In a serious public-health crisis, the public has the right to expect the government’s chief executive to lead in a number of crucial ways: by prioritizing the problem properly, by deferring to subject-matter experts when appropriate while making key decisions in informed and sensible ways, by providing honest and careful information to the country, by calming fears and setting expectations, and by addressing mistakes and setbacks.
Trump so far hasn’t passed muster on any of these metrics. He resisted making the response to the epidemic a priority for as long as he could — refusing briefings, downplaying the problem, and wasting precious time. He has failed to properly empower his subordinates and refused to trust the information they provided him — often offering up unsubstantiated claims and figures from cable television instead. He has spoken about the crisis in crude political and personal terms. He has stood in the way of public understanding of the plausible course of the epidemic, trafficking instead in dismissive clichés. He has denied his administration’s missteps, making it more difficult to address them.
This presidential behavior is all too familiar. It is how he has gotten through scandals and fiascos for more than three years in office. But those were all essentially political in nature, and most were self-created.