Trump missed his moment

Trump missed his moment
© Getty

Despite his oft-noted political opportunism, President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York state Senate candidate charged in riot Trump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report GOP senator clashes with radio caller who wants identity of cop who shot Babbitt MORE missed his chance to become the revered leader he believes himself to be. Had Trump embraced the multiple early warnings he received about a potential coronavirus pandemic, he likely could have saved thousands of lives, lessened the economic devastation and secured his reelection.

The problematic “preexisting condition” was not only that Trump’s administration “has waged war on science and expertise,” but that Trump is a one-trick pony when it comes to leadership. As described in my forthcoming book, “Amateur Hour,” Trump holds that “might makes right” and that “divide and conquer” is the surest way to accrue power. As such, he continually bullies and blusters to showcase his strength, which he believes to be courage. Successful political leaders possess more strategic savvy and display more tactical agility.

During late January and early February, instead of downplaying the severity of the threat, Trump could have “gone public” with the possible consequences of a pandemic and sought to showcase his administration’s competence and compassion. He could have named a task force earlier. He could have given an Oval Office address earlier. He could have focused his remarks on how Americans could stop the spread, rather than the travel restrictions. Instead of releasing a joint statement, he could have attempted to convene a televised videoconference with the G7 leaders, in which they reassured a fractured world and agreed to share testing and treatment efforts. 


He could have used this international coalition to pressure China for greater transparency and ensure the World Health Organization was following its scientific mandate. He could have worked with Congress to shore up the economy and provide protections to workers before the country was shut down.

Had Trump taken early action, he would have commanded the national spotlight and likely earned high marks from the public for his attempts to keep them safe from harm. He also likely would have been able to help the states and the hospitals avert the shortages in the personal protective equipment and ventilators that have contributed to the crisis. He would have saved lives and livelihoods. 

Aside from good policy, it would have been good politics. Had he acted immediately, he would have undermined the predicate for his impeachment (i.e., Trump corruptly places his self-interest before the national interest) and upended the Senate trial’s proceedings. He also would have likely upset the timing of the Democratic nomination contests, causing a delay in their selection until June and making partisan unity an even more difficult task. With a Rose Garden strategy that relied on more than daily briefings, he also would have made it less likely that voters would risk changing horses in midstream in November.

But to do this, Trump would have needed a different character, one that’s more curious and more compassionate. He would have needed to possess more political experience to be able to assess the warnings, weigh the risks and perceive the opportunities.

Could have. Would have. If only.

Leadership should not be defined by crisis, but crises have a way of defining leaders. This national crisis has revealed what long has been evident: Trump’s character is not fit for the presidency.

Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University and the author of the forthcoming book, “Amateur Hour: Presidential Character and the Question of Leadership.” Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.