Trump Is Failing to Lead on Coronavirus

Tweets are no substitute for a national policy response.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media, March 2020. (Getty/Mark Wilson)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media, March 2020. (Getty/Mark Wilson)

The global death toll from the new coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, recently exceeded 3,000, with more than 150 cases confirmed inside the United States. President Donald Trump doesn’t appear bothered—he assured a recent crowd that it will “work out fine” because it the virus “will go away in April.” But health experts aren’t confident that the virus will subside by then, and the Trump administration is doing surprisingly little to protect Americans and respond to the global crisis.

Contrary to Trump’s assertions that coronavirus is “totally under control,” Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned that the Coronavirus outbreak is “definitely not controlled” and predicted that coronavirus could remain in the United States “beyond this year.” Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization (WHO) warned in a speech that the virus “has the potential to cause severe political, social and economic upheaval.”

The virus is spreading inside the United States too, where 11 deaths have been confirmed. More than 400 Americans had to be evacuated from a cruise ship in Japan—where they were quarantined for more than a week—and 40 infected citizens were told they would remain in federal quarantine in the United States for two more weeks once they arrive home. During the evacuation, Trump officials ignored CDC advice to not bring infected Americans on the same plane with uninfected passengers.

Where has President Trump been during this global crisis? He traveled to India, made an appearance at the Daytona 500, and has been pardoning convicted white-collar criminals. These are hardly the actions of a president responding to a major national security crisis.

Trump told the press this week that he thinks “we’re doing a great job” in responding to the virus. But instead of leading an effective U.S. government response to control the threat from coronavirus, Trump is spreading misinformation, calling the virus a “hoax.” On Fox News, he claimed the WHO’s declared mortality rate of 3.4 percent was “false” and said it was “really my hunch” that the rate is under 1 percent—a clear attempt to downplay and mislead the public. Meanwhile, he is ignoring his own biodefense strategy and is doing little to address the threat to Americans.

Trump’s White House released its National Biodefense Strategy in 2018, as mandated by law, outlining how the United States would respond to biological incidents, including disease outbreaks. The strategy calls for the creation of a Biodefense Steering Committee and designates the assistant to the president for national security affairs as the lead policy coordinator for federal biodefense efforts.

The development of the strategy was led by the adviser in charge of global health security at the National Security Council (NSC), Rear Admiral Tim Ziemer, who was described as “one of the most quietly effective leaders in public health.” But Ziemer’s position on the NSC was eliminated shortly after the strategy was finished—a casualty of John Bolton’s reorganization effort. Experts worried that the reorganization left global health deprioritized; Ziemer’s portfolio was folded into the directorate for weapons of mass destruction, which is focused on intentional use of weapons and, traditionally, has no expertise in responding to pandemics or disease outbreaks. At the time, a senior congressional official expressed alarm, saying, “We have no idea at this point who at the White House is in charge of global health security.”

Now that a global health crisis has arrived, it’s Trump’s opportunity to demonstrate that his administration has coronavirus under control. However, he has yet to do so. Trump has paid only passing attention to the threat from coronavirus and the risk it poses to Americans. The few steps the Trump administration has taken will do little to contain the outbreak. The White House announced the launch of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force on January 29. The task force—which appears separate from the coordinating mechanism outlined in the National Biodefense Strategy—is chaired by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. What the task force is actually doing, and whether it is leveraging the important mechanisms laid out in the National Biodefense Strategy, is unclear.

Last week, the Trump administration belatedly requested $1.25 billion in new assistance from Congress as well as the authority to move around existing funds to address the crisis. Experts have called for as much as $15 billion to adequately address coronavirus, with $6 billion alone needed for vaccine development. Congress will likely send a negotiated deal for $8.3 billion in emergency aid to Trump’s desk this week.

Trump’s rhetoric is also at odds with the strategy’s guidance. The first goal of the National Biodefense Strategy pledges to “ensure decision-making is informed by intelligence, forecasting, and risk assessment.” Trump’s charge that coronavirus is a hoax, combined with his rally remarks about the virus ending by April—apparently based on an unproven theory that the virus will disappear with warmer weather—are totally disconnected from intelligence, disregard American experts’ warnings, and feed into confusion about the seriousness of the virus. Meanwhile, Trump lavished praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s harsh response, while U.S. health experts expressed concern that the Chinese government has not been fully transparent and has cracked down on doctors who warned of the outbreak.

The National Biodefense Strategy also calls for following WHO regulations in organizing the U.S. response. But the Trump administration’s initial response to coronavirus violates WHO guidelines. Strict travel bans were imposed on January 31, barring foreign nationals who had been to China from entering the United States. The WHO did not recommend curbs on travel or trade, and its experts warned that bans can undercut efforts to fight the outbreak. The travel ban and alarmist rhetoric have also incited prejudice against people of Asian descent.

Coronavirus represents a real challenge for the United States and the global health system. Instead of mobilizing resources to help solve the crisis, demonstrating American leadership, Trump and his administration have been wildly ineffective in marshaling a response. Now that the outbreak has reached U.S. shores uncontained, the United States needs steady, strong leadership to guide us through this crisis—something we have yet to see from the current administration.

Katrina Mulligan was the director for preparedness and response in the national security division at the Department of Justice. She is currently the managing director for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Alexandra Schmitt is a policy analyst at the Center.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.

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Katrina Mulligan

Former Managing Director

Alexandra Schmitt

Former Senior Policy Analyst