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Trump Laid the Groundwork for a Coronavirus Mess

·5 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) --

It’s hard to imagine a president doing more to make himself vulnerable to damage from a viral outbreak than Donald Trump has over the last three years.

Yes, to himself. Also to the nation — that’s surely more important — but good presidents take care of themselves, too. Trump, for all his bluster, is putting himself at risk.

Let’s start with the obvious: Trump has almost never, since the very beginning of his presidency, spoken to the nation as a whole. His entire presidency is based on picking us-versus-them fights against various real and imagined enemies. Most presidents pretend to wait until the last minute to begin their re-election campaigns, using the time up until that point to attempt to represent the entire nation; Trump has been running for re-election from day one. (That is, when he’s not re-fighting his original election — something normal presidents almost never do.)

This divisiveness has helped Trump keep the intensity levels of his strongest supporters high. But it means a large part of the nation has tuned him out long ago.

Trump has also failed to forge any kind of working relationship with Democrats. To be sure, Democrats aren’t eager to work with the president. But Trump doesn’t even go through the motions of trying. So when a crisis does happen, he’s unlikely to produce a bipartisan response — which, importantly for the president, would yield shared blame if things were to go wrong.

Trump also has little regard for maintaining a reputation for honesty. This too has given him some advantages; most partisans (of both parties) tend to believe whatever same-party presidents say, and Trump doesn’t limit himself to the kind of stretching-the-truth spin that normal politicians employ. The downside, of course, is that only a fool would take Donald Trump’s word for anything — and everyone except his strongest supporters knows that.

Then there are his attacks on competent civil servants and even his own political appointees whose main fault is in following the rule of law. The deprofessionalization of the White House — and increasingly of the executive branch as well — may effectively reduce the number of people within the government willing to tell the president “no.” That’s a disaster in the making: Qualified professionals actually know how to do things, and they share expertise that makes it more likely the president will support policies that work.

What’s more, Trump doesn’t seem to pay much attention to governing unless an issue personally affects him, appears on a TV show he watches, or produces good applause lines at his rallies. Most of the rest seems to wind up in the hands of those within the administration whose bureaucratic skills allow them to build little fiefdoms in which to operate relatively unfettered.

Which is just an introduction to Trump’s budgets: It appears that for the most part he only engages on a few items, leaving acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney free to submit radical budgets asking for huge cuts to popular programs. Congress — Republicans very much included — ignore most of those cuts and consider the budgets dead on arrival. But Trump’s name is on them, which means that when he regularly (for example) demands large cuts in the agencies responsible for fighting epidemics, he’s vulnerable to political attacks.

Then there’s Trump’s knee-jerk resistance to emulating his predecessors, especially Barack Obama. While being open to new ways of doing things is a virtue for leaders, rejecting procedures that have worked in the past is, not surprisingly, risky. So Trump didn’t follow Barack Obama’s example by appointing someone in the White House with clear presidential backing to coordinate the government response to the coronavirus, which has already produced some utterly predictable misfires.

And don’t forget Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip style of communication. Normal presidents vet their public statements carefully; Trump says whatever is on his mind. This produces comments which experts find counterproductive. Indeed, one of the reasons to consult with experts before issuing statements is to avoid that kind of criticism, since the criticism itself makes things worse. That’s true even in the very unlikely case that Trump actually knows more than everyone else about the topic at hand, and of course it’s even more true if he’s relying on yahoos on cable television news rather than real experts.

Some of these things will actually make it harder for government policy to be effective. All of them increase the risks to Trump — both the risk of failed policy, and the chances that he’ll take the blame for anything that goes wrong.

1. Brent Durbin at the Monkey Cage on Richard Grenell as acting director of national intelligence.

2. Sean Trende on the Nevada caucus results.

3. Kyle Kondik on Bernie Sanders and down-ballot races.

4. Jonathan Chait on Sanders.

5. Sydney Ember and Nate Cohn on the Sanders theory that he’ll bring out new voters.

6. Ed Kilgore on the choice ahead for Pete Buttigieg.

7. And Henry Farrell talks to Hugo Mercier about the exaggerated threat and the real dangers of misinformation campaigns.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion

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