On Tuesday, the U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, said the coronavirus pandemic is the greatest challenge that the world has faced since the Second World War. More than a hundred and fifty countries, many of them ill-equipped to battle the virus, are already gravely affected. Guterres predicted, as a result, “enhanced instability, enhanced unrest, and enhanced conflict.” In the United States, President Trump and his advisers now concede that more than two hundred thousand Americans could die, and businesses are bracing for a recession that will make the 2008 crisis “look like a cold,” as one prominent economist told me this week.
On Thursday, at 8:30 a.m., came the staggering news that a record 6.6 million Americans had filed for unemployment last week, meaning that ten million Americans have lost their jobs in just the first fourteen days of this coronavirus recession. Yet, less than an hour after this awful revelation, in the midst of a week that must surely count as one of the grimmest of his lifetime, Donald Trump was whining on Twitter about “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer” and the “complainers” at the center of the epidemic in New York, who “should have been stocked up and ready long before this crisis hit.” By Thursday evening, he was grousing about “witch hunt after witch hunt after witch hunt” launched by Democrats against him.
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The day before, when more than a thousand Americans died of the disease, the President staged a bizarre photo opportunity with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, and other national-security leaders, to announce an oddly timed opening of a major new front in America’s war on Mexican drug cartels. During the event, Trump extemporized about what he often calls his “big, beautiful” wall on the southern border and its “tremendous impact,” and announced that he would deploy various Navy and Coast Guard ships for the new drug-fighting mission. (He also bragged about his “No. 1” status on Facebook, accused the former Secretary of State John Kerry of violating the law by advising Iran, and lamented, yet again, that no one could have possibly foreseen the global pandemic that nearly every global-health leader had been warning about for years.)
After this performance, I received a note from a former senior State Department official in the Trump Administration: “Seriously, WTF?? A new war on drugs? These people have so lost the plot it’s beyond parody.” Foreign Policy later reported that the whole thing had been just what it seemed to be: a political optics play by the President. “DoD was against it,” a former Trump Administration official told the magazine. “Didn’t matter to POTUS.”
When you are done being angry about all the crazy, nasty, inconsistent, and untrue things that Donald Trump says each day about the coronavirus and other matters, remember that the flood of words is cover for an Administration that in some ways barely exists relative to its predecessors, especially when it comes to crucial areas of domestic, economic, and international security—or even straightforward crisis management. Turnover at the upper levels of Trump’s White House stands at eighty-three per cent, according to a Brookings Institution tracker. In his Cabinet, Trump has had far more turnover than Presidents Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and both George Bushes. The capacity of the federal government to respond to this catastrophe—even if Trump had been so inclined—has never been weaker. The virus was not of Trump’s making, but his government’s incoherent, disorganized response to it was utterly predictable.
On March 6th, Trump fired his acting White House chief of staff. Amid the extraordinary headlines of the world’s largest economy shutting down and the mass closure of U.S. schools and businesses, little attention was paid to the ouster of Mick Mulvaney and Trump’s appointment of a combative North Carolina congressman, the Republican Mark Meadows, as his successor. Even more remarkably, it was only this week, nearly a month later, that Meadows officially resigned from Congress and started in the White House, which he was required to do in order to avoid the constitutional prohibition on serving simultaneously in the executive and legislative branches. Trump, facing the gravest test a President can face, was literally without anyone to run his perpetually dysfunctional and faction-ridden White House.
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