to the virus than his boss. While their opinions and comments have not been in 100% synchronization, Trump and Fauci have been remarkably consistent. When Fauci has voiced a more cautious tone than Trump about the re-opening of the economy or the potential death toll from the virus, reporters have tried to exploit these nuances as a deep divide or evidence of Fauci’s impending termination. If he is not present at a briefing, you can count on CNN’s Jim Acosta to ask where Dr. Fauci is, with a tone of conspiracy in his voice. This came to a head when CBS White House News Correspondent, Paula Reid asked Fauci if his mea culpa for his own “wrong choice of words” in a recent interview was voluntary. Fauci snapped back, “Everything I do is voluntary. Don’t even imply that,” while giving her a look of complete disgust. That the media narrative that “Trump will fire Fauci” is false just goes to show that the President is listening to those more cautious voices around him, often capitulating to them, and certainly not cutting them loose.
There’s now a growing nationwide movement to reopen the economy. While Trump is audibly cheering this on, he is hardly spearheading it. His early wishful thinking of a “beautiful” reopening of the nation by Easter was just that – wishful thinking. It was not a proclamation or even a prediction. The President’s optimism has bubbled over a few times, but not from a policy standpoint. After initially getting ahead of his skis with claims of absolute Presidential power to reopen the country, he has been quite measured in recent days in his calls for states to follow a phased approach at their discretion. This is a much more subtle, but encouraging tone that follows a growing national optimism after recent encouraging data on the slowing growth of the virus.
If the revised predictions of the virus’s death toll don’t encourage an embrace of the President’s response, it’s not clear what will. Projections of hundreds of thousands of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. have been ratcheted down to 60,000. The factors of the downward revision range from the success of social distancing to simple exaggeration in initial projections. Either way, the administration, as well as many governors, deserve credit for implementing measures – often reluctantly – that have slowed the spread, flattened the curve, or achieved whatever newly minted euphemism you want to use to describe it.
Yes, President Trump has made repeated claims of doing something “that’s never been done before” in response to something that’s “never been seen before,” and has told reporters they are “fake news” and “will never make it.” No, these aren’t things we would have heard from Barrack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton or certainly Ronald Reagan. But we should be used to that by now. If we are honest with ourselves, we can roll our eyes and criticize Trump for many of his words while we give him a socially-distanced salute for the actions he has taken to mitigate this crisis and its impact on our nation.