Trump’s Coronavirus Response Is a Failure by His Own Standards

He says Cuomo ignored warnings and Obama was slow to address swine flu. On both counts, Trump is worse.

Trump standing in front of a bunch of American flags outside
President Donald Trump in Norfolk, Virginia, on Saturday. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President Donald Trump says it’s unfair to criticize his response to the coronavirus pandemic. No one could have seen this crisis coming, he argues, and no president could have acted more quickly. But that’s not how Trump talks about other leaders. He condemns governors, mayors, and previous presidents for failing, in his view, to prepare for the disaster or respond adequately to it. “Everything I took over was a mess,” he fumed at a press conference on Friday. “It was a broken country in so many ways.”

In particular, Trump says Gov. Andrew Cuomo should have anticipated that New York state would need thousands of extra ventilators. And he accuses former President Barack Obama of moving too slowly against swine flu in 2009. Both complaints are hypocritical. Trump had far clearer warnings than Cuomo did, and he has moved far more slowly than Obama did. By the standards Trump applies to others, his coronavirus response is a failure.

On Tuesday, in a Fox News interview, Trump excoriated Cuomo. “New York Gov. Cuomo rejected buying [a] recommended 16,000 ventilators in 2015 for the pandemic,” said the president, reading from a right-wing blog post. Trump embellished the story, claiming that Cuomo had a chance to buy the ventilators “at a very low price, and he turned it down.” “He should have ordered the ventilators,” said the president.

Trump had the story wrong. In November 2015, a New York state task force reported that although the state had enough ventilators to manage a moderate flu outbreak, they wouldn’t be sufficient in the event of “a severe public health emergency on the scale of the 1918 influenza pandemic.” The report calculated that in “a severe influenza pandemic, there is likely to be a projected shortfall of ventilators (-15,783) during peak week demand.”

The report addressed a scenario that hadn’t been seen in nearly a century. It didn’t envision the present crisis, and its projection of the ventilator shortage was well below estimates issued by New York this week. Nor did the report recommend buying more ventilators. On the contrary, it concluded that if the state were hit by a severe pandemic, “purchasing additional ventilators beyond a threshold will not save additional lives, because there will not be a sufficient number of trained staff to operate them.” The report added that buying so many ventilators, in preparation for a hypothetical catastrophe, would squeeze “funding for current and ongoing health care expenses.”

Trump has also lied about Obama. On March 4, he claimed that Obama’s administration “didn’t do anything about” the 2009 swine flu outbreak. On March 12, Trump said “nothing was done for such a long period of time, as people were dying all over the place.” On March 13, Trump said Obama’s team “started thinking about testing when it was far too late.” And on Thursday, Trump told Sean Hannity, “They acted very, very late. They were incredibly late.”

None of that is true. The 2009 outbreak started in Mexico. The Mexican government reported it to the Pan American Health Organization on April 12 of that year. Two days later, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined a specimen in the United States, and by April 15, the CDC had determined it was swine flu. On April 22, the CDC activated its Emergency Operations Center. On April 26, the Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency and began to send antiviral drugs and personal protective equipment to affected states. On April 30, the Obama administration asked Congress for $1.5 billion to fight the virus. By April 28, the CDC had developed a test to detect the virus, and on May 1, the test kits were shipped out.

If Obama deserves criticism for taking 19 days to ship out tests, and if Cuomo is at fault for not buying extra ventilators four years ago, then Trump’s negligence in preparing for and responding to this crisis deserves far more condemnation. In the past three years, the president has ignored multiple direct warnings—briefings, reports, simulations, intelligence assessments—that a pandemic was likely and that the government didn’t have enough masks, ventilators, or antiviral drugs to deal with it. His administration was told exactly what to do: second-guess case detection rates, prepare rapid production of tests, and line up extra funding and personal protective equipment. He did none of it. He stiffed a budget request for preparedness funds, and he disbanded the National Security Council unit in charge of pandemics.

Once the pandemic arrived, Trump responded far more slowly than Obama did. Trump’s administration learned of the outbreak in China around New Year’s Day, but he brushed off briefings about it, figuring it hadn’t spread in the United States. (The CDC offered to send its own experts to China, but China refused, and Trump—overriding advice and U.S. intelligence—backed off.) On Jan. 21, the CDC reported the first known American infection. But in an interview on CNBC, Trump scoffed, “It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

Data released by the World Health Organization showed the coronavirus was killing victims at a far higher rate than swine flu did. (That remains true, even though calculated mortality rates from the coronavirus have declined.) But the Trump administration didn’t declare a public health emergency until Jan. 31. The president had to be pushed to ban travelers from China, and he did nothing domestically. In late January, the administration rebuffed an HHS request for money to buy masks and other emergency supplies. Throughout February, as U.S. intelligence agencies monitored the spread of the virus in Europe and Asia, Trump insisted the United States was safe. When a CDC official raised concerns in public, Trump rebuked her for scaring the stock market.

The CDC didn’t begin shipping out test kits to detect the coronavirus until Feb. 5, more than a month after learning of the outbreak. The tests didn’t work properly, so the CDC had to make new ones. Not until Feb. 28 did the CDC announce that states could “now start testing.” Trump didn’t request funds to deal with the virus until Feb. 24, and he asked for only a quarter of the money HHS said it needed. The administration didn’t begin sending personal protective equipment to states until the end of February, and it dragged its feet on providing ventilators until the end of March.

By every measure—preparation, organization, funding, testing, ventilators, masks, public communication—Trump’s performance has been abysmal. He’s weeks and weeks behind Obama. And his disregard for multiple direct warnings about a pandemic is, by the standard of foresight he applies to Cuomo, inexcusable. So when Trump claims that “nobody could have ever seen something like this coming” and that no previous administration could have delivered supplies as quickly as he has, he’s lying. Judge him as he has judged others.