President Trump is facing substantial criticism for failing to launch an all-out federal effort to protect the country from the coronavirus pandemic. Many have questioned whether he has a coherent national strategy to bring the nation through the crisis. The President has taken to claiming that it is the job of state governors to combat the disease. The national government is there just for back-up and he is merely the “cheerleader” for the states.
On January 29, Trump’s close trade advisor, Peter Navarro, wrote a hair-on-fire memo to warn the President of the pandemic danger. Trump appears to have blown it off because on February 16, he told us there were only 15 cases of Covid-19 in the country and they would soon go away. It wasn’t until March 12, when the Dow Jones index took a 2,352-point dive, that Trump woke up to the danger.
By the time Trump finally recognized that he had a political disaster on his hands, there was no way he could either continue to deny it or fix it. The only way to avoid an election debacle would be to shift responsibility to someone else. In our federal system, the state governors are charged with protecting public health and safety, so Trump’s strategy of denial morphed into a deliberate plan to shift primary responsibility to the states. If things turned out badly, it would be the fault of the state governors.
Trump told state officials on March 16 that they should buy their own pandemic response equipment. Three days later, he told reporters: “The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.” On March 22, the President said: “The governors, locally, are going to be in command. We will be following them, and we hope they can do the job.” He told Sean Hannity on March 26 that the federal government is “a second line of attack.”
Since the President’s pivot to placing the onus on the states, his media and political supporters have also adopted that strategy. Even Nikki Haley, who served as Trump’s U.N. representative and has been rumored as a replacement for Mike Pence on the presidential ticket, has jumped on board, telling voters to focus on their governors rather than Trump.
Trump has positioned himself as a self-described cheerleader, offering advice and some assistance to the states, while cheering them on from the sidelines. At his press briefings, he acts as ringmaster, giving some information, mixed with politics, praise for his efforts, extraneous comments, and various miracle cures.
But Trump studiously avoids mentioning the federal government’s responsibility to orchestrate the response effort and pay the costs. He mightily resisted invoking the Defense Production Act to require private industry to manufacture the necessary supplies because that would imply a predominant federal role in the enterprise. In the few cases he has used the Act it has been too little, too late.
The federal government, acting through its elected leader, has the primary responsibility for protecting the country from serious national threats, such as a 50-state medical emergency. The federal government must lead the way because it has the financial and other critical resources necessary to provide the ventilators, protective gear, testing equipment and logistical support. We look primarily to the President for leadership and assistance in a national crisis. In this pandemic, we have gotten little of either.