The scapegoater-in-chief is at it again — and again
In 1961, following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, President John F. Kennedy quoted an old saying: “Victory has a thousand fathers, and defeat is an orphan.” Nonetheless, and despite the fact that the invasion of Cuba had been planned by the Eisenhower administration, Kennedy declared, “Further statements and detailed discussions are not to conceal responsibility because I’m the responsible officer of the government.”
For President Donald J. Trump, it’s clear, victory has one father — him — and any and every failure is the responsibility of someone on his long list of enemies.
The coronavirus is the latest case in point: Although the United States has suffered more fatalities from COVID-19 than any other country in the world, Trump claims his actions saved hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of lives. “I couldn’t have done it any better,” he said. As he brags about his policies, he blames failures to prepare for the pandemic on the usual suspects and a few new targets. Here’s a short list of Trump’s coronavirus scapegoatees.
Barack Obama: Despite dire warnings from intelligence and public health officials in January and February that a pandemic was coming to the United States (warnings that, as far as we know, were not shared with governors), Trump doesn’t take any “responsibility at all” for the failure to ramp up the production of test kits, masks, personal protective equipment and ventilators and develop a plan to distribute the equipment to hot spots. Trump has repeated, without evidence, that “the Obama administration made a decision on testing that was very detrimental to what we’re doing, and we undid that decision.” He has insisted, also incorrectly, that Obama did not think about testing for the swine flu until “it was far too late.” When asked about the decision of John Bolton, his national security adviser, to dismantle the Global Health Security Office created by the Obama administration, Trump responded, “I didn’t do it. … I don’t know anything about it.”
China: On Jan. 24, Trump tweeted, “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American people, I want to thank President Xi.” He repeated these sentiments more than a dozen times, along with assertions that his administration had the outbreak “totally under control.” When COVID-19 fatalities reached the United States, however, Trump began calling it “the Chinese virus.” On March 19, he said, “It could have been stopped in its tracks. Unfortunately they [Chinese officials] didn’t decide to make it public. But the whole world is suffering because of it.” In recent weeks, Trump has oscillated between bragging about his trade deal with China and asserting that China has treated the United States “terribly.”
Democratic governors: Faced with persistent criticism of shortages of medical equipment, Trump insisted, “We have a federal stockpile, and they have state stockpiles, and, frankly, they were, many of the states, unprepared for this.” He suggested that Vice President Pence not return the phone calls of Democratic governors who were not sufficiently appreciative of the administration and blamed the federal government for their own shortcomings; he mocked, among others, Gov. Jay Inslee (Washington), Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan) and Gov. J.B. Pritzker (Illinois); New York, Trump opined, in a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, “unfortunately got off to a late start.” On April 14, Trump asserted, “The governors are supposed to do testing. It’s up to the governors.”
The World Health Organization (WHO): The WHO “blew it,” Trump tweeted recently. “For some reason, funded largely by the United States, very China centric.” The WHO, Trump claimed, said the coronavirus is “no big deal” and that “there’s no big problem.” On April 14, he halted U.S. funding to the WHO (which declared a global national emergency on Jan. 30, a declaration Trump did not make until March 13) because of its role “in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): “For years,” Trump claims, “the CDC looked at and studied its testing system but did nothing about it. It would always be inadequate and slow for a large-scale pandemic, but a pandemic would never happen, they hoped.” To test the reaction of his political base, perhaps, Trump retweeted a demand that Anthony Fauci be fired — and then walked it back. He has not mentioned that he cut CDC funding because he doesn’t like “having thousands of people around when you don’t need them.”
Let’s be clear: There are good reasons to criticize the responses of many public officials and organizations to the coronavirus crisis. The CDC, for example, did bungle the rollout of testing kits. The WHO did caution against interference with international travel and trade when restrictions could have slowed the spread of the virus. And the Chinese government has been anything but transparent about the origins of the virus and the number of fatalities caused by COVID-19.
That said, it’s time to expose the Trump playbook — where the buck should actually stop — for what it is: an abject failure of character and leadership at a pivotal moment in our history, for which all Americans are paying a heavy price.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.
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