But the most severe misstep didn’t have anything to do with making swift, large-scale national security decisions, officials say. The virus was able to plow through communities in large part because, from the outset, the White House tried to handle the federal government’s response on its own, cutting out essential input from doctors and scientists and other top officials who had experience handling large-scale natural disasters. Normally, officials said, the White House allows health agencies or other branches of government—including the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Administration—to take the lead in handling large-scale national emergencies. In those situations, the president is briefed and offers counsel but does not dictate the response in absolute terms. That wasn’t the case for Trump and COVID-19.
“The White House took over operations which it never should do. The task force should have always been the policy-making entity, driving policy demands down to the agencies which has the expertise to execute that,” said Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security. “ The White House doesn’t have the bandwidth. We didn’t spend that time either determining what assets we had, resupplying the stockpile and guiding manufacturing.”
One senior official described the mistake more succinctly. It was, the official said, “arrogance” that made the president believe that he could handle the pandemic on his own, which in turn caused major delays in the distribution of testing, personal protective equipment and ventilators. The president and his advisers, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, decided they would run the response like a business, that official said. And Trump was the boss.