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Why are thousands of Americans dead from the coronavirus, while other countries—including some that are right next door to China—have fared much better? President Donald Trump has lots of excuses. He says no president could have foreseen this calamity. He blames our unpreparedness on other public officials. He claims that since we were attacked by the “foreign virus,” he’s done an “incredible job” to prevent more fatalities.
We’ve heard these arguments before. For years, they were offered by Republicans in defense of George W. Bush, who was president when nearly 3,000 people died in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But when Trump ran for president four years ago, he didn’t accept those arguments. He outlined specific reasons the president should be held accountable for lives lost on his watch. Those reasons are even more applicable today. If Bush was culpable, so is Trump.
COVID-19 and 9/11 are different in many ways. But as the virus has spread, the Trump administration has highlighted similarities: the death toll, the economic damage, the patriotic spirit of Americans fighting back. Trump has even adopted Bush’s reelection message. In 2004, Bush blamed the economy’s troubles on 9/11 and urged Americans to rally behind him. In every speech, he said the country had been doing beautifully, “and then the enemy hit us.” Trump, too, now calls himself a “wartime president.” “We had the greatest economy in the history of our country,” Trump declared two weeks ago. “And then we got hit by the invisible enemy.”
Trump’s emulation of Bush is bitterly ironic. In October 2015, Trump blamed Bush for 9/11. “The World Trade Center came down during his time,” Trump told Bloomberg TV. When the interviewer, Stephanie Ruhle, objected that “you can’t blame George Bush for that,” Trump persisted: “He was president.” On Twitter, Trump smacked Bush’s brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was competing with Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. “You said your brother kept us safe,” Trump jeered. “You’re pathetic for saying nothing happened during your brother’s term when the World Trade Center was attacked and came down.”
Republicans, shocked by Trump’s assault, rallied to the former president’s defense. They said the 9/11 perpetrators were solely responsible for their deeds. They also said it was unfair to expect Bush to have anticipated such an attack. The U.S. mainland hadn’t been hit so powerfully in more than a century, they noted. Our government wasn’t organized for such a scenario. Bush’s defenders conceded that there had been talk, earlier in 2001, of a possible terror attack. But they pointed out that the speculation was vague. And after 9/11, they argued, Bush had done everything possible to protect Americans.
Trump rejected these excuses. He made three points, beginning with a simple rule: When the government fails, the president is responsible. “You always have to look to the person at the top,” Trump told the Washington Post. In a CNN interview, he quoted President Harry Truman: “The buck stops here.”
Second, Trump noted that the 9/11 plot succeeded because of poor coordination within the federal government. The FBI, the CIA, and other agencies “had a lot of information that, if it could have been correlated, it would have been very, very helpful,” he explained. But these agencies “weren’t talking to each other”—and that, he concluded, was a failure of “leadership.” In a Fox News interview, Trump argued that “a good leader would have made sure they’d get along and they’d talk.”
Third, Trump pointed out that in the months before the attack, Bush had received intelligence warnings. “George Tenet, the CIA director, knew in advance that there would be an attack. And he said so to the president,” Trump told CNN. In a CBS interview, Trump added that “the CIA said there was a lot of information that something like that was going to happen.” Trump faulted Bush for not heeding these signals. “George Bush had the chance,” he complained in a February 2016 debate. “He didn’t listen to the advice of his CIA.”
The sharpest warning to Bush was a two-page section of the President’s Daily Brief on Aug. 6, 2001. The briefing document, prepared by CIA analysts, mentioned that the FBI had found “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks.” It was headlined, “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US.” In an October 2015 exchange with Trump, Fox News co-host Brian Kilmeade argued that the briefing document was vague. But Trump insisted that Bush had plenty of warning and had failed to build a system to detect the threat.
Some of Trump’s criticisms were unfair to Bush. But what’s striking now, as the coronavirus kills more than 1,000 Americans every day, is that these criticisms also apply to Trump. He blames the viral death toll on everyone but himself—China, governors, past presidents—but he sits at the desk where the buck stops. Like Bush, Trump had multiple intelligence signals of the disaster ahead. Like Bush, he was specifically warned in the President’s Daily Brief. The warnings to Trump were far clearer than the warnings to Bush, because the coronavirus pandemic, unlike the 9/11 plot, unfolded for months in the open. Bush was told about something vague that could happen; Trump was told what was already happening. And although Trump had been president for three years—unlike Bush, who faced 9/11 after just eight months in office—coordination among federal agencies against the virus has been a fiasco.
Trump pretends those two deadly months of neglect never happened. Every day, he shows up at the White House briefing room to brag that the government is pumping out masks, tests, and ventilators. He wants to be judged by his scramble since March, when he finally began to take the outbreak in the United States seriously. “I couldn’t have done it any better,” he says.
But when Republicans made that case for Bush—that he belatedly rushed to protect America—Trump derided them. “What does that mean, ‘He kept the country safe after 9/11’?” Trump scoffed in 2016. “We had this major catastrophe—and after that?” Trump compared Bush’s performance to a terrible baseball game. “The [other] team scored 19 runs in the first inning—but after that, we played well? I don’t think so.”
Candidate Trump saw right through the excuses of President Trump. He said the buck stopped at the Oval Office. He said chaos and confusion were signs of bad leadership. He said the president was responsible for following through on intelligence briefings. He said it was unseemly to boast about how many lives you saved after thousands of people were dead. He was right.